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After the storm…then what?

How the outdoor industry can maximize community aid efforts before, during and after a natural disaster

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While the powerful natural disasters of the last few months have left a mark on our landscape, they’ve also highlighted a maxim that has been repeated countless times over the last quarter century – that outdoor retailers, outdoor brands and outdoor individuals can be counted on to pitch in after a storm.

The outdoor industry’s tradition of support for communities impacted by natural disasters has been highlighted countless times over the last 25 years. Part of the reason for this is that the outdoor industry has a lot of thoughtful, caring people, but another reason is that the industry has significant and meaningful connections – both personal and business – to gateway outdoor communities around the world.

And as we know all too well, gateway areas that have excellent front-row seats for the awesomeness of nature are also first in line when things take a turn for the worse.

OLOVESM owner Merle O'Brien donates bags to Florida outdoor retailers
Merle O’Brien has a personal connection to southern Florida, and she found a way to help retailers impacted by Irma: She’s donating hundreds of bags for them to sell at at their shops.Courtesy of Merle O’Brien

Through brick-and-mortar retailers in these communities, outdoor vendor brands also have a living and vibrant presence there, particularly during a major weather event or disaster. Their company’s name is on the gear that people happily desire during good times, but often desperately need in the darker ones. That direct relationship between outdoor vendor brands and outdoor businesses at the heart of impacted communities translates to more than just sales. It means they’re a part of these communities, too.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, outdoor industry writer and author Doug Schnitzspahn profiled the impact of the storm on a local Florida retailer. The piece detailed the impact on Florida’s Black Creek Outfitters, which spent the pre-storm moments equipping their local community with emergency items … and the post-storm days watching their business disappear.

A week after researching and publishing his article, the writer had some significant takeaways from his powerful piece. “Damn, it is hard to be in retail. Even when they do everything right it’s still hard,” said Schnitzspahn, who has covered the outdoor industry for more than two decades. “And as hard as it all is, the reason outdoor retailers are doing it is for their community—to be a part of their community in a way that’s more than just having a job.”

So what are the best ways to support gateway communities in the aftermath of a storm? How can vendor brands support impacted retailers, and help them get their business and their communities back on their feet?

  • Have a relationship. By definition, a crisis is an unplannable event. As you can’t predict random acts of nature, having a true relationship before the storm—and keeping open lines of communication with a local retailer during it—is the best way to ensure smart and effective action on all sides.
  • Understand your role. Disasters are a huge emotional drain on a community. Be compassionate and don’t force yourself into the picture. A local store may survive, but homes and schools and other cherished community resources may not.
  • Understand the timeline. Major disaster cleanups take years. And while charitable outpouring is relatively common (and sometimes overwhelming) in the immediate aftermath, the curve of giving declines rapidly over time.
  • Communicate with all parties. Whether you’re looking to send aid or just checking in on friends, it’s smart to widen your contact list to include everybody you can—owners, reps, managers. Some may not be reachable for days or even weeks.
  • Understand how important it is to a local community to get businesses up and running. Getting back to “normal business” is a sign of both resilience and survival. One of the first things that happens in the aftermath of a storm is the creation of rebuilding-focused business associations. Your strong local retailer will likely be at the heart of that effort.
  • Proactively postpone terms. It may sound obvious, but it’s essential. Postponing terms at least 30 days and likely longer is key. To enable your retailer to both recover and lead their community rebuilding effort, they’re going to need as much flexibility as possible.
  • Don’t send product in response to a disaster. Send money. Or people.
  • Leave the PR behind. Celebrating yourself while others are truly challenged is a bad move. Save the marketing effort for when local businesses are back on track and can truly maximize the spend to inject cash into their communities.
  • When things are back on track, throw a party. Never underestimate the power of a couple beers shared between friends.

Suggested reading

The Rescue Impulse: Communities and spontaneous volunteers are the real first line of response in the wake of natural disasters (CityLab, 2017)

Lessons learned from six weeks of Research on the Response to (Hurricane) Irene in Waterbury, Vermont (Rebuild Waterbury, 2012)