Happy Trails. America's affinity for the great outdoors

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When it comes to outdoor leisure activity, demand isn't about to let up. Businesses are primed to cash in on the cache of back-to-nature.

Andrew Baze admits he has Hemingway fantasies. He lusts for the kind of outdoor experiences where one wrong move means the difference between life and - you know the rest. Although Baze hasn't run with the bulls in Pamplona yet, he does satisfy his man-against-nature yen with twice-a-month camping, hiking, and climbing adventures at various remote locales throughout Washington state. When not enjoying the scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the 29-year-old Baze burns the midnight oil. As a test engineer at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, he logs about 10 hours a day, writing and deciphering code that keeps the software giant's Internet Explorer glitch-free. But, like many Americans these days, heavy-duty workweeks aren't keeping this former Army specialist from "kick butt" adventure travel. Baze's love affair with the outdoors is simple: "When you work hard, you have to make time to play and relax," he says. "In terms of fun and stress reduction, the outdoors rock!"

Baze isn't alone in answering the siren song of the Great Outdoors. Whether it's to unwind after a frantic workweek or to find some solace in Mother Nature, the outdoors is becoming increasingly appealing to every demographic. Today's seniors, laden with free time, unprecedented good health, and generally hefty retirement accounts, are indulging in outdoor activities on pristine golf courses and rugged Elderhostel expeditions. Environmentally conscious Baby Boomers are flocking to exotic adventure travel destinations. Gen Xers and Ys - though surprisingly less physically active than other generations - have spurred the development of non-traditional outdoor activities and the creation of new recreational sites for snowboarding, inline skating, and telemark skiing.

Our nature trails bustle with human activity, a reality that has already had an enormous impact on the sporting goods industry. By some estimates, sales of recreational apparel and gear, for example, have reached nearly $80 billion. According to a study conducted by New York-based research firm Roper Starch Worldwide, only two in 10 Americans did not participate in outdoor recreation at least annually last year - down from three in 10 in 1994. Today, some two-thirds of all Americans strap on outdoor gear at least once a month; just six years ago, only half communed with nature on a monthly basis. When it comes to playing in the sun, demand isn't about to let up anytime soon, especially as our need to explore, unwind, or find a greater purpose in life continues to grow.

What's led to this surge in Americans' zeal for nature? For one, an increased interest by the middle class. Roper's 1999 survey shows that the fastest growth in outdoor recreation participation is among Americans with household incomes between $15,000 and $30,000. At-least-monthly participation grew by 18 percentage points from 1994, to 66 percent, putting participation among this group at near-equivalency with more affluent households. What's more, tired and stressed out Americans are searching for creative ways to make the most of their down time. Forget health club memberships, these "work hard, play hard" Americans are testing their mettle on a sheer rock face. Last year, the National Park Service alone recorded more than 287 million park visits. By 2001, this number is expected to increase to nearly 300 million.

With the unprecedented interest in everything outdoors, businesses are primed to cash in on the cache of back-to-nature. "Americans are in love with the outdoors, and everything that has to do with the outdoors," says Derrick Crandall, president of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit American Recreation Coalition (ARC) and executive vice-president of the Recreation Roundtable, an ARC offshoot that serves as a think-tank for some of the nation's top outdoor recreation execs. "We don't see that changing any time soon."

But businesses may have to adapt to keep up with today's rugged consumers, whose individual tastes and interests are as varied as America's landscape. Today, 67 percent of all Americans participate in some sort of recreational activity at least once a month (defined as anything from swimming to snowboarding), compared with 50 percent six years ago. Three in 10 Americans have enjoyed at least six different recreational activities in the past year. This figure emphasizes the great variety of Americans' interests, and highlights the challenge facing marketers: Opportunities for growth lie in catering to the needs of individual interests.

It's a lesson Polaris Industries Inc. learned first-hand. The well-known snowmobile manufacturer emerged from near-bankruptcy in 1981, after several snowless winters, to grow into a 3,500 employee company, with $1.3 billion in revenue last year. The catalyst, says chief executive Tom Tiller, was a diversification of its product line that responds to consumers' varied interests and demands. Aside from the venerable snowmobile, Polaris now sells all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft, and even motorcycles - a traditionally tough market to break into. "We had to look at the demographics, and play the demographics," says Tiller, a 38-year-old Harvard MBA, who took over the reins at Polaris in 1999.

Polaris recently introduced its first children's snowmobile and five new adult models in different price ranges and styles that meet the needs of both families and hard-core enthusiasts. Tiller is adamant about the need for "branding" all Polaris offerings under the common theme "The Way Out," an advertising and communications campaign that projects escape from everyday pressures, deadlines, and commitments. "Everybody needs some down time from the daily grind," says Tiller, who projects company revenue will reach $3 billion by 2007. "That's what the outdoor market is all about."

The market is a smorgasbord of activities, including bicycling, canoeing, hiking, and snowshoeing, among many others. According to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America (ORCA), a Boulder, Colorado-based industry trade association, interest is especially increasing in off-the-beaten-path sports. Between 1998 and 1999 the number of people who went snowshoeing nine or more times increased by more than 300 percent. Such enthusiasm is also strong in telemark skiing (up 300 percent), rafting (up 54 percent), kayaking (up 50 percent), trail running (up 38 percent) and hiking (up 34 percent.). Of course some of these growth figures are starting from a limited base, says Norma Hansen, ORCA's director of programs and market research. "But it's also obvious that people are looking for different things to do outdoors."

Most industry observers believe that only those companies that continue to understand the public's underlying motivations for recreation - particularly the three F's: fun, fitness, and family - will survive long-term. Outdoor recreation, for instance, is especially important to families with young children. Of the 2,000 Americans polled by Roper, 65 percent of those with at least one child, age seven or younger, report engaging in outdoor recreation as a family at least monthly, compared with 57 percent of married, childless couples. "Successful groups will respond to changing demographics and create new products and places that meet the needs of boomers, seniors, families, and the younger cohorts," says ARC's Crandall.

Randy Myers is catering to Americans' outdoor love affair through targeted marketing approaches which combine fun and education, while tapping into our desire for the hassle-free. "One of the fundamental premises that we have to recognize is the `new outdoor' recreation," says Myers, director of Internet Marketing for PlanetOutdoors.com, an 18-month-old startup which has received more than $20 million in venture capital from partners including CMGI, @Ventures, and Trinity Ventures. "It used to be man versus mountain. Now it's women, men, kids, families, grandma, grandpa, and the pets. That's our market. These are the people who will spur growth. They like stuff. They like choices. And they're smart about spending their dollars."

PlanetOutdoors uses an interactive approach to capture the outdoor wanna-be, as well as the more accomplished outdoor enthusiast. It relies on robust Internet technology not only for e-commerce, but also for its live chats with various experts - many of whom are among the company's 78 employees. "Our customers are demanding quality customer service and that means more than shipping them purchases on time," says Myers. "They want information and education from the best." PlanetOutdoors has mountain bike experts, ski pros, extreme wall-climbers and other "hot athletes doing the customer service gig" to help clients with online shopping and tips on various sports.

PlanetOutdoors has spun off a separate experience for women in search of gear and accessories. Womenoutdoors.com offers the same depth and breadth of products, and uses content to inspire women to try new activities, as well as advice on how to include children in them. Both sites have teamed with online adventure travel outfit Away.com to build a co-branded experience where equipment customers can find, plan and book trips throughout the world, and where Away-dot-commers can get the gear they need for that rafting trip down Alaska's Tatshenshini River.

Myers says PlanetOutdoors doesn't hesitate to tailor its services to customers who can opt for as much, or as little, information - and collaboration - as they want from the site. Personalized e-mails, informing customers about sport-specific trends, special offers, and discount sales on gear and apparel is a real strength for the organization and key to tapping a tough market, says Myers. "Effective communication with the customer can be difficult, but it's vital in a competitive marketplace and with an Internet-based experience like us."

But carving out a share of the outdoor goods market can be an extreme sport for marketers. Although consumer consumption is growing, so is the competition. Inventive start-ups, such as Fogdog.com and MVP.com, and non-traditional suppliers are cutting into the business of established retailers. ORCA's Hansen explains that one of the top challenges in the market is competition from new players and from unexpected angles. "I think everyone took notice when Old Navy began selling polar-fleece," says Hansen. "There's a real wake-up call in the industry that competition is everywhere."

With the glut of retailers, there is increased competition for publicity-generating sponsorships and partnerships - one of the most effective marketing ploys for the industry. Then there are always the intangibles, such as the outdoor marketer's worst nightmare: the shifting weather patterns of El Nino and La Nina. A few snowless winters or hot, rainy summers can ruin the most innovative of business plans, unless marketers are prepared to create some off-beat alliances and expand beyond their core offerings.

CamelBak, makers of hands-free hydration systems, is one company that looks to niche and partnership marketing for long-term success. In addition to thirsty civilian consumers, CamelBak counts the U.S. Marine Corp as a major customer. CamelBak hydration systems are now standard issue for the Marines' main new battle pack, the MOLLE system. "We started off with mountain bikers and now we're with the Marines," says Sky George, CamelBak's marketing director. "That kind of endorsement lends a ton of credibility to a product and our claims of improved performance." The company has restyled several of their products to fit the smaller frames of women and children, since George believes that failing to recognize "family trends" and the emergence of the "female athlete" would be akin to "corporate suicide."

All outdoor marketers must build this kind of "diverse portfolio" to achieve success, says George, who helped ink a deal with ESPN to provide February 2000 Winter X Game athletes with a limited-edition hydration system. "That partnership allowed us to bring our message to a different, younger audience who may not have been aware of the product," says George.

The outdoors has always been a part of the American experience, but as our lifestyles and technologies change in this area, there is certain to be shifting terrain ahead for marketers. Will virtual reality allow us to climb Mount Everest from the comfort of our couches? Will public lands succumb to the avalanche of tourists or budget constraints? Either way, Roundtable's Crandall believes the private sector will become increasingly creative in finding ways to bring outdoor recreation to the public. "There's already increased recreation opportunity in urban areas, and a lot of public and private partnerships that provide opportunities to get outdoors," he says, citing trails along utility corridors and abandoned railroad lines morphed into biking and hiking trails. Marketers who can tap the varied and vigorous consumer interest in outdoor activity have the advantage of a sunny forecast ahead, but will have to be responsive and creative in exploiting this healthy market. After all, although Hemingway made do without the benefit of online equipment suppliers and hands-free water delivery systems, today's weekend warriors are morelikely to want the services and gear that help them conquer the great outdoors.

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