Jurica Barac, CEO of HIGHLANDER

In this Q&A, you’ll hear from Jurica Barac, CEO of HIGHLANDER, a global long-distance hiking event series. Jurica shares how burnout from the modern-day lifestyle led to back-to-basics gatherings and investment from Spartan Race.

How did the concept of HIGHLANDER arise?

Jurica Barac: HIGHLANDER is the ultimate hiking event and adventure of a lifetime, where people of all ages can venture on trails while being immersed in the beautiful scenery and the most breathtaking views in the world.

It’s an experience I wanted to share with others, as much as pursue myself. For almost 10 years, I was a professional cyclist, going on thrilling adventures while being connected with natural beauty.

After my career, I worked as Country Sports Manager for Red Bull, managing strategic operations and an events program. At that time, two friends and I were working over 12 hours per day, seven days a week — and that tempo and lifestyle took its toll.

We wanted to organize something easy-going where we would be able to spend our time in nature, go offline, and just have fun while enjoying the “basic things” in life: fresh air, sun, fire, starry nights, etc.

It’s a concept you can’t help but enjoy, and we wanted to share it with our friends and clients too.

See, many people want to go on a long-distance hike or simply spend more time in nature but find it too scary or complicated (parking, travel, permits, food, water, safety, etc.), so they never take that step and do it.

We’ve developed an event where you have all the support you need, and coming to the start is just a few clicks away.

In a very short time, the entire thing exploded, and we decided to do it in every country across the globe.

Can you explain how the events are organized and operated?

JB: The long-distance hiking events are operated by event professionals, ex-military personnel, and athletes, so we make sure that safety, entertainment, and education at the event are at the highest level.

Usually, we have three formats—60 miles over five days, 30 miles over three days, and 15 miles over two days—depending on the location and the market.

We bring our participants to an iconic location with all the equipment. We hike an average of 10–15 miles per day, rest in nature, enjoy the surroundings, peace, and fresh air, and keep walking to the checkpoint to refresh and eat mostly local food.

Before sleep, we enjoy educational talks or entertainment sessions like sunset yoga, stargazing, bear safety, or storytelling from adventurers — and this is where the magic happens, where the feeling of community is beyond description.

Since HIGHLANDER isn’t a race, everyone can do it. People come to the event with their kids, dogs, etc. And it’s a reflection of the event I wanted to create.

HIGHLANDER is a unique lifetime experience event, with an emphasis on “unique.” That’s why, instead of bringing in thousands of people around a mass-particpation endurance race, we want to bring our participants to another level of thinking, behaving, and living by organizing the so-called “Adventure of a Lifetime.”

How have you approached expansion? What has worked and what hasn’t?

JB: COVID helped us grow the business and spread fast because, during the lockdown, people started to realize just how big of a role nature plays in their lives — how those little things like taking a walk, being outdoors, and exploring bring so much meaning to one’s life.

Starting out in Croatia, we always wanted to come to the US, and it finally happened in 2021 when Spartan Race invested in our company. We joined forces to bring our missions to fruition and improve over 100M lives.

How many events are currently on the circuit? How do you hope to grow from your current level of participation?

JB: We are close to 30 events in over 15 countries, and we will double those numbers next year.

The potential is huge since many people can and want to go on a hike or outdoor adventure while meeting other cool people with the same interest. We want to become a global brand with unforgettable events in every country so we can motivate millions of people to improve their health, both mentally and physically.

We expect to have 10K total participants worldwide this year, and in particular, our event this year in Big Bear, California saw 30% more sign-ups than last year.

Although, we never push for big numbers at a given event since we focus on the quality and execution of the experience. We typically limit our event to 500 attendees but sometimes reach 600–750 depending on the location, weather, and amount of time given. Moreover, we don’t want to disturb wildlife.

With that being said, I also believe that smaller groups create stronger bonds, and we like to keep it “boutique.”

What trends are fueling demand for your series?

JB: People feel that they need a change in lifestyle, and individuals are taking this into their own hands — 30% of our sign-ups are solo travelers.

Our lives have become too hectic, with all these emails, calls, meetings, obligations, and screens that are killing our positive emotions and natural instincts and leaving permanent marks on our health. Because of that, we must change our behavior, habits, and general outlook on life.

Plus, people want to spend more time outdoors, and COVID served as wake-up call to people that they’re taking their health for granted, and getting outside in the medicine they need.

What are some of the milestones you’re targeting over the next year-plus?

JB: We want to be present on all continents by 2025, and we want to foster the biggest outdoor community in the world by providing one-of-a-kind events that’ll motivate people to enjoy the outdoors, grow more comfortable in nature, focus on their health, and support one another in making positive change.

We don’t force anything, and there is no competition in HIGHLANDER — it’s your choice and your journey.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers?

JB: If you don’t like going to the gym every day and you want to be fit, sleep like a baby, and eat as much as your heart desires, you should start hiking.

It’s potentially life-changing. Just do it at your own pace, and find plenty of time to disconnect.

If you’re interested in having your company featured in our Startup Q&A series, send an email to team@fitt.co.

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