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Outdoor and Fitness: Working Together, Our Industries Will Grow

Last October, SNEWS took the rather bold step of suggesting that the fitness and outdoor industries could learn a lot from each other, should work together and, in fact, in many ways were already co-mingling, albeit still "holding hands in the dark" for fear someone would see them together.

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Last October, SNEWS took the rather bold step of suggesting that the fitness and outdoor industries could learn a lot from each other, should work together and, in fact, in many ways were already co-mingling, albeit still “holding hands in the dark” for fear someone would see them together.

The time has come to boldly step out of the dark and to pop the question, folks.

Both industries are in need of fresh blood, new participants, more diversity, and younger enthusiasts to keep them fueled and robust — and they only need to look to each other to find them. No, we aren’t suggesting that you steal the other’s enthusiasts, although that might be the knee-jerk oh-no reaction by some to that suggestion. Instead, we firmly believe based on surveys, data, trends, and face-to-face conversations that each industry can help feed the other’s future in a beneficial two-way exchange that will also improve the health of the nation.

For years, the government has been presenting increasingly depressing statistics about the trend in the U.S. — and also in the world — of the growing percentage of overweight, overfat, and obese people coupled with the unchanging percentage of people who either do no human-powered activity whatsoever or do not participate in enough movement to get any kind of health benefit. In a SNEWSbyte on April 8, we summarized yet another round of depressing numbers: Chronic illness caused by lack of exercise, poor diet and smoking is now the leading cause of death in every part of the world except sub-Saharan Africa and, in the United States, some 13.5 million people have coronary heart disease, while 7 of 10 U.S. adults don’t exercise regularly and 4 of 10 don’t at all.

Fitness and sports medicine conferences have been batting these numbers around forever, trying to figure out the behavioral changes needed to alter them for the world’s good, as well as for Jane and Joe Public’s health and happiness. Only recently has the outdoor industry begun to hear presentations about these horrific statistics. At last year’s Outdoor Industry Rendezvous — an annual gathering of outdoor business leaders to motivate, educate, and promote new thinking and ideas — attendees were shocked to hear how obese the country is and how it is getting fatter by the day. In fact, at that Rendezvous, a CDC speaker told this industry that getting outdoors to get healthy would be a fitness initiative the CDC could and would rally behind. That suggestion came and went — without action.

At this year’s Rendezvous in early April, such numbers and discussions came up again and again — and to one SNEWS editor who has circulated in fitness circles for some two decades it was a surprise to hear presentations that, with eyes closed, could have placed the editor at any fitness gathering, rather than at an outdoor event.

In addition, at this month’s Outdoor Industry gathering, came preliminary survey results from a Participation Study done by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) — to be released next month (go to for details) — that left attendees wondering who would be around to fuel outdoor recreation in the future.

In sum, 149 million Americans (of 287 million total U.S. population) participate in an outdoor activity once a year. Sound good? Wrong. Only 47 million of those are the “enthusiasts,” the zealots if you will, who are frequent participants, who fuel gear sales and industry growth. Note too that the survey isn’t limited to the hang-from-fingertips-from-rock crowd, but includes car camping, bird watching, and hiking. And for the first time the OIA included “walking for fitness” as an outdoor activity.

We all know that most outdoor recreation enthusiasts do some kind of other workout — be it lifting weights at a gym, taking indoor cycling classes, practicing yoga, or running or walking — to get or to stay in shape for the recreation they look forward to that will happen either on weekends, during the summer, or perhaps only on a vacation once or twice a year. Come on now, admit it, you DO go to the gym and, no, we won’t tell anyone your little secret.

We also know that health club members, regular runners, yoga class participants, and fitness walkers, among others, go on hikes, mountain bike, backpack, car camp, paddle and do other recreational activities — also on weekends, in the summer, or on vacation.

Get over the worry right now that if an outdoor person goes to the gym they’ll stop going outdoors, and get over it now that if a fitness participant learns to backpack or rock climb they’ll stop paying their gym dues. It’s not true, never has been true, and never will be true. The two pursuits feed off of and support each other. It’s just impossible for most normal people with normal lives and normal (packed) schedules to head outdoors more than once a week, and sometimes even once a month may be pushing it.

What does that mean? Gore-Tex jackets, Vibram soled-boots, CoolMax shirts, climbing shoes, or camp stoves are something that health club members and fitness folks need. Weight gloves, Swiss balls, home gyms, hand weights, or club memberships are something outdoor recreaters need. That also means that outdoor folks want to know how to train their muscles and bodies to be better climbers, paddlers, hikers and the like, while fitness participants are dying to know why they should invest in high-end and high-tech clothing (and where to get it), how to pack their backpack more efficiently, and what kind of Body English will help them be better bikers.

Are we getting somewhere now? We are talking about both industries cross-pollinating to sell needed gear, as well as to offer education and resources and to share facilities, all of which in the long run will increase participation numbers and the bottom line for both fitness and outdoor AND break the trend of more obesity and less activity.

Let’s say this again: Companies in both industries will be able to reap the financial rewards. And we’ll all be able to feel good about helping the public get more fit, more healthy, a lot happier, and enjoy the fresh air and beauty of the outdoors.

Take a look at the OIA participation results and the ensuing recommendations presented at the gathering in our story on the preliminary results. The OIA says the outdoor industry ought to focus on getting the large pool of non-zealot participants (about 102 million) to become more enthusiastic since that pool is not only large but those in it also already know they kinda like this outdoor stuff. Allegedly easier converts, right? The OIA also makes these preliminary recommendations to reel them in, including: Know your local climbing gyms, get involved in urban recreation such as at parks and rec departments, promote nearby camping, and get involved in walk- or bike-to-school programs. It also tells the industry to encourage an active lifestyle since that may encourage participation in outdoor “human-powered” recreation (sitting in boats or on motorized vehicles doesn’t count).

But a glaring omission from the recommendation that SNEWS sees clearly is the opportunity for outdoor retailers and outdoor suppliers to work with health clubs and fitness facilities. Isn’t that where people with already active lifestyles are? Doesn’t that seem like an obvious cache of potential enthusiasts? They are already fit. Just show them how, when, why, and how it contributes to fitness, and they’ll be the first in line.

We’d like to offer some off-hand thoughts about what could work for both industries.

Opportunities for the outdoor industry, both retailers and suppliers: For fitness facilities and clubs, the biggest issue is how to keep members from falling off the wagon and dropping out (they call it “member attrition” and not the more unsightly “dropping out”). Usually, offering a variety of programs, special classes, and seasonal outings, as well as education and social opportunities is key. But most facilities can’t afford to do it all. Here are a couple of suggestions. Note that suppliers can work with local retailers to advocate joint activities with fitness clubs, and possibly offer discounts, tech reps, or demo gear to the retailer. Or a supplier can work directly with area fitness facilities:

  • Educational talks — Make contact with local health clubs. Offer to put on occasional free talks keyed to the season — such as how to pack a backpack, what kind of skis are best for you, how to get started mountain biking, where to find local trails of interest, what’s the difference between fabrics and their purpose? Look around the store, and you could likely come up with a topic to go with about any piece of gear you have on a shelf. Take coupons to the talk for a discount for a certain purchase to encourage members to come by.
  • How-to workshops — Maybe a club has indoor cycling classes or a climbing wall, but perhaps you can offer a true climbing expert or competitive cyclist to talk tips from the real world and work on technique. Coupons, as above, are handed out.
  • Discount relationships — Many clubs like to offer members an affinity benefits package, much like an auto club does. Go to xyz retailer, show your membership card, and get an automatic discount. Make sure you’re on that list. If they don’t have a list, make yourself the first on it.
  • Outdoor outings — Clubs often arrange — if they have the resources — such seasonal outings as whitewater rafting, weekend hiking clubs, and ski trips. Make it easier. Offer to supply some gear and a knowledgeable leader. This could be fee-based for long trips, or free if just area hikes. Coupons and cards, as usual, are handed out.
  • Newsletter ads and stories — Clubs also often have newsletters they are scraping to fill with information. Offer an occasional how-to column, with a plug for your store or company at the bottom. Make sure it’s friendly and not too technical.

Non-outdoor enthusiasts can be intimidated to ask the simplest questions about gear, or even to walk into an outdoor shop. If you establish a relationship with a club, some of that intimidation may vanish, and you’ll gain loyal followers. The smart consequence, then, is to carry some gear that folks who travel in both outdoor and fitness circles need: hydration packs, wicking shirts, padded socks, hiking shorts, heart rate monitors, day packs, and plenty of women’s product, for example. Already, REI reports one of its largest growing categories is so-called OXT (Outdoor Cross-Training), which is a sneaky way of saying fitness. And Adventure 16 is showing television ads with a guy on a treadmill and encouraging people to “get fit outdoors.”

Opportunities for the fitness industry, both clubs, retailers and suppliers: Outdoor participants don’t like to admit they go to the gym, let alone run around looking for one. If a retailer doesn’t come to you or a club where your equipment is used, go to them. And look for places where outdoor participants might be since they need you too.

  • Discount memberships — Offer a discount on memberships or on one-time use fees, and make sure you get to all the sports and outdoor stores in your area to post flyers. Promote your club as a place to get in shape to get outdoors and have more fun.
  • Equipment discount pro-deals — Suppliers and retailers can develop partnerships where customers at a local outdoor retailer can get discounts on home equipment, even the big stuff like indoor cycling bikes or treadmills. Remember, you won’t be stealing from local health clubs since most studies have shown that those who have home workout equipment are just as likely to go to gyms also. Promote your gear as a way to get more fit for the outdoor activity. StairMaster, now owned by Direct Focus, has a new ad in trade fitness magazines to promote its indoor cycles showing a father and son outdoors on mountain bikes with the slogan “Get fit with StairMaster. Life is waiting for you.”
  • Educational talks — Even outdoor folks need some help designing weight-lifting programs or stretching workouts. Schedule such lectures or workshops, and promote them at local sports/outdoor stores. Or consider offering talks about designing sport-specific workouts in the store itself. Hand out one-time or one-week-free passes to attendees.
  • Partnerships with outfitters — Don’t forget about outfitters, or the companies that offer travel packages such as biking or walking trips. They often have at least one pre-trip meeting to answer questions and handout information. A fitness retailer can become a part of the education by giving tips on training, while clubs can handout free trial passes or discounts on memberships, even short-term ones structured for the upcoming trip. A club could also offer a room to hold the talks since it will get people coming in the door who may not normally dare it.
  • Creative memberships — Not all outdoor enthusiasts want to lay down lots of bucks since they may only go a couple of days a week or in the off-season. Get creative. Think about structuring “punch card” memberships so a non-regular user doesn’t feel locked in, but can come and go, paying only for their time there. Create seasonal membership so skiers can come in during the summer and backpackers in the winter.

Outdoor enthusiasts and non-club members often have the opinion that clubs are for beautiful people and everyone is only interested in how they look. So your representative to the outdoor community shouldn’t wear his or her spiffiest and trendiest fitness gear, but something more outdoorsy and casual. If you have someone who actually does hike or bike on the side, send him or her since they’ll understand and be able to communicate better.

The thoughts above are really only a start. New ways to approach PR, advertising, and marketing to attract crossover audiences are of course a given. Let these ideas get your creative juices flowing. And let us know what you come up.

Knowing the huge wave of inactivity breaking over our heads, the swell of obesity, and the lack of new blood in outdoor recreation and the benefits it offers to fitness club members, SNEWS wants to stop being baffled about why fitness and outdoor don’t look to each other to ride the crest to a win-win ending. The goals of the two groups are the same. Together, the two industries can conquer. Separately, they will paddle in circles in the fog.