By Eugene Buchanan
When Utah hosts its 7th Annual Outdoor Recreation Summit August 25-26, the largest conference of its kind, it will blend in-person and virtual components to help different industry sectors connect and discuss the future of outdoor recreation, particularly in light of COVID-19. The conference marks the first time content and sessions will be available virtually, reaching a wider audience. SGB Executive caught up with Pitt Grewe, Utah’s director of outdoor recreation, to talk about the summit, what attendees can expect and recreation issues affecting the state.
How is the virtual Summit being received? And how will it differ from the others? The Summit will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. We’ll be live-streaming a few panels with a small group of attendees to engage the panelist and ask questions. Those can be viewed in real-time, and viewers can submit questions to the moderators online. We’ll also have over 30 pre-recorded sessions that will become available on the day of the Summit and remain available for weeks after.
The feedback we’re hearing is really positive with watch parties being organized by different counties and states. This will let participants watch all of the different panels and then discuss the topics internally on how it applies to their organizations while still keeping in small groups and respecting health and safety norms. This saves time and money and is a great alternative to travel. We want to provide the same networking and engagement levels our summit has become famous for while following safety and health protocols. This is new territory for all of us, but we know our usual participants will help us make it fantastic and beneficial for everyone. That’s something the outdoor industry is famous for: turning a rough, unknown situation into a great experience and learning from it.
What changes in the outdoor industry — and outdoor recreation travel to Utah — have you seen due to the pandemic? Utah has always been popular for people living out their American road trip dreams. With the pandemic, it’s become even more popular. The RV, road trip and camping industries have been doing really well as people find ways to socially distance across our 35 million acres of public land. It’s great that people are taking advantage of it. But with more use comes challenges such as taking care of the environment and educating people on how to respect it. People accustomed to traveling to hotels and restaurants are learning that campgrounds don’t have maid service after you check out, and there are no garbage cans on every corner of a trail like there are in an urban setting. So, as people learn how to recreate, it’s important that we spread the message about recreating responsibly.
The pandemic has also been great for companies in the bike, outdoor cooking, fishing, and trail sports industries. Where people used to spend disposable income on events, travel, movies and things, now they’re spending it on activities that help them get out of the house and into wide-open spaces.
What are some of Utah’s biggest issues concerning outdoor recreation? How has COVID-19 affected it? Overuse and the popularity of outdoor recreation can be an issue. Not because it’s too much, but because sometimes it’s hard to keep up with popularity as far as creating and maintaining infrastructure to increase accessibility and provide the best experience. Luckily, Utah has always been very forward-thinking about supporting the growth of the outdoor recreation infrastructure. We have a substantial grant program to help get funding to projects that impact communities across the state.
Another issue is incorporating inclusive practices and programs into the outdoors. And with more people getting outside during COVID-19, it’s important that everyone feels accepted and comfortable exploring and recreating. Mother Nature is not racist and embraces people of all colors and levels. I think the outdoor industry should do all it can to help break down hurdles and barriers that prevent certain demographics from getting outside. Whether it is public access, cost of gear or outdoor education and opportunities, it’s something that all members of the industry need to work together on to ensure it is available to everyone. Our office does this in a number of ways, but one particular program is our “Every Kid Outdoors” initiative that helps get more kids from all backgrounds to experience the outdoors in a positive way here in Utah.
What measures has the state taken to curb COVID-19 among outdoor rec users? From the very first weeks of the pandemic, we worked with the state department of natural resources to partner with all the state and federal land management agencies to get the message out about not congregating, socially distancing from other recreaters, avoiding crowded trailheads and recreation locations, and not taking unnecessary risks that put first responders in danger. It’s called #Responsiblerecreation. At the same time, REI launched a very similar #recreateresponsibly. They are very complementary and both have helped reach a lot of people as they start to get outside.
Do you foresee virtual summits and tradeshows as the way of the future? What do attendees miss out on virtually? It will probably be the norm for the near future, and there will likely be a virtual option for most events for many years to come. The presentation and interaction factors will only improve and get better. For the outdoor industry, seeing friends and contacts in-person has always been a special part of tradeshows and summits. We are a very social group that loves to talk about adventures, trips, gear, and products. So, it will definitely take some getting used to in the virtual world. But, we are resilient and seem to always make the best of situations and keep moving forward.
How do we ensure the next generation can continue to pursue outdoor recreation in all its forms? Our office focuses a lot of energy on supporting and promoting kid’s programs and education. Whether that is through organized camps, classes and programs or by providing easier access for families and friends to get outside close to their homes, we try to reach as much of the next generation as possible. If there is one silver lining of living through this pandemic, it’s that I’ve noticed kids of all ages are spending more time outside, riding bikes, hiking, exploring their neighborhoods, and having adventures close to home. That is the best way to catch the vision of outdoor recreation and start to form healthy passions and habits that will last a lifetime. And Utah is a perfect place to do that. We are lucky to have all the access and recreation amenities we have here.
Photos courtesy Utah Outdoor Recreation