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Published in Economic Development

Outdoor recreation consumers shift behavior during pandemic

BY Sunday, December 20, 2020 04:30pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry within the Department of Natural Resources in May 2019, hoping to elevate the state’s status as a recreation destination. It’s tough competition with states like Utah, Colorado, Vermont and Maine, but Michigan has its own set of recreational assets, anchored by the Great Lakes and vast amounts of public land for backcountry activities. Brad Garmon was tapped to lead the office, and he says elevating the industry here means making connections with more traditional sectors like manufacturing. Aligning those sectors, which has accelerated during the pandemic, has been among Garmon’s priorities since taking the job.

When you got started in the job, connecting with sectors like manufacturing that may have not been tied into outdoor recreation was among your top priorities. How has that gone, particularly during the pandemic?

Really well. It’s weird to say, but I think it got expedited because of COVID in a lot of ways. In a lot of interesting ways, it actually forced me into a triage kind of thing. I went from ‘how do I systematically and strategically grow this industry’ to having to learn really fast what it’s made of and how can I keep it alive. I was building a lot more relationships really quickly to help figure out where the sectors were at.

Brad Garmon, director of Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry COURTESY PHOTO

Now I’m shifting back into more of a growth mode as we come out of this. At this point, we have this influx of consumers in the market and it’s really booming. How do we capture that and how do we merge with this new cadre of users?

What have you learned about consumer behavior and activity during the pandemic?

One of the real benefits of the creation of this office and creating a nexus point is just the access to data, especially on the consumer side. Consumer behavior is changing through the pandemic, and the partnerships with the private sector are so important. They’re more nimble about it. As an example, I was talking with (Boyne City-based) Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis the other day. They are seeing a market trend toward backcountry sports — downhill, cross-country, snowshoeing, things like that. When you dive into the retail for winter, they’re having some of the same (supply chain) issues as bikes. People are trying to get it before it sells out. That’s what we want and need: More of a responsiveness to consumer behavior the private sector is going to have. Michigan should be really good at backcountry — we have tons of backcountry opportunities. But do we recognize that in time and make sure people have the information to do it safely?

A recent U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report showed outdoor recreation had a 1.9 percent value add to Michigan’s GDP. Some of the Mountain West states are in the 3-percent range. How can Michigan grow that?

That (percentage) measures specialization, how much of your economy is made up of outdoor recreation. It’s a double-edged sword. You may have a market advantage or a special thing you’re doing or have a high degree of specific skills, tools or shops. On the other hand, it’s also a measure of the total economy. If you have a really big, diverse economy like Michigan, we may never get that big percentage. I take that percentage with a little grain of salt. But diversification is always the goal.

What effect will the federal Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law this year, have in Michigan?

It raised the maximum amount communities can ask for (from the Land and Water Conservation Fund). In terms of dollars, it’s big and it’s going to be good. It’s also an opportunity to start thinking about matching dollars and how we make sure communities have that. I’m encouraging a ‘let’s put all the cards on the table’ mentality. Those match dollars are going to have to come from somewhere. There will be millions of dollars more per year, but it means we might have to get creative with matching that. 

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