07.28.2021

The Wavering Weekend:

How Leisure Brands will Flourish (or Falter) when Free Time Habits Change Post-Pandemic

Part Two: Outdoor Recreation

By: Jeremy Cesarec

Communications Director

Without question, the pandemic completely upended every routine—work, home, pastime, or otherwise.

Over the past few months, we’ve been considering the inevitable reorganization of recreational pursuits as life creeps back towards normal. The brands we work with are built for weekends and workshops: the products and services people turn to when the office lights go out, or they’ve hung up their hardhat. Since recreational habits are many and varied, we’re watching trends across a wide range of categories, from outdoor rec, to DIY, crafts, hobbies, cooking, eating, drinking, travel, and more.

Some categories and brands actually posted big gains in the past year—naturally outdoor rec benefited from many folks playing outside when they couldn’t play inside. We’ve honed in on some meaningful predictions for the unique year ahead that can help your brand take advantage of the ongoing recreational reordering.

Now that It’s Safe(r) to Be Indoors, Will We Still Play Outdoors?

My first social event after the March 2020 lockdown was a 40th birthday party on a cold Wisconsin evening. The celebration was tentative and a little fraught, but my buddy’s birthday gift, a new Solo Stove Bonfire, caught my eye while it kept our small socially-distanced crew warm. I wasn’t the only one. Within weeks, me and about six of my neighbors had ordered Solo Stoves, too; the prospect of months of chilly spring evenings ahead justified the splurge for a smokeless fire pit.

The rub? By the time I ordered, Solo Stoves were backordered several weeks. The rush to find outdoor distractions was at an all time high, and manufacturers were backlogged. Soon sidewalk chalk was nearly impossible to find (I saw a price-gouging pack going for $30 online). As the pandemic stretched on and summer travel was suspended, boats and bikes were sold out, too. By late fall, snow shoes were the new back-ordered bonanza and backyard sauna kits had a three-year waiting list (if my neighbor is to be believed).

Brands in the outdoor recreation space are asking themselves: are these changes permanent (or at least somewhat enduring)?

It was clear that behaviors were changing: indoorsy folks of all ages were stepping out, either as a way to safely socialize or just venture beyond their claustrophobic homes. Even as we inch our way out of solitude, some delightfully quirky trends are still popping up: pickleball, once reserved for retirees, is now catching fire with younger folks, and adult hula hooping is hot.

The call of the wild, previously muffled by Disney World and air conditioned matinees, came through clearly in summer 2020. Last summer, fishing license applications in our home state of Wisconsin jumped a bunch, and by the time the initial lockdowns subsided, some National Parks like Yellowstone and the Smokies saw increased late-summer traffic over 2019 visits.

Brands in the outdoor recreation space are asking themselves the same question as DIY brands: are these changes permanent (or at least somewhat enduring)? Will a reopening of cinemas, restaurants, music venues, and gyms mean a big drop in snowshoe and fire pit sales come 2022? More Sunday afternoons as the sports bar means fewer on the hiking trail; yet there’s cause for optimism.

First, we’re already seeing an unprecedented short-term demand for all of the indoor entertainment that’s been on hold, everyone’s flocking to the indoor venues we’ve all missed so much, there isn’t room for all of us at once. Since many of the 110,000 restaurants and bars that shuttered in 2020 won’t reopen (plus countless music venues, cinemas, theaters, and entertainment complexes), folks might have to pare back their expectations of a post-COVID Roaring 20s for a couple more years. Pastimes with fewer capacity constraints—including outdoor sports and rec—will likely reap the rewards of long lines and inflationary prices at theme parks, cocktail lounges, and NBA arenas. The fact that some National Parks (and surrounding towns) are already getting overwhelmed this summer suggests that some 2020 travel preferences are sticking around.

Another plus is that in many cases, folks have now made significant investments in equipment and hardware for their newfound outdoor activities. Whether it’s fishing rods, kayaks, or kettle smokers, they’ll want to make the most of the money they’ve sunk into their new hobby. And as any hobbyist knows, you’re always just one more purchase away from the perfect arsenal: new road bike owners will be looking for roof racks, novice golfers will want to upgrade their putters, and beginner skiers will want that 900-fill-power parka they regret not buying last season.

Another advantage for outdoor rec, one not enjoyed by the DIY sector, is that outdoor activity isn’t something you’d outsource. These are pure leisure pursuits with intrinsic rewards. They provided head-clearing solace during an emotionally tough year. While some folks will certainly return to their pre-pandemic pursuits, a lot of us are reflecting on the benefits we’ve seen from slowing down, spending more time in nature, sharing deeper connections with family, and other merits that outdoor activities deliver.

"I don’t want to return to days that unfold like a race to the bedtime finish line."

While a return to a pre-pandemic world will be a boon overall, there are some new habits that we’ll want to preserve, as Manoush Zomorodi so eloquently expressed in her a Medium essay, "I don’t want to return to days that unfold like a race to the bedtime finish line."

Will these new perspectives persist? It’s hard to predict. Maybe after a year plus of home cooking, lounging in sweatpants, and self haircuts (or skipping haircuts altogether), there will be an equal and opposite reaction to this simpler life. But it’s just as likely that frivolous materialism won’t return quite as strongly as before.

41% of Millennials and Gen Z saved more than usual in Q1 to prepare for increased spending as the country reopens. (Mass Mutual)

Younger generations were already prioritizing experiences over things, and a year of minimal options seems to have heightened that desire. In March, 30% of Gen Z and Millennials said the financial lesson they’d impart to younger generations is: “spend money on experiences rather than tangible purchases.” Plus Millennials and Gen Z have saved more money than older generations on average during the pandemic, with 39% saving $1000 or more and 41% saying they saved more than usual in Q1 to prepare for increased spending as the country reopens.

The Upshot for Outdoor Rec Brands

If you’re in the outdoor rec business, we have several recommendations for how you can tip the scales in your favor as the post-pandemic era begins:

Highlight Complementary Products

Brands that acquired lots of new fans last year should be thinking about the next step along their customers’ journeys. Whether it’s accessories or a newfangled major product launch, give folks a reason to feel the excitement they felt the first time they splurged on your product. For example, this spring and summer, Solo Stove’s been heavily promoting their charcoal grill, hoping to attract some of its fire pit fanatics to migrate to their outdoor cooking products. (If your trusty writer hadn’t sprung for a Santa Maria Weber attachment last summer, the Solo grill would probably be on my wishlist.)

Make Hay While the Sun Is Shining (Figuratively and Literally)

The goal should be to reinforce newfound outdoor hobbies ASAP. Turn what may have been a COVID-necessitated blip into a lifelong obsession.

Despite vaccination progress, the world won’t be fully open this summer, and indoor options will still be limited for more cautious folks. So don’t let up: stay connected with your audience via newsletters, special promotions, and other incentives. That’ll help your audience resist the considerable pull to return to their old shopping habits once the world gets back to normal. Soon your biggest competition won’t be the other brands in your category, but the dozens of unrelated things consumers have forgone these past many months. Don’t miss this chance.

Inspire with Lifestyle-focused Content

Stay connected with new enthusiasts by underscoring that you’re not just selling products, you’re selling a better life. Your products allow buyers to enjoy the invigorating effects of the great outdoors. It’s important for your fans to see your offerings as part of a new identity they’ve forged.

Consider an unexpected tactic for some good old fashioned storytelling: print. Our client Duluth Trading Company’s exceptional catalog has been winning over fans with entertaining and engaging brand storytelling for decades, and the printed catalog as a whole has mounted a comeback in a digitally-saturated pandemic world. Even some digitally-native brands like Away luggage have created lifestyle-heavy magalogs in the past few years, showing that what’s old is new again when it comes to highlighting a lifestyle that your fans can aspire to.

On the flip side, digital newsletters are seeing a huge boom, and innovative marketers are using sponsorships and ads to reach highly-engaged, niche audiences. Now’s the chance to get in on the ground floor before increased competition drives up ad rates (as it has for every previous hot new digital tactic).

Play For Keeps

In a year when many sectors will struggle to crawl back from pandemic decimation, outdoor rec brands have an enviable, but still considerable, challenge: don’t get too comfortable. While external conditions favored this sector, there’s no guarantee that consumers won’t revert to pre-pandemic habits and hobbies quickly. Staying vigilant these next couple of years is crucial.

The brands that harness the current energy and turn their fans into lifelong devotees can look back on this period as a springboard that led to great things. We look forward to helping our partners in the “weekend brand” space stand out and win in the years ahead, and we hope to join forces with even more like-minded makers of passion-based products.

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