Rafting the Scenic Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon

Rafters on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.

Many segments of the outdoor recreation industry engaged in summer activities are reporting record sales, but that's tempered by substantial losses resulting from the beginning of the pandemic.

An industry call with reporters, sponsored by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, included a new survey showing the economic impacts, for good or bad, from the pandemic during summer 2020.

The survey showed "COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the outdoor recreation industry is showing signs of easing, with some turnaround from what was a devastating spring for the industry," according to an ORR statement.

The best news came out of the recreational vehicle, boating and motorsports manufacturers. Hardest hit: outfitters, including river rafting and those who do guided experiences, including hunting and fishing.

Scott Schloegel of the motorcycle industry council said that his industry, which includes manufacturers of motorcycles and off-road vehicles such as ATVs, hadn't yet recovered from the 2008 economic downturn. They also struggled early on this year from the pandemic as well as the tariffs resulting from President Trump's trade war with China. 

But that started to turn around when people began realizing that ATVs and other powersports are a "great way to social distance," as opposed to being trapped in a car, he said. Off-road sales are up 53%, and many dealerships reported record sales in May and June. People are taking advantage of logging roads and other state and federal trails. More often than not, he said he'll see a camper or RV with a dirt bike strapped to the back. "As a whole, there's an uptick in the industry," Schloegel said.

Boating, too, is seeing a surge in sales, according to John Michael Donohue of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Consumer demand has spiked significantly for boats since the pandemic began, he said. Powerboat retail sales were up 59% in May over April, and 20% year to year. It's led by sales of more affordable entry-level personal watercraft, Donohue said. "Traditional vacations are being canceled, so people are looking for safe and responsible ways to do R&R." It's a "rosy, positive picture" for the industry, he said.

The one downside, which was true for much of the industry: supply chain disruptions, whether a lack of parts or getting in new stock. The ORR survey said 91% of businesses in the industry overall are experiencing supply chain problems, either in production or distribution.

Recreational vehicle sales also are doing great, according to Monika Geraci of the RV Industry Association. RV dealers had the best July for shipments that they've had in four decades, she said. Much of that is from first-time buyers, who represent 55% of sales, as well as buyers under 45 years old, especially in the last three months. Van camper sales are up 49% year over year, she said. 

And that hasn't slowed with the fall and beginning of the school year. Geraci said they're seeing a second wave of sales from families ad professionals who can work and learn from an RV. 

However, the first 6-8 weeks of the year took a toll, she said, with the entire industry down about 10%. 

The news wasn't all good. 

Campground concessionaires have taken a big hit this year, as have outfitters, according to industry representatives. Member businesses reported in the survey that 47% had laid off or furloughed at least a part of their workforce in the early months of the pandemic, although 36% now report they are not only hiring but struggling to find workers. 

Marily Reese of the National Forest Recreation Association reported that many of her members shut down entirely, unable to meet COVID-19 regulations for group dining or housing. The Paycheck Protection Program has helped out this year, but these operators will not survive a second year of shutdown.

The one bright light in the industry: passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which will mean improvements at many national parks.

Aaron Bannon of America Outdoors represents the outfitters, and said some have done well but most have had to operate at a reduced capacity based on guidelines from public land agencies. The narrow season for many of these operators means they had no revenue for three months at a time when they would have generated 90% to 100% that would have carried them through the year. About 20% of outfitters didn't open at all this year, he said. 

Bannon, as well as other members of the roundtable, are advocating for Congressional relief for the recreation industry. 

He cited the example of Denali Mountaineers in Alaska. Once the pandemic hit, Denali National Park announced it would not allow mountaineering, which shut down the entire season. Outward Bound USA pulled all of its backcountry operations and maintained a skeleton crew for urban experiences. And outdoor rafting companies lost the first month of the season, with many not beginning to operate until mid-July.

Outfitters couldn't make up losses due to existing permits that govern how many people they can have on the river per day, or the number of people in a campground or on a public land experience, Bannon said.

Thursday's call did not include the snow sports portion of the industry.

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