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Unpredictable weather makes for an unpredictable business

While the outdoor industry looks to combat the possible long-term effects of climate change, independent short-term weather patterns — warm or cold, dry or wet — swing the pendulum on which outdoor categories have a good year and which don’t. And it’s not as clear-cut as your think.

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The past two years have been a glimpse at how warmer weather can rapidly reshape the business of the outdoors. While some deny the anecdotes, testimonies and science behind the changing climate, there is one metric that everyone can agree on: the profits and losses of weather-dependent industry segments. The fact is, climate affects snow sports, mountain biking, kayaking and fly fishing. Yet not all segments in the outdoor industry are affected in the same way.

For instance when there is drought, fly fishermen flock to streams of stranded fish. When the winter is warm, mountain bikers hit the hills as if it were summer. The relationship between weather and sport can be very complex, but some correlations are clearer than others. Here is a look at four segments of the outdoors and how they are affected by the ever-changing environment.

Snow Sports

It should come as no surprise that the strength of the snow sports industry mirrors the strength of the snow. Yet there is another longer term climate phenomenon that has plagued the ski industry for the past decade: delayed snowfall.

“In the late ’90s or early 2000s we started to see this shift toward selling product later in the year because snow came later in the year,” said Jason Gee, vice president of retail sales and tracking for Leisure Trends Group, a group that tracks data for the Snowsports Industries Association. A late winter is a retail double whammy; not only is holiday spending over, ski season is shortened because consumers shift their attention to spring sports.

If retailers attempt to bet on Mother Nature, they can get burned, as Dick’s Sporting Goods found out this year. The national outdoor and fitness retailer slashed its cold-weather outdoor inventory when it seemed as if winter would continue its absence this season. But the new year brought new snow, and officials said the retailer missed out on fulfilling increased demand.

“Here we are in February and we have better snow than we’ve had all season, and everything is on sale,” Gee said. Shorter seasons have left brands and retailers with inventory while resorts mitigate with stronger snow guns. But despite their efforts, a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters found that during 2011-12 season “50 percent of responding ski areas opened late and 48 percent closed early.” Some resorts, like Aspen Snowmass, have championed for progress against climate change. Others are watching to see if the past two seasons are an anomaly. All are moving toward a four-season resort model in an attempt to lure a new type of outdoor enthusiast: the biker.

There is a direct correlation between winter and bike sales; short, warm winters add extra months to the bike selling calendar while cold, long winters take months off. “Clearly the lack of winter in 2012 was good for the bike business in the early part of year, when we’re normally slow,” said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. First-quarter sales of bikes in dollars were up 20 percent from 2011 from 2012 while product sales, apparel and shoes were up 22 percent year over year. Mild winters allow bikers in warmer regions to recreate year round; something that ski resorts hope to offer to their visitors.

“Even smaller ski resorts are doing summer activities to utilize their infrastructure,” said Wesley Kryger, general manager of Upstate New York’s Greek Peak Ski Resort. Greek Peak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 because of weak snow and is coping until its sale with high efficiency snow guns and by becoming more seasonal. “We now have summer tubing, ziplines, and mountain biking.” Lift tickets for mountain bikers are now as commonplace as summer conferences and weddings. Yet ski resorts aren’t the only ones that have diversified against the seasons.

Paddle had a solid 2012 with online, chain, and specialty stores reaping in a 13.6 percent gain for paddle specific products (this is coming off the previous year’s increase of 5.6%). The numbers would make it seem that weak snowmelt and drought haven’t affected the category. A deeper look shows otherwise.

“Standup paddle boards are up 55 percent, but you don’t need running water for standup paddle. The other category that’s driving growth is recreational kayaks, where you take larger touring boats lake-bound,” said Gee. Some in the paddle industry, like SUP, are less prone to lower river waters. Others, like Mike Mills, founder of the Buffalo River Outdoor Center in Ponca, Ark., are not. Last year for the first time in 39 years, he had to relocate canoe trips down river for Labor Day because of low waters. That cost him 5,000 canoers. Luckily, he’s diversified his business to include ziplines, camping tours and lodging but, “if we were only in canoe — that would’ve been devastating.”

Another climate phenomenon that directly impacts paddlesports is the snowpack and timing of snowmelt. If snowmelt starts early or is low to begin with, the rivers rise during colder and less profitable months, leaving the warmer months at low levels. Once again, the data reflects the trend.

“Most of the sales [in the white water kayak category] happened in Q1 and then tapered off into the negative in Q3 and Q4,” Gee said.

Fly Fishing

Contrary to common thought, droughts are actually good for early season fly fishing. Low levels make fishing easier, leading to more catches, and happier customers. In June of last year, Colorado experienced one the worst droughts in the state’s history, yet fly fishing outfitters experienced a boom — some outfitters seeing as much as 50 percent year over year increases in guided trips.

But the temporary pleasures only last so long. If drought persists, state wildlife officials close off rivers to avoid overstressing fish populations. Even worse for fly fisherman is delayed snowfall. Snowmelt raises river levels and if too high, fishermen can’t get in the water. Bad for the fisherman, but good for fish. Good for paddle and snow sports, but bad for bike.

The reality is the relationships between climate and outdoor sports are complex. Exact correlations are hard to predict and even harder when looking at regional weather patterns. But one thing we can all agree on is the fact that climate changes. And when it changes, it affects our industries.

–Yoon Kim