The theme of the 2022 America Outdoors Conference was ‘Elevate the Outdoor Industry.’ To do this, we have to understand the trends and issues, and we have to be ready to innovate. With over 30 sessions and a busy trade hall floor, it’s hard to take in and digest everything for even the most organized attendee. We have compiled some of the top takeaways from AO 2022 below to help you reflect and plan for the coming year.
The outdoor industry is growing
Last year, outdoor recreation as a whole accounted for 1.9% of the U.S. GDP, with $862B in gross output and 4.5M jobs. Since the pandemic, more folks are getting outside and recreating. During a panel discussion, representatives from the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management acknowledged the trend of visitor numbers continuing to rise on public lands across the country. Kurt Rausch of the National Park Service thanked outfitters and guides for playing such a critical role in visitor experience during these times and acknowledged that flexibility & innovation will be a continued theme for our industry as these organizations make improvements that will accommodate growth. The Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 brought 12 billion dollars of funding, which began being used this year for infrastructure improvements.
Kelcy Fowler & Matt Moore of Coolworks showed that in addition to the public desire for outdoor recreation opportunities, more people want to work within the outdoor industry. Their website, which promotes “jobs in great places” has seen more visitors than ever in the last 12 months.
Mental health must be part of the conversation
During the opening keynote at AO 2022, Laura McGladrey, Founder of Responder Alliance, outlined the struggles outdoor businesses face regarding stress and mental and physical health. McGladrey shared a Stress Continuum Chart that outfitters can use as an assessment tool to identify stress levels of their staff post-incident, but she also advocated using this year-round as a check-in. McGladrey believes that “the future depends on our commitment to running and working for ‘green’ organizations” - meaning those who acknowledge these challenges and have a mitigation plan in place to care for their employees.
In another packed session, called ‘Psychophysiological Response to Crisis and Trauma’, Myra Strand, of Strand Squared Solutions, and Emily Ambrose, of Engage Consulting, urged outfitters to “have a plan before you need a plan”. Shannon Walton of Redside Foundation spoke about burnout, which is caused by chronic stress and is a combination of emotional, physical, and behavioral elements. She advocated that supporting guides include promoting adaptive mental health, which is a holistic approach to health that includes things happening inside and outside of your organization.
Partnership is the key to diversifying the industry
The outdoor industry is less diverse than the U.S. population, but many outfitters have shared that they’re unsure of how to attract and retain new staff. During a compelling panel discussion, outfitters learned that there are opportunities to help create pathways to outdoor industry careers for those from underrepresented communities, but it will require relationship-building and a focus on creating a sense of belonging.
Lesford Duncan, CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation, pointed out that “You can grow up interested in and curious about nature, but still feel disconnected from the concept of being ‘outdoorsy’ because of the messages on who belongs in those spaces & does those activities.” Lydia Parker, Executive Director of Hunters of Color, recommends personal outreach and inviting those not at the table into the community, but only after you’ve built an environment where they can thrive. Inclusivity starts with listening and building trust and continues with the relationships that will come from that.
There are many organizations that are involved in their communities and are actively working on getting more folks of color, folks with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups into the outdoors. The key? Partnership. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Find these groups and create a true partnership. But don’t come to the table with a transactional approach. Gerry James of Together Outdoors advises, “Don’t jump straight to the job. Start off with some introductory trips. And those seeds will grow.”
Follow a few “Renegade rules” to turn innovative ideas into action
There are a million reasons not to put your ideas into practice. Amy Jo Martin, our closing speaker and best-selling author of the book Renegades Write the Rules, calls these Innovation Allergies. 'There is not enough time'; 'we don’t have the budget for this'; 'there is too much going on right now' are examples. But as you have seen above, it’s time for the industry to rise to meet our challenges, which means we must say yes to new ideas.
Amy Jo offers her renegade rules, which are strategies to help you succeed despite the challenges and innovation allergies. A few stand out as especially important to help outfitters implement their big ideas:
Share the WHO & WHY. Not the what – The goal is not to connect with people who want what you offer but to find people who believe what you believe. Amy Jo encouraged attendees to rethink and refine their answer to the question “what do you do?”
Listen, experiment, listen- To truly innovate you must go out and listen. The best ideas don’t come from a few people sitting at a table. Listen to your staff, your customers, and your peers in the industry. Based on feedback, try something. Implement the ideas, then listen again and repeat.
It’s an inside-out job – Don't lose sight of your 'why'. Let go of others’ expectations. Make it a recurring practice to quiet the outside noise and check in with yourself then reset when needed.
This industry begins and ends with humans and relationships
Human connection is the most valuable resource we can tap into and is the reason we come together at the conference each year. New attendees at the 2022 conference said that learning opportunities brought them to America Outdoors, but at the end of the day, the relationships they made - whether in a round table session, on the exhibit floor, or at the resort bar by the pool - were the most valuable part of the experience.
Exhibitors and sponsors in Orlando agreed with attendees. Dan Camp, Sales Manager at Adventure Office, shared, “at America Outdoors not only do we get to build on relationships with existing clients, but we also get the chance to cultivate new friendships and relationships with amazing people from all across the country. Through conversations, we learn how to innovate our products and services to support outfitters and the industry.”
As you reflect on the 2022 season ask yourself the important questions: how can we value the people at our organizations to help them thrive? How can we invite more people to the table that would like to participate in our experiences? The value of this conference ultimately comes from the community. Let’s keep leaning on one another to elevate the industry in 2023 and beyond.