Outdoor gear joins coffee, jets as key Seattle industry
Companies catering to outdoors enthusiasts are an often overlooked but growing segment of the local economy, according to panelists at a Seattle Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday on the “Economics of Having Fun.”
In Washington state, companies providing clothing and equipment for outdoor recreation produce $22 billion in revenue and account for approximately 200,000 jobs annually, according to Brian Unmacht, COO at Kent-based Recreational Equipment Inc., better known as REI.
Nationwide, outdoor recreation businesses produce $646 billion in revenue and employ 6 million workers, Unmacht said. A substantial portion of that revenue and those jobs are in rural towns near state parks and wilderness areas where outdoor recreation drives the local economy.
The Puget Sound area is host to several national retailers including REI, Eddie Bauer and ExOfficio; adventure travel companies such as Evergreen Escapes, and equipment manufacturers such as Cascade Designs in Seattle's Sodo district and Redington, Sage and Rio on Bainbridge Island.
Panelists at the chamber luncheon also included Travis Campbell CEO of Redington, Sage and Rio; Ken Meidell, vice president of marketing and sales for Cascade Designs; Dan Moore, chief outings officer at EverGreen Escapes and Steve Bendzak, general manager of ExOfficio.
All five panelists agreed a key risk to the industry is dwindling access to the outdoors as budget cuts shut down state parks and fewer people grow up learning how to camp outdoors. They described a “nature deficit disorder” whereby children are more likely to play soccer or baseball for their outdoor activity than to take a weekend to go camping with their time-starved parents. Then there’s the fear factor, with people afraid they will get into a situation they can’t handle out in the woods.
The myth is that “you go out, cheat death, suffer, smoke pot with your friends and tell stories,” said Meidell. But kidding aside, he said, learning how to camp can help teach kids to make good decisions and to understand that their decisions have consequences so they understand risk and how to control their environment.
The key challenge for the industry is to help people become comfortable outdoors, Campbell said. Some twenty-somethings won’t go anywhere where their cell phones won’t work, he said. The panelists recommended that companies support more programs introducing people to outdoors activities at local parks. That way they can build the experience and confidence needed to venture into state parks and wilderness areas.