The Outdoor Industry Is Old and Tired. Will It Change?

It's a Rorschach test.
It’s a Rorschach test.

Let’s say you are a creature of habit.

You walk up and down the same street in the town you grew up in. You eat in the same restaurants, even eat the same meals as you have for years. Inside, you know you want something new, something fresh and healthy, but what you see is the same stuff over and over again. If you complain, your friends tell you to forget about it, cause, hey, look at Stan, he lived to be 95 eating this stuff.

Welcome to the Outdoor Industry.

We, the collective outdoor industry, have been bemoaning our lack of youth engagement and lack of diversity, as well as the loss of the urban consumer, for as long as I can remember. The industry conducts studies, reviews market opportunities, has hundreds of executive leaders engage in half-day brainstorming sessions with some of the highest paid consultants in the world just so we can tell each other the same narrative over and over again. And yet, we keep coming back to that old familiar restaurant and sit at the same old table.

A couple of months back, I attended the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual Rendezvous event. It’s always at a pretty nice place, like this year in Asheville, North Carolina’s Grove Park Inn. Some years are better than others for seminars and speakers, but the connections and camaraderie building are one of the key draws.

As is the norm, we once again sat in on sessions about the future of the industry. While the industry has seen a much-needed influx of gender and race diversity, it is still comprised mostly of over-40 white male ex-ski and climbing bums who gave up van life for an office (i.e., me).

Next year I hear photographer James Balog is going to train his cameras on the industry to proves that there’s actually something that moves slower than the glaciers he normally photographs.

That's Columbia on the left, the North Face on the right.
That’s Columbia on the left, the North Face on the right.

For the love of god, can we move a couple of streets over instead of plodding down our same route? While the industry keeps wringing its hands over the future, lamenting the rise of video games and electronics and kids who don’t play outside while doing, basically, nothing, brands like Alite and Poler, retailers like Huckberry and Without Walls, and events like Hipcamp and Mappy Hours are creating the future that the industry claims it is seeking. These independent upstarts are finding new consumers, new ways to engage, and they’ve recognized that the outdoor industry model is not only antiquated, but nothing like what the future holds for the next several generations.

Marketing of the outdoors has often been focused on the aspirational imagery of folks doing high-risk adventure activities, but the draw for most folks under 30, or those coming from dense urban center, is not to wear a logo that says “I wanna be like those people.” Instead, they want actual experiences – tangible, real things they can do this weekend that are fun, story worthy, and memorable. Experiences are the future value. Don’t believe me? Ask the music industry how selling an item vs. an experience is going for them. Hint: Festivals are where it’s at these days.

I will be the first to admit that the world of haberdashery, of big beards and bow ties, or even this whole lumbersexual thing, is little more than a fashion trend. It will change and pass. But what’s important, what’s vital, is the thing that inspired the trend: a fundamental desire of the most digitally engaged generation to get back to basic fundamentals of human connection.

The campfire story.

So before you write off the latest in $300 custom axes as ridiculous, or that all of this neo-naturalist marketing is done just for likes and shares and burnishing Tumblr reputations, think about what is behind these new independents, why they’re resonating with their customers, and, if you’re in the traditional outdoor industry, how you can connect with that emotion and need.

At the end of his talk during the OIA Rendezvous, consultant Marshal Cohen pointed out that there will be at least another 12 years of Baby Boomer-driven consumer power dominating the landscape, the audience of industry folks burst into applause and cheers. Relief? Cohen reinforced the attitude that the Outdoor Industry doesn’t have to do a damn thing…at least for another decade. It was like the hunter gloating over how full his freezer is while all the animals and food for next winter die off or move elsewhere. When that freezer runs dry, then what?

Odds are the industry will keep selling the same fleece quarter zips, the same plaid technical shirt, and the same 30-liter nylon backpacks (with hydration port of course) to the Boomers who have another 12 years of spending a shit-ton of the money that the next three generations behind them don’t have. It will do nothing but sit back and milk the cow for as long as possible.

But when the udder runs dry, and it will, remember the adage from Peter Sheahan, CEO at Change Labs. “Change is slow,” he said, “until it’s not.” The way this industry has moved, 12 years is a breakneck pace to get this figured out. And either that will happen or we’ll watch an entire new school of brands, retailers, and consumers go play in their own sandbox and take with them those buying dollars we hope fill our coffers when the boomers are gone.

My generation, my experience, does not matter. Because even though I’m in my early 40’s and it seems like it was just yesterday that I was discovering a love of outdoors, how I got here is not the same way my staff, my kids, or even several of my peers are going to come to the outdoors in the future. The sooner we recognize (and accept) that the old ways are often, simply, tired, the sooner we can help shepherd in the next wave of outdoor leadership, on its terms.

Scott McGuire is the president of The Mountain Lab, an outdoor industry consulting firm.

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