Get to know Laura-Lee Johnston

Find out more about what the outdoors means to Cotswold Outdoor expert Laura-Lee.

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How would you describe your relationship with the outdoors and how has that changed during your time working at Cotswold Outdoor?

"I have a love-love relationship with the outdoors. I grew up on a farm in the middle of the countryside. It’s my peace, it’s where I understand and where I feel comfortable. I feel most myself when I’m in the outdoors. If you put me into a massive urban environment that’s when I get uncomfortable. 

 

Through Cotswold Outdoor, working with my colleagues and customers and the friendships which have developed is absolutely phenomenal. It’s a shared experience, we get to enjoy everything that’s around us, together. If I’ve had a really bad day, the first thing I want to do is go to the hills. This weekend, I headed off to the Donegal Hills because I just said to my partner “I need to be outdoors.” I drove up angry, feeling fed up with city life and wanting to be outside but as soon as I was up the first summit, I just stood and looked at the view and thought, “this is why I do this”. You can go into the hills really fed up with everything, but when you stand in the openness of it all, it puts everything into perspective."

Why is the outdoors important to both you and us as people?

"I think everything in day-to-day life has become so fast, but the outdoors slows everything down. It’s the same rhythm, it’s the seasons, it’s everything; it brings you back and makes you realise that there is time. 

 

The outdoors is my mental wellness. For me, having knee operations for different things, getting outdoors was my physio. I knew I needed to get back out into the hills again because of that mental wellness, because everything just feels better when you’re outside."

Is there anything you don’t like about the outdoors?

"Midges! I don’t love midges, but I don’t mind if it’s raining. I think if you’re in the right kit, it’s ok if it’s a bad day in the hills. It’s knowing the weather or the atmosphere but also, on a tricky day, it’s being able to see that the weather changes so quickly. All of us at Cotswold Outdoor are from that background: we all know how to read a compass or a map and it’s a lovely shared experience to be able to read maps and plan routes together, seeing how the weather impacts on the environment and how we work through that together. It means that when customers come to us, we’re able to give that advice from our own experience, explaining that they need the proper wicking layer, the proper mid-layer, breathable waterproofs. 

 

Families come into store and they’re nervous about sending their kids into the hills because they’ve never been in that environment. There are so many stories of customers coming back in and saying “so-and-so had an amazing time, what you said was right, that was the perfect boot” etc. It’s that expertise that we get to use ourselves but also see our customers use and enjoy. That’s what makes it worthwhile."

Does the outdoors permeate any other aspects of your life other than at work?

"It’s family. Growing up, it would’ve been with my parents, my brothers, my cousins; now it’s with my friends, my colleagues and even customers as well. The more I spend time with a group of people in the outdoors, you slow down, you talk. You talk about the things that maybe aren’t going great in your life, but you also talk about those things which are going fantastically. We share food, we laugh, there have even been tears in the hills, but it’s really lovely to share that together."

Why and how did you end up working for Cotswold Outdoor and what made you come back?

"Everything that I’ve studied or done has always had a background in the outdoors. Then I decided that Northern Ireland was too small for me, so I packed my bag and I moved to London.

 

I kind of fell into a job with Cotswold Outdoor but as soon as I stepped in through the doors of the Knightsbridge store, I just thought ‘this is different, this is good’. I then became Store Manager of the London Islington store and it was my London family. But the more time I spent in London, the more I realised that I’m not a city person, I’m a country girl. On my days off, I was getting all the kit I had from Cotswold Outdoor and escaping to the countryside. I just had to take a decision for my own mental wellness and so I moved back to Ireland.

 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t an available position with Cotswold when I moved back, so I left for three years and worked for another company. It was work and it paid the bills and on my days off I went to the hills and I enjoyed myself. But when Cotswold Outdoor contacted me to let me know that there was a management position which had come up in Belfast, within 6 weeks I had this store and I haven’t looked back since! There is something about Cotswold Outdoor that brings people back. It’s that shared enjoyment of the outdoors, that common goal. We talk about the DNA of our company all the time but the guys that I work with really live and breathe it."

What’s the best part of your job?

"The best part of my job is my colleagues. We laugh so much, it’s infectious. Customers come in and they laugh with us because we’re all having fun, and you can’t fake that. I am very fortunate that I’ve got a great team around me and there’s so much respect for each other, and it’s Cotswold that brings that together."

What does it mean to you to be able to share that passion with your customers?

"It’s everything. I could talk about things so much and tell people how great it is, but once you say, “look at this, stand in my footprints, stand where I’m standing and look at what I’m looking at”, that’s what brings it all together. Some of our customers come and ask if we’ve walked this route or done this challenge and if we haven’t, we find out where it is and then that’s our next trip because we want to see what they did!"

Why is having the right kit important and your knowledge of the right kit so valuable?

"The right kit is everything. You could be in the valley and 20 degrees and it’s calm but as soon as you go up the face of the hill, the temperature can drop to zero and the wind chill factor can be even lower again. If you’re not in the appropriate gear, it becomes unsafe and not enjoyable. Safety comes first, and the right kit creates safety.

 

But you need to have the knowledge as well. You can have all the kit and no idea! We are all from that kind of background, we’ve all spent enough time in the hills to know when it’s a good day and safe day, and when it’s a day to turn around and go to the pub instead. Sometimes it’s ok to turn around if you’re not properly prepared, or you don’t have the right kit. The people who know when to do that are the ones who have the best journey in the outdoors."

Why are places like Cotswold Outdoor important? What is it about the in-store experience?

"Cotswold Outdoor is set apart because they know the outdoors. The staff are not just salespeople, they are experienced, knowledgeable members of a team. We’re customers as well, we use the kit, we test the kit, and we can pass that knowledge on so that when you’re investing a lot of money in a Gore-Tex jacket, we can justify the reason why. It’s not just urban hiking or for the bar; this is going to keep you safe and we know it’s going to do that because we’ve used it out there.

 

When a 16-year-old is doing Duke of Edinburgh for the first time on their own when they’re usually sitting at home playing on an Xbox or a Playstation, their parents know that they’re going to be ok because at least we know we’ve got them in the right kit. 

 

Cotswold Outdoor give trust, they give experience, they give knowledge, and that’s why we have our repeat customers. In this store, we have customers who come in on a weekly or monthly to buy something or maybe just to say hello or bring us a coffee. That’s why we have our repeat customers. You don’t get that in other environments. "

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