The outdoor recreation industry has gone from spunky upstart to economic heavyweight
Outdoor business leaders in Denver for the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show say the industry’s clout has grown as recognition of its large contributions to the U.S. economy has increased.
Certainly the industry’s appeal is evident from a walk through the Colorado Convention Center, where more than 1,000 different brands are on display through Friday. More than 10,000 buyers, 1,300 designers and 800 members of the media registered for the show, the largest outdoor industry trade even in North America.
This is the third show held in Denver since the Outdoor Retailer moved its influential trade shows from Salt Lake City in 2017.
Beyond all the activity of the winter and summer trade shows, which include a busy lineup of panel discussions on topics ranging from marketing to climate change, are the government data that show how large the outdoor recreation industry has become.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department issued its first-ever report about the industry in 2018. It said the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.2% — $427.2 billion — of the gross domestic product in 2017. Adjusted for inflation, the industry’s GDP grew by 3.9%, faster than the 2.4% for the overall economy.
The second report showed outdoor recreation still at 2.2% GDP, generating $778 billion for the economy and supporting 5.2 million jobs in 2018. The report included preliminary state-level figures, which showed outdoor recreation accounted for 3.3% of Colorado’s economy.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire sponsored legislation directing the Commerce Department to look at outdoor recreation’s contribution to the economy. The review will be done annually.
The federal economic information has helped the outdoor recreation industry on a number of levels, said Jessica Wahl, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a national trade organization.
“It’s brought the industry together in a way they haven’t been before, in a way that other industries are coordinated,” said Wahl, who is attending the Outdoor Retailer.
Businesses and trade groups can track the industry’s economic impact and job numbers, she said.
“I think it puts us on the map. We’re getting quantified like other sectors. It just changes the way people think about us,” Wahl added. “We’re not just a fun weekend activity.”
Members of the recreation roundtable believe having government-generated data has helped raise the industry’s profile and spurred more interest in it among state and federal policy makers.
“At the federal level, there were eight outdoor recreation hearings in 2019,” said John-Michael Donahue, spokesperson for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Several members of Congress turned out for a recent industry reception on Capitol Hill. Donahue said 130 lawmakers are part of the congressional boating caucus.
The goal is to parlay the industry’s economic heft into funding and policies to help support and expand outdoor recreation.
“One of our big issues is the maintenance backlog on national lands and waters: $12 billion for parks and $19 billion across all public lands,” said Monika Geraci, with the RV Industry Association.
The roundtable is also focusing on outdoor recreation’s impacts on rural economies. Members are working with federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, to help communities that want to benefit more from outdoor recreation. The Recreation Economy for Rural Communities assistance program grew out of an executive order on promoting agriculture and rural prosperity.
Glenwood Springs is among the initial 10 communities chosen to get help with developing plans and strategies for expanding its economy through outdoor recreation.
Most of the recreation takes place in rural areas, Wahl said. The industry wants to take a more purposeful approach and partner with communities to help shape the kind of outdoor recreation economy they want, she said.
The interest appears to be high. Wahl said 170 communities across the country applied for the first round of assistance.
Another priority for the industry is the establishment of outdoor recreation industry offices in all 50 states. So far, 17 states, including Colorado, have offices dedicated to promoting and advocating for the industry. Wahl said she thinks another three or four will join the ranks this year.
It’s important to have advocates at the state level to consider the impacts of decisions on the outdoor recreation industry, Wahl said.
“We don’t feel like the outdoor industry fits neatly into one of the cabinet-level offices,” Wahl said. “We need someone there to break down the silos. If you’re talking about a massive infrastructure bill or what you’re going to do about growth in Denver, you need someone to raise their hand and ask, ‘What is that going to mean for recreation?’ ”
And a priority that never changes is maintaining and expanding access to places for outdoor recreation. Geraci said as participation in outdoor recreation grows, the industry knows it’s important to strike a balance between ensuring access and responsible stewardship.
“It’s critical to all of the industry that public lands are maintained and conserved so there is some place for our outdoor recreationists to go,” Geraci said. “If there’s no place for our people to recreate, then our industries go away.”
By: Judith Kohler
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