By Eric Smith

<span style="color: #9e9e9e;">Lise Aangeenbrug’s first month as executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has been challenging, to say the least.

Aangeenbrug began her tenure on March 1, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to truly impact U.S. businesses. Initially, the damage was limited mostly to companies’ supply chains, but in the past month, the growing pandemic became disastrous for many industries, including outdoor manufacturing and retail.

Many outdoor brands shifted their production lines to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), most outdoor retailers shuttered their doors and events such as Outdoor Retailer Summer Market—which accounts for a significant portion of OIA’s revenue—were canceled.

OIA is responding in a variety of ways, including resources on its website and regular webinars, including some with partner organizations such as Snowsports Industries America (SIA) and PeopleForBikes.

In another installment of SGB Executive’s series of interviews with industry leaders exploring how businesses are coping with the coronavirus, Aangeenbrug shares the challenges facing the outdoor industry, how OIA is helping member businesses cope and the industry’s path forward out of this unprecedented crisis.

How challenging has this been for you as ED and for the organization as a whole, especially when combined with the tariff situation that outdoor companies were already navigating? When I think about the outdoor recreation economy, I think about the entire ecosystem of what makes it possible, including the quality and quantity of parks, trails and open spaces; our outdoor retailers, brands and suppliers; the guides and outfitters that help people enjoy the outdoors; and our partner nonprofits that help protect our public lands and help people from all walks of life experience the fun, joy, wonder and health benefits of being outside. No part of that system has been spared the sudden and significant impacts from this pandemic. We are no different. When our members and partners are challenged, we are challenged.

While this is not how I envisioned the beginning of my tenure as executive director of OIA, I am up for the challenge of supporting the health of the outdoor industry. As an organization, we will adapt to the changing environment and shift our efforts to supporting the most pressing needs of the industry. What’s been encouraging in this difficult time has been the collaborative spirit of the OIA Board and staff, our members and our partners to find ways to provide resources to communities and to connect to find ways through this difficult situation together.

Are you able to quantify the economic impact of COVID-19 on the outdoor industry? At this point no. We have a survey out to our membership now, and we are calling members to find out how they are doing and what they need. What we are hearing anecdotally is that every part of our network is losing revenue, whether it’s retailers that cannot serve their customers and communities, brands that cannot deliver product to those retailers, or suppliers that are likely to see reduced demand as current product is not moving.

At the same time, can you say what the economic hit for OIA will be in terms of lost revenue from OR Summer Market and other top-line items? The cancellation of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market was the right decision, however it’s both a revenue loss and loss of opportunity to connect in person at a time when our community needs it most, and we are exploring ways to bring that connection virtually. Revenues and sponsorships around Outdoor Retailer Summer Market normally represent about 30-40 percent of our total annual budget. Like our members, we are looking at immediate ways to reduce our expenses and hone our services to our members.

What role is OIA playing in helping member companies navigate this crisis and what is your message to them? OIA has been a big part of pulling our community together for 30 years, and we are finding new ways to do that now. My first day as executive director was March 1. By March 9, we started to have discussions about how this might impact our world. By March 13, we made the decision to work remotely and formed a task force to meet twice weekly to quickly react to the situation and support the industry with tools and resources. We are regularly—almost weekly—talking with our board’s Executive Committee, which represents all facets of our industry, from retailers to suppliers. We very quickly established a COVID-19 resource center on March 19, with information on policies and resources that has been very well received by our members and partners. We held our first webinar on with guidance on accessing small business SBA loans with experts from the U.S. Small Business Administration on March 31; we had 1000 attendees on the webinar, a webinar record for OIA. This just shows the impact of the crisis and the need for information and support. We are holding webinars twice weekly on topics identified by members as important and we are engaging members regularly through phone calls and using LinkedIn communities and other virtual connections to our members and partners.

From a policy perspective, we are focused on the following:

  • Calling on the Trump administration for removal of all punitive China 301 tariffs and deferral of all tariffs on outdoor goods for 90 days to provide some breathing room for companies as they go through this unprecedented global pandemic.
  • Guiding federal and state governments to prioritize outdoor recreation businesses to be considered essential so that retailers can stay connected to their consumers—in a safe way.
  • Having federal and state governments increase investments and protections of our outdoor places—from the backyard to the backcountry.

We are navigating this with our members and our partners and will be doing joint webinars with Snowsports Industries America (SIA) and PeopleForBikes. We are working with the Conservation Alliance and the Outdoor Alliance around a collaborative webinar and amplifying the resources from other partners, such as Camber Outdoors, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, as well as all of our nonprofit partners working in conjunction with our Outdoor Foundation Thrive Outside Communities. We are also collecting and sharing the stories of our members and what they are doing to pivot and fund or help address COVID-19 impacts in their communities. Many member companies are contributing to food banks and finding other ways they can support communities in need.

I’m really proud of the OIA team and our partners for pulling together and stepping up in so many ways so quickly. This hasn’t been an easy time for anyone, yet everyone has come together and is being creative and flexible. I think these are some of the attributes that set our industry apart—innovation, flexibility and collaboration. It truly embodies our “Together We Are a Force” principle.

Specifically, how much will the stimulus bill provide a safety net for outdoor businesses and how is OIA helping companies understand it? The initial stimulus package had two key immediate programs where outdoor businesses could seek relief. Small business emergency economic injury disaster loans and a Paycheck Protection Program should help both small businesses and nonprofits weather closures and revenue loss. But there have been some hiccups in the rollout of the program, and our understanding is that demand will far outstrip the supply of dollars in this program. Congress is very likely to add funding and focus on additional ways to inject support and funding into our economy in the next few weeks.

We have explanations of the current programs and how to access them on our COVID-19 Resource Hub and we are holding webinars and regularly conferring with our partners and lobbyists in D.C. to provide the most up-to-date information to our members and anyone that wants to access that information right now for free on our website.

What will separate the brands and retailers that survive this crisis from the ones who don’t? This is a really difficult question to answer because so much of what is happening as a result of this pandemic is unprecedented. The swiftness with which everything was shut down—from the ski areas in Colorado and many of our public lands to retail shops and outdoor brands. Many businesses, no matter how well run in any sector, may not have the resources to weather 30-, 60- and likely 90-day closures. What may make the difference is how well you are set up and able to turn to your community and your partners for help. We’ve seen great stories of communities coming together to support retailers by buying gift cards to use in the future. You’ve seen brands like Toad&Co donate a portion of online sales to their specialty retailers.

People have a desire to get outside during this pandemic (hopefully they are being safe about it); what does that say about the role this industry plays in society and is there an opportunity to grow outdoor participation once this situation has passed? Those of us who work in the outdoor industry know the transformative power of the outdoors. But that hasn’t always been the case for everyone. Our participation data indicates that fewer than 20 percent of Americans experience the fun, joy and wonder of being outside twice per week, and roughly 50 percent say they don’t get outside to hike, bike, fish or camp even once per year. But what I have seen during the past few weeks provides a glimpse of a renewed appreciation and an increased desire for being outdoors. There are teenagers out walking together on the trails, families on bikes, kids building makeshift dirt jumps for bikes, and people in their yards looking to connect outside at a safe social distance. It’s different from even just a few months ago, and it’s palpable. People are craving the outdoor connection. We are reading stories from across the country describing how people are feeling about nature and the outdoors and a recognition that the outdoors is the very embodiment of freedom.

This gives me a great deal of hope. The spark is in us all, and as we come through and out the other side of this pandemic, people want to be outside. We can help ensure they have places to play and comfortable and safe ways to explore the outdoors. It’s our job as an outdoor community to help people put down their phones, get off the couches, get out their doors and reconnect in the outdoors. Now more than ever, we need to thrive outside.

Photo courtesy OIA