Business is Blooming: Report from The Great Outdoors
For residents and visitors alike, Vermont is an invigorating, scenic, and inviting destination for outdoor recreation…all year round. Behind the scenes, there is a thriving network of professionals and community organizations nurturing and growing the business side of outdoor recreation, fostering enjoyment and education for outdoor enthusiasts of every age and interest.
The Starting Point had a conversation with VtSBDC business advisor and outdoor recreation specialist Heidi Krantz about the climate of the industry for the summer of ‘22.
The Starting Point: Heidi, what trends are you seeing in outdoor recreation this summer?
Heidi: For an overview on the current climate, I reached out to Kelly Ault, executive director of the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance (VOBA). Kelly reports that emerging from the pandemic, there is a renewed loyalty to brick-and-mortar retail businesses and a desire for the in-person outdoor shop experience. She explains that specialty retailers that have a unique niche are the most promising for growth and sustainability over time, such as the climbing gear shop near a crag, the paddling shop near a waterway, or the bike shop near trail networks. The customer service, relationships, and tailored outfitting and information to customers make the independent shops a good fit for economic growth for Vermont’s more rural communities.
Kelly also shared that workforce continues to be a challenge, especially for high demand, seasonal jobs in customer service and recreation instruction, and for high skilled technical positions such as bike mechanics, trail builders, guides, and those in gear and apparel manufacturing.
Education institutions and nonprofit organizations are turning to employers to understand their needs for the future, and tailoring pipeline programs and internships/apprenticeships to support the outdoor sector.
The Starting Point: What have you observed in your own experiences with outdoor recreation business owners and clients?
Heidi: I have noticed an uptick in participation in outdoor activities, with some changes over the past couple of years. For the 50 plus market, many people are more cautious but still want to enjoy the outdoors. Instead of mountain biking, that segment may be riding ebikes, for example. There’s also been an increase in hiking and kayaking from my point of view. Instead of purchasing equipment, many people want new experiences. They are comfortable having someone guide them, mentor, or accompany them, coaching on the best, safest way to do things. This is particularly apt for new Vermonters coming from suburban areas – they are comfortable having someone guide them while they build confidence enjoying a more rural and remote environment. For outdoor business owners, this is a welcome opportunity to share their skills and expertise.
I have also seen business owners respond to current conditions and change direction. For example, ski shops adding back country access equipment. Bike shops selling snowshoes and cross-country gear. Many retailers are finding ways to be year-round, looking ahead to plan inventory.
The Starting Point: What are you seeing due to global changes?
Heidi: For one thing, the reopened Canadian border will have a dramatic effect. Especially in northern Vermont where this market segment has been greatly missed. I am also interested in seeing how the rising gas prices play out. While it’s a difficult situation, it could keep Vermonters close to home enjoying “staycations” at outdoor venues. Today’s hassles with air travel may also drive more regional traffic.
The Starting Point: What else should we know about the state of outdoor business in Vermont?
Heidi: Don’t forget that Vermont is known for more than biking and skiing. We have amazing fishing and water activities, hiking, boating, horseback riding, wildlife watching, even sculpture parks that encourage walking and being outside. People are camping with their kids. All of these activities drive prosperity for Vermont’s outdoor businesses – from specialty retailers to trail building companies and outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers.
The need for outdoor gear and services has inspired entrepreneurship, and many new businesses are seeking funding and venture capital. VtSBDC advisors are being tapped for guidance on pitching, business development, technical assistance and mentoring to navigate start up opportunities.
The Starting Point: Any thoughts on the future of the industry?
Heidi: The good news is that participation is up. More good news is that Vermont outdoor experts recognize the importance of stewardship and protecting our environment and have become educators in sustainability and environmental sensitivity.
For the future, Kelly Ault’s view from the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance is that recreation businesses are seeing positive traveler indications and they are anticipating customer buying mapped to pre-pandemic levels. She explains that Vermont is well-positioned for drive markets and there is a pent-up demand for outdoor recreation. Industry data indicates that the higher purchases of gear and apparel during the pandemic is now translating to money and time spent on outdoor experiences 2022.
Overall, a very positive outlook for Vermont and our state’s outdoor business owners.