Outdoor Businesses Adapt to the COVID-19 Economy

Helena Kotala, Mapping Coordinator

The past three and a half months have been strange for us all, and during that time, we’ve seen a record number of people turning to the outdoors as a reprieve from the stress, worry and boredom caused by the global pandemic. As group sporting events, bars and restaurants, vacations, and so many other activities were cancelled or closed this past spring, all of us in the outdoor recreation community suddenly noticed a record number of people in our local green spaces. In fact, a report commissioned by PEC found that trail use increased by almost 200% in some places compared to other years during a similar timeframe. In cities, where public transportation was shut down or deemed too risky for fear of the virus, more folks than ever found alternative means of travel such as biking and walking. The outdoors boomed — but what did that mean for the outdoor industry these past few months? And what does it mean for its future? 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, the prime season for the outdoors was just ramping up. But then, events were cancelled and shops had to close their doors. Some of the cycling and running events that were scheduled for this spring went “virtual” in some way:

  • The Rocksylvania Trail Series typically hosts 20 different trail running races and covers close to 350 miles in state forests throughout central Pennsylvania from mid-April through mid-October. This year, instead of one-day races, participants are challenged to take on either 350 or 175 miles in as many runs as they’d like throughout the summer.
  • The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Relay is doing something similar, encouraging teams to run their legs of a specific distance wherever it is safe and convenient for them. (In addition to fielding our own relay teams, we at PEC are supporting the GAP Relay as Sustainability Partner by purchasing carbon offsets and Water Restoration Certificates equivalent to the impact of the event if it were being held in person.)

Other spring events have been rescheduled for later this summer, but will still be taking plenty of precautions, requiring masks for any close interactions at aid stations and start lines, doing staggered starts and, in some cases, scrapping the post-event parties. 

Bike shop sales have skyrocketed this year as new riders discovered the freedom of two wheels. Photo by Evan Gross.

Some event promoters with fall events are still struggling to decide what to do. UnPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley is a gravel bicycle race and ride that draws about 1000 people to Lewisburg, PA. The event is scheduled for the second weekend of October and so far, it hasn’t been cancelled, but registration hasn’t opened either (it was supposed to open in April). Promotor Dave Pryor is currently weighing options for a modified, socially-distant or smaller event, working with local State Forest and municipal officials, and gathering input from the riders themselves to make a decision that is best for all involved. But if he decides to hold the event, Pryor says he’s not worried about attendance, and stresses that people are craving that sense of community now more than ever. He also recognizes the wave of new cyclists that have discovered the sport recently, and wants to find a way to bring them into the fold.

Speaking of bringing in new riders: youth cycling organizations, which typically host fall race seasons, are also struggling with uncertainty about their fall events but have found a silver lining and opportunity to try new models of engagement. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League is testing out a “Local Dirt” event series of scrimmages between teams in the same region rather than large statewide races that would bring together hundreds of student athletes. In addition to minimizing COVID-related concerns, these smaller, local events also offer an opportunity for kids and families who might not have the time or means to travel across the state to races to still have that experience, and lowers the barrier to entry into the competitive aspect of mountain biking. The League is also shifting the focus from racing to more “adventure riding,” destination rides, and overnight trips that can be done in small groups. These changes and additions to the youth cycling program were in the works for a while, but the pandemic has refocused attention on them, accelerated their development, and proven the need for such a model. 

Despite the disruption, most bike shops are finding themselves busier than ever.

Nathan Baker opened up his shop, Hush Money Bikes, in Lancaster at the end of March and has seen a steady stream of business throughout the spring. Photo via Nathan Baker.

Though bike shops were not originally deemed essential under Gov. Wolf’s stay-at-home order, through the lobbying efforts of advocacy organizations such as BikePGH they were allowed to re-open as essential businesses under certain guidelines to ensure the safety of customers and staff. Until each county transitioned into the yellow phase of reopening, shops could only provide service, not sales, all of which was done in a contactless manner. Payments were generally made online, and bikes were thoroughly sanitized before delivering them back to the customer. Once shops could reopen for sales, many did so by appointment only for a while, or limited the number of customers allowed in the store at one time. Despite this newfound and sometimes tedious way of doing business, most bike shops still found themselves busier than ever. Many shops report weeks-long — or even month-long — backlogs of repair orders. Lower-end bikes and some parts are nearly impossible to come by due to high demand and supply chain breakdowns due to the effects of the pandemic. 

“I think everyone was tired of being stuck at home..”

On the other hand, paddling shops and outfitters were forced to shut down for a couple of months, and, as their business models rely on in-person sales and shuttle services to stay afloat, it was a scary time. Layoffs and major expense cuts were common across the board. But once they were allowed to get back to business, people did flock back, eager to get out on the water. “Once we were able to reopen we sold most of our inventory within a few weeks and people were also anxious to book trips and get outside,” says Mary Gibson of Blue Mountain Outfitters in Marysville, PA. “I think everyone was tired of being stuck at home, and between that and nice weather all outdoor activities are stronger than usual.” However, she also notes continued difficulties in getting inventory, and outfitters across the state have to operate under physical distancing guidelines that limit the number of people on trips, cutting into the bottom line as more vehicles, gas and shuttle drivers are needed for fewer paying people.

Enjoying some solitude on Standing Stone Creek in Huntingdon County, PA. Photo via Helena Kotala.

Some businesses in the outdoor industry were able to pivot to directly meet the demand for entirely new products that arose because of the pandemic. Organic Climbing and its sister company, Nittany Mountain Works, sews crash pads and chalk bags for bouldering, bike bags, and other general outdoor gear in Philipsburg, PA. Shortly after the non-essential business shutdown order, the small, solar-powered manufacturer was able to get an exemption to remain open to use its sewing talent and streamlined system to make thousands of masks. A portion of these masks were donated to healthcare workers, and many were sold at wholesale pricing to businesses to provide for their employees. In addition to adding a new, in-high-demand product to their line-up, the company also witnessed a steady surge of orders of other outdoor gear, especially crash pads. This coincides with a noted increase in the building of home climbing walls due to climbing gyms being shut down, and perhaps the fear of returning to such a high-touch public environment anytime in the near future.

“In order to survive we have had to reevaluate every aspect of our business model and lifestyle…”

Despite the record number of people on trails and new faces in the outdoors, central Pennsylvania based map-maker Purple Lizard Maps notes that Covid actually had a detrimental effect on business. “The national shutdown closed our entire retail network across the Mid-Atlantic region, which meant we had zero dealer orders as every major buyer put an immediate stop to purchase orders,” says owner Mike Hermann. “We had to lay off our staff, and cease production on new maps because we could not hold meetings with land managers, nor could we access those forests the way our business model normally operates. In order to survive we have had to reevaluate every aspect of our business model and lifestyle — as have our dealers and many of our customers.” Luckily, Purple Lizard was able to implement a customer-direct sales model on their website to keep some cash flow going.

While Hermann anticipates an uncertain next year of business, he does expect a brighter future for the outdoors and outdoor industry as a whole.

“The upside is there was a tremendous increase in people exploring the outdoors, and we’re hopeful that sets a trend for a future generation to understand and appreciate the value of our public lands.”

I think that’s what we’re all hoping for.