Outfitter Owner Challenges & Solutions

By: Zeb Smith, Zebulon LLC & Pat Tabor, Swan Mountain Consulting

On a sunny day in Phoenix, Arizona, over one hundred outfitter CEOs and owners came together for a roundtable discussion on 2023’s industry trends. Below you’ll find the main takeaways from this discussion, including challenges everyone’s experiencing, possible solutions for the future, and what’s changed over the years.


Setting the stage

At the “CEO & Owner Connect” session at the 2023 America Outdoors conference, Pat Tabor of Swan Mountain Consulting Group and Zeb Smith of Zebulon LLC kicked things off by noting that, across all industries, it’s becoming harder to run a successful small business.

Pat and Zeb then asked outfit owners and leaders discuss answers to the following questions with fellow owners seated at their table:

  1. What are your top challenges, and why do things seem different now?

  2. What can Outdoor Recreation Companies do differently to survive and thrive?

Changing Tides from 2022 to 2023

When the moderators conducted this same exercise one year prior, in December 2022, they found three clear issues on everyone’s mind: the economy, staffing, and pricing.

However, now that the pandemic is solidly in everyone’s rear-view mirrors, participants’ challenges and proposed solutions cast a much wider net.

Here are the compiled results from December 2023:

Challenges in Common

In 2023, outfitter owners and CEOs faced significant workforce challenges, including difficulties finding, hiring, and retaining responsible employees, especially amidst a generational shift in the workplace. Being able to effectively communicate across generational divides also proved immensely challenging.

Digging a little deeper into their workforce challenges, owners & CEOs also noted difficulties related to staff pay, cost of living, and securing adequate housing for their seasonal staff. In fact, “workforce housing” was such a common concern during the session that Pat decided to ask how many attendees were actively constructing (or considering constructing) their own housing options - and over half the hands in the room shot up. (Be on the lookout for a future article where Pat will discuss some of the tax planning and wealth-building opportunities to consider when investing in an employee housing solution.)

Other challenges posed by the group included insurance and regulatory complexities, operational challenges as a result of climate change and extreme weather, and navigating shifts in tourism trends.

Owners also grappled with the rising costs of doing business, supply chain management, and adapting pricing strategies to meet inflation and maintain margins, alongside navigating shifts in tourism and market dynamics. Being an outfitter sure is challenging!

Storming Up Solutions

Outfit owners & CEOs were in agreement that beefing up compensation packages (if possible) and enhancing hiring processes are some of the best solutions for addressing current workforce challenges. Additionally, most participants agreed investing in employee retention through training, professional development, and building a strong community culture was a net positive.

As mentioned above, over half the group was also already taking things into their own hands, working on providing housing options to help alleviate their workforce woes as soon as possible.

Participants also suggested tackling rising business costs by being extra-considerate of expenses, staying informed about trends, adjusting pricing strategies, and being open to exploring new business ideas for growth and scalability.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

One of the primary undercurrents from the Owner & CEO session was the topic of younger generations: how to relate to them, how to set clear expectations, and how to support their growth in the industry.

The industry is currently experiencing a noticeable generational shift in workplace expectations. The tendency is that younger employees place a high priority on a healthy work-life balance (translation: they want to work fewer hours), while also insisting on higher wages.

Many owners and CEOs expressed concerns about a decreased work ethic and commitment from new hires. Because of this, they emphasized, the industry needs higher-quality on-boarding, more effective strategies to motivate new employees, and better and more thorough communication standards for setting clear expectations.

See It For Yourself

It’s no easy task condensing the sheer quantity of challenges, solutions, and changes discussed during the Owner & CEO session into one comprehensive blog post. And, as we all know, sometimes seeing is believing.

To see the complete, unabridged list of brainstormed answers for yourself, click HERE (an excel file can be found in your downloads when you click).

About the Facilitators

If you’d like to further discuss these challenges and solutions with either facilitator, Pat and Zeb would love to hear from you.

Pat’s specialty is in transition/succession planning, outdoor recreation company valuations, and business performance improvement (BPI). You can reach Pat at pat.tabor@swanmountainoutfitters.com.

Zeb’s specialty is helping outfitters work smart, have fun, and make money, through finance, management, and leadership consulting. You can reach Zeb at zeb@zebulonllc.com.

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