The Economic Power of Travel and Outdoor Activity – Let’s Work Together

Last week I had the fortune of attending the Outdoor Industry Association’s Advocacy Leadership dinner in Salt Lake City. The highlight of the evening was the compelling story of how Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert completed a deal with the Obama Administration’s Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to re-open the state’s national parks last October. I was astounded at how critical it was to Utah’s economy to fix this mess quickly. Within three short days after the government shutdown, the two had worked through the details, reached an agreement and Utah had wired in operational funds to complete the deal. Utah’s national parks were opened – and the state was back in business.

The outdoor economy really is a big business, and not just in Utah.* Although the annual economic impact of the outdoor industry to Utah is $12 billion (and accounts for 122,400 jobs), on a national level it has an economic impact is $646 billion and supports 6.1 billion jobs. These numbers do not reflect the many billions more spent on travel, lodging, food and all the other expenditures spent by outdoor enthusiasts.  Nor do they address the immeasurable and undeniable health, fitness and emotional benefits that come from engaging in outdoor activity.

For much of my career, I’ve specialized in both the travel and outdoor category.  It has become very apparent to me that these two verticals have a very symbiotic relationship.  Both of them depend on each other to drive business, yet rarely do the two come together to work for their common good. That should change.

Preserving and promoting our parks and the other open lands that are necessary for the enjoyment of outdoor activity is not a political issue; it is an economic and social issue. The relatively small economic investment required to build and maintain the infrastructures behind these areas pales in comparison to the social and economic benefits that come from investment in them.

We must do more than just invest in outdoor activities and destinations though; we must drive young people to them. Participation in outdoor activities among America’s youth has been falling steadily for the past several decades.  Meanwhile we see the incidence of obesity, diabetes and other health issues has skyrocketed. Another Outdoor Industry show presentation, by Katrina Echt and Alison Carabetta of Google, explored this trend in detail. They found that in an average week of 112 waking hours, young people spend 5 hours outdoors and 30 hours using screens.**  Ironically, it is also very clear that to get young people outside we need to embrace this technology – technology and screens are not the enemy here, they are the tools. Social sharing sites provide us the platform to spread the word that getting outside is both fun and easy.

When Americans are asked why they don’t participate in outdoor activity, roughly a third (37%) state that they are not interested.  Approximately one-quarter (26%) claim that they have no time to. However, 21% are interested but don’t have the skills and 18% don’t participate because they don’t have anyone to go with.  These last two groups represent the population we should be targeting.  (By the way, 1% won’t participate because they are afraid of being attacked by animals.)

What I’m recommending is a collaborative effort between the outdoor and travel industries to address their mutual challenges and opportunities.  While there may be many other issues, the most obvious ones to take on now are: sustainability (environmental), access to open spaces and awareness/interest.  By promoting outdoor activity we will see an increase in both travel to the destinations that feature it and higher sales of outdoor gear, clothing and footwear. Not to mention a healthier and happier population.  To paraphrase the old Canned Heat song – Let’s Work Together.

* Outdoor Industry Association
** Ipsos