(MONTPELIER, VERMONT) -- Last Wednesday, more than 40 members of the Vermont Outdoor Industry gathered at the Vermont State House, presenting a foundation of economic data and calling for specific actions to help protect and grow this diverse economic sector.
Attended by a group of more than 40 equipment manufacturers, publishers, retailers, outfitters and marketers, the event and press conference was hosted by Pale Morning Media (Waitsfield), Mammut USA (Williston), Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington) and Height of Lands Publications (Jeffersonville). Attendees included representatives from Rome Snowboards, Onion River Sports, Turtle Fur, Julbo Eyewear, Press Forward PR, Petra Cliffs, Pinnacle Outdoor Group and others.
“At the national level of the Outdoor Industry, Vermont brands truly stand out with leaders in every category – gear makers, retailers, outfitters, publishers – yet here in Vermont the group remains isolated in silos. Retailers over here, suppliers over there, skiers over here, hikers over there,” said Drew Simmons, president/founder of Pale Morning Media and one of the event organizers. “Nationally, the places where the Outdoor Industry is succeeding the most are the places where those walls and silos have come down, and the Outdoor Industry is recognized as the essential multifaceted economic sector that it is.”
The event included a presentation of current statistics regarding the Outdoor Industry, the Outdoor Recreation Economy, and the Outdoor Consumer, as provided by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
The group called for an Outdoor Industry job count within the State of Vermont, modeled after the federal bill recently proposed by Congressman Peter Welch.
The group also requested the creation of an economic focused Outdoor Recreation Director role within the State administration – tasked with promoting and supporting the growth of all Vermont businesses that provide services and products in the Outdoor Recreation Industry as well as being the central point of support at the state level for the diverse constituents, businesses, communities and groups that rely on the continued health of the Outdoor Recreation Industry in Vermont.
“In the past, the Outdoor Industry has been perceived as a bunch of unrelated communities: anglers and skiers, climbers and paddlers. But in the future, to embrace and grow this economic segment, it’s important to see it as the multi-faceted economic driver that it is,” said Bill Supple of Mammut, one of the event organizers. “The first step is to fully understand the size and scope of the Outdoor Industry as an economic sector in Vermont. The second step is dedicating a point person to this sector, to embrace it and bring it together, to retain and grow businesses in the sector, and to help it continue to be a key part of the Vermont brand.
According to OIA,142.6 million Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity within the last year for a total of 12.1 billion outdoor outings. In Vermont, at least 74% of Vermonters are outdoor consumers who participate in outdoor recreation each year.
Other statistics cited at the event included a summary of the Outdoor Recreation Economy in Vermont, which includes $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue, $2.5 billion in consumer spending, 34,000 direct Vermont jobs, $753 million in wages and salaries and $176 million in state and local tax revenue.
“We’re not lobbyists. We’re not legislators. We’re business owners. And we see the rising prominence of the Outdoor Industry on a national level, every day," added Simmons. "The Outdoor Industry is a non-partisan, broad-based economic driver. It’s geographically agnostic for the most part – as it is comprised of multiple and numerous activity-based communities … some small, some large, some that you’ve probably never heard of. But when they’re brought together, when they’re embraced as a whole, the Outdoor Industry has the potential to be a major economic driver for the entire State of Vermont.”
Around our place, there was a Halloween-y surge in haunting chatter this week about some prospective regional ‘rep’ shows and their anticipated dates. To me, that chatter came in the form of numerous after-dark texting exchanges. But as with most late night texting, sometimes the details can be a little loose, a bit blurry … or even totally incorrect. For instance, one after-midnight missive broke the (false) news to me that OR would be moving to New York City in 2016.
Pause. Sip. Scratch. Hmm
It wasn’t true, of course. The world’s biggest gear closet isn’t headed to the Big Apple. But in a world full of fewer and fewer surprises every day, when you hear a rumor … it pays to wrap your head around it, even briefly.
So, what if it were true? What would a full-scale Outdoor Retailer show in New York City show actually look like? Would it be terrible? Would it be awesome? Would it be the ... same?
1. First, find Hell’s Kitchen: The most likely landing place for an OR show in NYC would be the Jacob Javits Convention Center, which is a pretty sizable spot on the Lower West Side. Facing the Hudson River, it’s convenient (in a New York way) by being about two seconds from the Lincoln Tunnel and two minutes from Penn Station. Sizewise, it's definitely comparable to the current OR digs, with 660 thousand square feet of exhibition space (two floors) and a hundred thousand feet or so of meeting space. The current home for the OR show clocks in at 679,000 square feet. Check.
2. Would it tougher on exhibitors? One of the keys to OR show attendance is appealing to exhibitors/attendees within a day's drive of the show. Interestingly, based on a search of OIA member data –- a fairly quick and decent way to spotlight exhibitors who also are committed enough to support broader advocacy efforts –- it’s actually kind of a toss-up. Utah has 67 OIA members, while New York has 63. Broaden that a bit to include the heavy hitter (no pun intended) of Colorado, and you bolster Utah’s hosting appeal by hitting the final tally of 266 OIA members. But it goes both ways -- when you stack it up for the Cold Coast with New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina, you end up with a robust 269 OIA members. Hmmm.
3. What about the Salt Palace’s infamous “show dogs”? No problem kids! In NYC, they got Crif Dogs.
4. But honestly, is New York ‘outdoor enough’? Hey, I love the West. I was born there, raised there, and have spent a lot of time falling down and running into things out there. It’s big, it’s bad, it’s rad and nobody will ever deny that. But to draw a line at the Mississippi and assume that one side is outdoor worthy and the other isn’t … well, those are the pants that make your brain look dim. Besides, New York is certainly on par with (if not far more outdoorsy a choice than) Las Vegas ... currently the top favorite among pundits for an alternate location to SLC.
5. Stepping through the Venture Out looking glass? To have a semi-permanent spot on one of the world's biggest stages for fashion tastemakers could have a lasting effect on the blend of product in the Outdoor Industry. For instance, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, leather wafflestompers and 12-pound woolen backpacks are just a quirky subset of the ever-monochromatic Outdoor market … but in an alternate NYC-show future, Outdoor Retailer might evolve to be just the opposite, with a sea of five-panel hats and mom-jean-friendly designer brands surrounding a comfy, kitschy little area in the back pavilion tents where they sell things like “skis” and “kayaks.”
6. Could it significantly boost diversity? With a current trade show demographic that’s whiter than a GOP debate crowd, the Outdoor Industry doesn’t just want diversity: it needs it. And not just for growth, but for the long term survival of "outdoor" as more than just a theme for Nike's new pop-up store in Nolita. Hosting the OR show in the multi-cultural nexus of New York City would jump start that process by changing the average profile of the local, the interested, the attending, the employed, and the entrepreneurial. That change, in turn, would lead to a far more diverse base of company leaders, thought leaders and ... yes, eventually ... consumers.
7. Would it be a shot in the arm for the Outdoor Industry’s DC lobbying efforts? Imagine this: a rescheduled Capitol Summit held directly following the OR Summer Market Show, during which the OIA could stage “A Hike on Washington” from NYC to the Capitol steps to demand a return of respect and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Hypothetically, of course.
8. How much would it grow the working media list? Double? Maybe triple? If you’ve got the time sometime, do a little number crunching on the working media list for the Outdoor Retailer show (or any show, for that matter, as it's a good habit). First, reduce it to one person per media title; and second, remove all not-actually-covering-the-show editorial titles like “publisher” or “photographer." As you'll see, the list gets small pretty fast. As a third step, highlight the media from the same zip code as the show, and then replace that highlighted block with a list of legit working media within a 15 minute cab ride of the lower West Side. Folks, you've got mail.
9. Which retailers would it help the most? An OR show in New York City would mean you’d actually meet a retailer from the East Coast with fewer than 20 employees. I know it sounds weird that such a thing even exists. But it does.
10. Which retailers would it hurt the most? Well, some people wouldn’t go, of course, particularly smaller companies and individuals with limited travel budgets. The non-attenders would rationalize it by saying it’s too far of a trip and not relevant enough to their specific business models. Besides (they’d likely add), big brands all come visit them anyway so it’s not really that important. Of course, there’s no doubt that big players would still attend regardless of the location, as well as the cutting edge retailers who “actually get it”. Wait a second … this is starting to sound really familiar.
11. What about the on-snow demo? Hey, if they can host a big air event at Fenway (LINK), they can do an on-snow demo anywhere.
As the Outdoor market continues forward on an ever-expanding trajectory known as "lifestyle," people are understandably a little edgy as they try to keep things in focus.
The backdrop for Outdoor Lifestyle's growth is comprised of some big numbers. Really big. In a recent study for this widely recognized $646 billion market, “Outdoor” folks now include more than 60% of American consumers -- people living mainly in cities, being mainly in their younger years, and spending at least an hour a week and $450 a year on outdoorsy stuff (LINK).
As with all Outdoor data, the most recent study relies heavily on the market's historic affinity for measuring itself agains the yardstick of the activities it supports. The report leads with dozens of “Traditional” core market metrics like camping, canoeing and climbing, but also factors in a boatload of “Non-traditional” pastimes like walking, picnicking and simply chilling outside.
In this widening pool of data sources, the clear takeaway is that the biggest sustained growth in Outdoor is in the definition of what "outdoor" actually means. And the clear challenge is using that knowledge to forge a path through an often blurry Lifestyle landscape.
Because in the new Soft Outdoors, there is no true center, no easy-to-explain hub of activity, no silver bullet that will make everything good and right at the retail counter. Soft Outdoor sees Traditional and Non Traditional activities as true equals, because at the cash register there’s no difference at all between a badass whitewater paddler and a once-a-year beach reader.
Understandably, Soft Outdoors is causing some stress on the micro level, as staying one-step ahead of a practically unlimited pool of outdoor activities is kind of like running a 100-yard dash without knowing which direction to go or when to start.
Soft Outdoors is also unsettling for some on the macro level. An increasingly vague definition of Outdoor could easily be seen as setting the stage for assimilation by a broader market controlled by fewer brands with deeper pockets: a price-first place where people don’t really care if the logo on their chest is representative of a group that sacrifices annual profits to conserve gazillions of acres of land for their grandchildren's outdoor access. They just like the way it looks when they’re wearing jeans.
Fortunately, there's another group for whom Soft Outdoor is very, very good news: active brands.
As Outdoor has widened and breakthroughs have been diluted by sheer Lifestyle volume, active brands have replaced innovation as the number one thing marketers are telling stories about. With words and images, personalities and partnerships, these rising brands have become the axis around which the outdoor world spins.
Consider a list of the 100+ short-sleeved button-front shirt brands in the Outdoor market. While differences may be laughably indistinct from across the trailhead -- at a brand level there’s more than enough nuance to fill the closet for you and everybody you know with a unique and distinct personality for every day of the week. There's the yoga brand. And the environmentalist. The badass Vancouver. The Montana fly fisher. The quirky New Zealander. The Santa Barbara creative. The Jackson Hole local. The Truckee dirtbag. The Upper Midwest made-in-America. The Seattle fun-hog. The Texan. And plenty more.
With $100 small brand shirts thriving right next to REI plaids at half the price, there's clearly an audience out there that's far more concerned with the label than the price tag.
These plaid shirt brands -- as well as other Outdoor Lifestyle success stories -- are the ones that hold the future of Outdoor Industry in their hands. They're the ones bringing in new converts to Soft Outdoor. They're the ones satisfying the cravings of their devoted fans. They're the the ones who are defining the Outdoor Lifestyle, not just by what they make but by how they live.
Because while things like contrast pockets and ombre plaids are all-to-easy to knock off for a mega brand looking for a line extension in a hot market, one thing that can never be replicated is outdoor culture. And an Outdoor market without an outdoor soul is just another room full of people selling plaid.