For Maine's outdoor rec companies, last year offers useful lessons

For Maine's outdoor recreation businesses, the pandemic may have a silver lining. Now some of them are reviewing 2020’s lessons to see what’s useful for 2021 and beyond.

Representatives of several companies spoke during a Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce presentation last week on the state’s outdoor recreation industry.

As Mainebiz has reported, state parks shattered attendance records last summer, eclipsing the 3 million mark for the first time despite public health closures and limits.

Although the official data aren’t in yet, initial indications now show the numbers are up in other segments of the industry, said Jenny Kordick, executive director of Maine Outdoor Brands, a Portland nonprofit alliance of 125 outdoor recreation-focused companies founded in 2017.

Camping in 2020 was up 8% over 2019, Maine Trail Finder web traffic increased 121%, and visits to two Casco Bay islands saw a 57% increase over the previous five-year average, she said.

From blankets to snowshoes

Charlie Bruder, vice president of merchandising at L.L.Bean Inc., said the company closed all its stores by mid-March, kept them closed until June, and started producing face masks at a rate of about 10,000 per day to support health workers. 

But customer demand for other products continued to come in. Through their orders, the retailer witnessed how customers adapted to the pandemic through the year.

“We could see what people were doing in real time, based on the products they were buying,” he said.

In March and April, it was about being comfortable at home. People stocked up on items such as blankets and slippers. For example, one style of Bean slipper has seen an “explosion” in popularity, Bruder said, selling since March at the rate of one order every 7 seconds.

From May through August, orders for outdoor furniture and yard games, such as archery, were big. That was followed by a surge of orders in adventure gear such as bikes, kayaks, tents and active apparel.

“We saw an unprecedented level of growth in those categories,” he said.

As the temperature dropped for the winter, sales of snowshoes and sleds rose 400%. 

More people than ever are experiencing “the restorative power” of being outside, according to Bruder.

“That’s an important silver lining that’s come out of this difficult time,” he added.

Geoff Homer, owner of Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, said the ski area, which opened for the season about six weeks ago, has seen many customers who want to spend time outdoors and do things like have “date nights” outdoors.

Family experiences

The pandemic had a dramatic impact on Rippleffect, a Portland youth and community development organization that offers outdoor adventure programming.

Unable to run its traditional programs through the year meant a loss of up 80% of its revenue, or about $800,000. The organization entirely depends on revenue to support operational overhead, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Adam Shepherd. 

Instead, the organization created new programs essentially overnight, including summertime family camping and guided experiences, such as kayak trips. In the fall, Rippleffect saw an opportunity with hybrid school openings to run middle and high school programs that would support remote learning in the morning and do adventure programs in the afternoon.

The organization has continued the programming during the winter, and leveraged the expertise of its staff to newly offer private guiding, he said.

Taken together, the new programs helped the organization balance its 2020 budget and positioned it to weather 2021, Shepherd said. Although 2021 will still be a tough year because the organization won’t be able to open fully, the successful pivots have given it confidence to keep running, he said.

Durable enthusiasm

Looking toward 2021, Bruder said L.L.Bean expects that people new to spending time outdoors will likely continue on that path. 

“If you haven’t done it before, it can be intimidating,” he said. “But you can get out there and find out it’s not that hard, and the next time it’s easier. So I think we’ll start to see more people want to spend more time outdoors and explore new outdoor pursuits.”

Shepherd said Rippleffect is planning programs for this spring and summer. 

“We have to keep in mind the safety and security of the programs we run,” he said. “We’ll be operating around 35% of what we normally do for those programs.”

He continued, “That said, what we’re able to pull out of this past year, is that we see a whole new group of people coming to us for experiences” such as parents wanting experiences with each other and with their kids, and also wanting to learn basic outdoor skills so they can engage in the outdoors independently. 

On a recent weekend, the organization had a family of five that went on a guided ice-climbing expedition, their ages ranging from 50 to 10. 

“Never in my wildest dreams would I guess we’d have a family go out and scramble up ice,” he said. “That’s something for us as an organization and as an industry to recognize. We’re building this industry one family and one person at a time, that hadn’t been part of this client base. I’m buoyed by that.”

Bruder said, “If I fast-forward 10 years, I think we have the opportunity to be the premier state for outdoor-minded people."

Shepherd agreed, saying, “There’s incredible opportunity. It’s most certainly an industry of growth moving forward. I think it’s only as limited as the state of Maine’s ability to either attract or cultivate the next generation of outdoor industry leaders.”

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