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Pandemic multiplies demand, complicates operations for outdoor businesses

Mask-wearing customers go for a zip line adventure at Nantahala Outdoor Center. NOC photo Mask-wearing customers go for a zip line adventure at Nantahala Outdoor Center. NOC photo

As the Coronavirus Pandemic continues, people worldwide are rediscovering the outdoors in a big way — leading to record visitation at public lands in Western North Carolina and offering a marked boost to outdoor-oriented businesses and communities even as the nationwide economy continues to suffer. However, even this successful sector has met its share of challenges related to labor market shortages, supply chain disruptions and the sheer challenge of making up for revenue lost during full-on closures this spring.

“The communities that do have recreation are much better off than those that don’t have recreation,” said Noah Wilson, program director for the Growing Outdoors Partnership of outdoors businesses in Western North Carolina. “If we didn’t have these mountains and we didn’t have the recreation opportunities we have here, we would all be hurting so much more. It’s one of those things where it’s all about how you view it. You may not be having the best year ever, but are you having a year where you’re going to make it?”

 

Selling the shelves bare

When the pandemic first began — causing drastic reductions in sales and ultimately a 45-day closure in the middle of the typically lucrative Appalachian Trail thru-hiker season — Outdoor 76 co-owners Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall weren’t quite sure what the answer to that question would be. In a March 19 interview while the store was still open, Gasbarro pondered how much things had changed in the past week and wondered how much worse they might get in the weeks to come. In a May 2 email to The Smoky Mountain News, McCall said that the situation was “on a completely different level” from anything the business had experienced before, adding that, “regardless of how stable our businesses has been over the last 10 years, it is impossible to operate without cash.”

After the store reopened May 15, the situation turned around quickly. 

“We have been extremely busy this summer,” said McCall. “Traffic picked up considerably in June and has continued to trend even heavier for the last two months.”

Sales between June and October have come in slightly higher than the same period in 2019, though overall year-to-date revenues are down over last year. That’s held true despite the fact that supply chain issues and difficulty funding large inventory purchases following the underwhelming thru-hiker season have made it hard to keep the shelves stocked to normal levels.

“All of our hard goods — kayaks, canoes, tents, sleeping bags — have been very hard to keep in stock,” said McCall. “Outdoor recreation was viewed as one of the safest alternatives for dealing with COVID and still allowing a sense of normalcy.  We have already seen that the supply chain will affect product availability this fall into late spring of 2021.”

 

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Jennifer Dixon hikes at Mingo Falls in Cherokee. Jackson TDA photo

 

Nantahala Outdoor Center’s outfitter shop has had similar issues, said NOC President William Irving. 

“Nobody has boats, PFDs, paddles,” he said. “They are really hard to get your hands on, just like the bikes as well of course.”

Bike sales have gone through the roof this year, said Motion Makers Bicycle Shop owner Kent Cranford. Sales for the June to October period outpaced any previous year, and year-to-date sales are “way up from ever before.” The staff is larger than it’s ever been. 

That’s all true despite rampant inventory shortages. 

“We have worked hard to not run out of bikes and repair parts,” said Cranford. “We get new bikes every week but there are still customer backorders for specific models that have been waiting for months. Our suppliers tell us it will be another six to nine months before we start to see normal supply again.”

Inventory shortage is an industry-wide issue for outdoor retailers, something that Wilson said shows the importance of local supply chains. While Western North Carolina retailers are still having a hard time with inventory, he said, overall the area does have more access to recreation equipment due to the fact that ever-increasing numbers of brands are located here. 

“I think we’re going to see a lot of entrepreneurs coming out of this moment in time as people are laid off from their jobs, staying at home, tinkering and seeing needs that they need met,” he said. 

 

The price of safety 

When it comes to outdoor experiences — rafting, fishing, guided trips — the demand is definitely there, but the challenge is figuring out how to provide those services safely while still turning a profit. 

“We certainly had more demand than what we could accommodate just because of the reduction of guides that we had and the reduction of people in each vehicle that we had reduced capacity to,” said Irving. 

To prevent spread of the virus, NOC was operating its shuttles at 50 percent capacity, which obviously reduced the rate with which they could transport guests to and from the river. Labor issues compounded the problem. NOC had around 650 employees this year, about 10 percent fewer than normal. Most of the vacancies were for bus driver and food and beverage positions. 

“Those are roles that are always hard to fill, but this year was extremely hard to fill,” he said. “Once the unemployment benefits started to dwindle, we did see more applicants coming through.”

At that point, however, the season was already starting to wind down.

Outdoor 76 also reported difficulties with hiring. 

“The number of employees we currently have is significantly less than pre-COVID,” said McCall. “We had some employees change jobs or relocate, but hiring back workforce since then has been a challenge. We are currently looking to fill three to four positions.”

 

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Heightened demand for bicycles nationwide has translated into booming business — and struggles with inventory — at Motion Makers Bicycle Shop’s Asheville, Sylva and Cherokee stores. Motion Makers photo

 

At NOC, public health precautions also added to the staffing issues. 

“I’d say at any time we had anywhere from 15 to 20 staff that were out every week, just by the precautions that we were taking from having a symptom and saying, ‘Don’t come into work until you’ve had a test or quarantined,’” said Irving. 

While it was certainly a challenge to deal with constant short-staffing, the precautions appear to have worked. While “very few” staff members did contract COVID-19, NOC had zero outbreaks of the disease on its campus, defined as a situation where one person gets the virus and then passes it along to someone else. 

For outfitter businesses that were able to find a way to offer their customers safe transportation, business has been good, said Wilson, with the overarching idea of offering facilitated access to the outdoors emerging as a golden post-pandemic opportunity for outdoor businesses. 

“There’s this moment in time right now in which we have millions of new users or recently returned users who haven’t gone camping since they were 8, and now they’re in their 30s or 40s,” said Wilson. “We have an opportunity as an industry to welcome them back with open arms, to help them have a really great experience that anchors them.”

 

Emphasis on sustainability

The unprecedented volume of gear and goods outdoor retailers have sold this year could have big implications for the industry as a whole. If all the people who bought hiking boots or tents or bikes or kayaks for the first time this year continue to use them when the pandemic ends, then the industry is poised for a period of explosive growth. 

“People have got to realize, as they do right now, how important the outdoors are for every part of their lives,” said Wilson. “Their physical and mental health, their ability to socialize with others, for just a sense of wellbeing.”

More outdoor recreaters means more customers for the outdoor recreation industry, which means more economic growth in Western North Carolina. But the supply chain for that industry isn’t limited to makers of tents and packs and boats — the land itself is a vital, irreplaceable component of that chain. From the widely reported trash and crowding issues at Max Patch to the traffic jams and overflowing trailhead lots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the region is also experiencing the downside of heightened interest in outdoor exploration. 

“There’s a lot of folks who still need to be brought into the outdoors, so we do not want to put up barriers to access. That is a mistake,” said Wilson. “But we also have to ensure that we educate effectively and consistently about how to recreate responsibly.”

To that end, North Carolina has launched a partnership with Leave No Trace, a nonprofit that promotes principles for sustainable use of the outdoors. Meanwhile, Recreate Responsibly — an organization borne out of the pandemic that promotes responsible use of public lands — has formed a North Carolina coalition that includes a variety of nonprofits, businesses and government organizations all committed to ensuring safe and sustainable enjoyment of the outdoors. 

One of those member organizations is the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, which has seen unprecedented increases in room tax collections this year — collections on August stays posted a whopping 71.8 percent increase over the same month last year. The TDA is currently working with several different partners to develop Leave No Trace signage at trailheads and waterfalls, expecting to deploy about 30 such signs countywide in the near future. 

“We don’t want more and more people here for the sake of more and more people,” said TDA Director Nick Breedlove. “We want to balance economic development with quality of the visitor’s visit and quality of life for those who live here. There’s so many destinations that are overrun, and we don’t want that, so sustainability has been huge for us.”

Sustainability concerns, supply chain interruptions and the uncertainty inherent in the ongoing pandemic continue to pose challenges to the outdoor industry, but nevertheless it remains one of the best-performing economic sectors in the changed world of 2020. 

“Anytime you outperform your expectations,” said Irving, “you consider that a win.”

 

 

Accelerator program seeks early-stage outdoor companies

The Waypoint Accelerator program — the first of its kind in the Eastern United States — is looking for applicants to join its second cohort. 

The program is open to eight ventures per year and will begin online Dec. 3. It includes 15 learning and mentorship sessions, access to an outdoor industry network and connections to capital providers as well as industry peers. 

The application window is open through Sunday, Nov. 8, with a live info session and Q&A slated for 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23. Full program details and an online application are available at www.mountainbizworks.org/waypoint. 

The Waypoint Accelerator is a program of Mountain Bizworks, a U.S. Treasury certified nonprofit community development financial institution.

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