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Calling all campers: What can be done to stem declining participants

Outdoor University at Outdoor Retailer session highlights causes for 2012’s drop in camping participation, and why it matters.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

The flurry of statistics rolled out at the “Understanding the Camping Consumer” session at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market put numbers behind the sentiment that the outdoor industry needs to adjust to accommodate a changing base of consumers — and that the gaps in current sales may come from surprising sources.

The American Camper Report shows 2012 with the lowest numbers of campers in the seven years the data has been collected, down to 38 million from 2011’s 42.5 million.

“If camping stays on the same approach and does as it has been doing, the projection is not good,” said Neil Schwartz, vice president of market and consumer insights for SportsOneSource, the engine behind Outdoor Industry Association’s VantagePoint sales data. “The industry has to accept that right now it’s got a lot of challenges, but within those challenges are also a lot of opportunities. It’s not business as usual.”

The median age of campers is creeping upward from 29 in 2006 to 33 in 2012, and, despite changing demographics in the U.S., 82 percent of people who camp are white.

“We all know that the way we address a consumer today is going to be different from the way we address a consumer tomorrow,” said Ivan Levin, director of Outdoor Nation with the Outdoor Foundation, one of the presenters at the panel.

That means learning to speak to a younger audience that may be more prone to shop online than current consumers, and a more diverse audience that needs to be welcomed to the woods with language that highlights components that appeal to those younger, more diverse audiences — namely, the social aspect of camping as a time to spend with friends and family.

And why do we care so much about camping? It’s the gateway activity to a life of outdoor sports.

“Once you get someone outside and they spend a night outside, then they go, ‘Wow, I really want to hit that trail or that river that’s next to my campsite, I want to paddle that river,’” Levin said. “Camping, people assume, ‘Oh, it’s something that I can do rather easily,’ and then when they’re doing that activity, the exposure to everything else just kind of rolls right in.”

One of the surprises in the numbers was that 13.6 million people who went camping in 2011 didn’t return to the activity in 2012, so even with 9.1 million people trying it for the first time, that’s a net loss of more than 4 million participants — and their purchases.

Levin also encouraged looking at the 30 percent of car campers who go only once a year.

While there’s nothing to be done about the primary reason people cite for not going camping more often — a lack of time — the runner-up reason is a lack of someone to go with, and that’s a problem retailers could craft programs or network with nonprofits to solve.

Levin said, “I think it’s imperative for this industry that we address these concerns now, because if not, there will not be an industry in the future.”

–Elizabeth Miller