According to research conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, 53 percent of Americans ages 6 and over took part in outdoor recreation at least once in 2020—the highest participation rate on record. In fact, 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than the year prior. This growth presents a tremendous opportunity for outdoor activity providers, including aerial adventure parks, camps, and others.
Though for many people outdoor recreation meant walking, hiking, and jogging—close-to-home activities with low barriers to entry—plenty of others took part in more adventurous activities, like zip lines and canopy tours, creating a large new visitor group for aerial parks.
So, who are these new faces? A 2021 “New Outdoor Participant Special Report,” commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) in partnership with Naxion, illustrated some interesting nuggets about who, exactly, journeyed outside last year. Among the findings: compared to 2019, outdoor participants in 2020 were
- more likely to be female (58 percent vs. 49 percent);
- younger (average age of 45 vs. 54)
- slightly more ethnically diverse (66 percent white vs. 71 percent); and
- more likely to live in urban areas (36 percent vs. 29 percent).
Of course, these figures represent all outdoor activities, but when boiled down to adventure parks, operators have had similar observations.
“Looking at [pandemic]trends across the board, anecdotally, we’ve seen more diversity in terms of visitors—race, age, etc.,” says Candie Fisher, VP of sales and marketing for The Adventure Park’s five locations in Virginia, New York, Tennessee, and Connecticut. “We’ve also seen increased local visitation as well as a jump in folks road tripping from three or four hours away.”
A changing customer base. Topher Kerr, GM at TreeTop Adventures in Canton, Mass., notes similar trends. He says that when TreeTop opened for 2021, numbers—which, like much of the industry, had taken a hit in 2020—immediately bounced back to 2019 levels, but with some notable differences.
“We saw a trend that the families and small groups of friends that were coming to climb in our park were increasingly diverse,” says Kerr. “I don’t have any numbers to support this, but there was a significant increase in African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, and Middle-Eastern American families climbing in 2020, and this trend has continued.”
Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge in southern West Virginia, echoes that. “We are seeing a much more diverse customer base starting in 2020 and continuing into 2021,” says Wilson. “It’s difficult to determine how much of that was because of a concerted effort on our part to market to a more diverse audience, and how much was due to the national park influence [the state’s 73,000-acre New River Gorge was named a national park in early 2021], but we do believe many of the new visitors will turn into long-term customers, and we are most definitely marketing that way.”
A GREAT OPPORTUNITY
So, what do all these new faces mean for the outdoor industry moving forward? Though it may be too soon to tell which consumers—and consumer trends—will stick around, the OIA report emphasizes two important points: “These new outdoor participants represent an unprecedented opportunity to grow and diversify the outdoor community,” it says. “But to capitalize on this opportunity, we need to better understand these participants.”
And the window may be small to engage with these new guests before they revert to screens, restaurants, and gyms.
Parks have responded, tweaking marketing in an effort to target both new and long-time guests. Fisher says The Adventure Park has created several different digital marketing campaigns in hopes of reaching both markets.
“For return visitors, we’re doing more promotion around season passes and the like,” says Fisher. “With new visitors, we’re doing a good job making sure they have a great experience and doing follow up—keeping them in our email and SMS marketing, keeping the conversation going with them.”
One of the big things The Adventure Park locations did throughout 2020 and this year is reach out and share info, even when parks were closed, with “ongoing communication, reminding people of the benefits of coming outside,” adds Fisher.
Targeting urbanites. Wilson says Adventures on the Gorge has seen a continued uptick in urban visitors from “driving-distance” cities including Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. In response, it updated its collateral to show a more diverse customer that better represents its visitor base. The park’s marketing is focusing on “going after specific markets that make sense based on distance and socio-economic factors.”
The Adventure Park has done a lot of advertising and marketing around its locations’ drive markets as well, though the three-to-four-hour road trip crowd has tapered off slightly. “Generally, we’re continuing to see people do road trips in 2021, though it was more pronounced in 2020,” says Fisher. “In 2021, we’re seeing people who’ve come from further away in our park locations that are more tourist-oriented (Nashville, Virginia Beach), so I’m assuming people are flying again.”
New customers, new expectations. Along with seeing a variety of new customers, says Wilson, “We are seeing different expectations. People who have only vacationed in cities or more traditional resorts, for example, seem surprised that the roads leading to our campsites and cabins aren’t paved. So, we’ve had to make sure people understand that while we do have luxury cabins, we are still an outdoor adventure center, and that comes with all the advantages—and disadvantages—of the outdoors.”
EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES
In 2020, Millennials flocked to aerial adventure. Adventure Park Insider’s 2020 “State of the Industry Report” showed a nine-point increase in visitation among adults aged 18 to 34. They comprised 30 percent of all visitors, compared to 21 percent the prior year. Since the work-from-home model persists, this trend could present a great opportunity to create programming specific to young professionals or to focus on the Millennial market in a new way. Events can play an important role in this.
In 2020, The Adventure Park saw an increase in large family groups and multi-generation family groups coming together at its locations. This year, the parks are seeing a more young-adult demographic—a market they’re actively capitalizing on, says Fisher, with more promotions around “date nights,” Glow in the Park, and other events that appeal to young adults sans kids.
“It could be because they’re dying to socialize, but visitors in their 20s and 30s, mostly without kids, are coming for date nights and evenings out,” says Fisher. “We’re really pushing the message that parks are not just for kids and doing a lot of marketing around that demographic.”
To keep folks active in the outdoors, Fisher says three Adventure Park locations—Nashville and both Connecticut parks—added axe throwing on weekends, which attracted another new demographic, many of which didn’t know about the parks before. The activity, which included fire pits and BYOF(ood), enabled all three parks to stay open year-round, and will continue in 2021.
To further target the remote-work crowd, many parks added outdoor work spaces and free Wi-Fi in 2020, a well-received and fairly benign addition that will continue. Other programs created to cater to the pandemic crowd didn’t fare as well. For example, a drop-off program The Adventure Park tested in 2020, in which parents could pay an extra fee to drop off kids for four hours, didn’t get much traction and was discontinued.
Though parks have used online reservation systems for a while, they became the norm in last year’s contactless world and are now the preferred booking method moving forward. Some operators say that they’ll only offer online reservations, with walk-ins a thing of the past.
Online bookings only. Kerr says that TreeTop has used The Flybook online booking software since 2016, but implemented a strict online-only reservation policy in 2020. “This year we have continued this policy, and it has streamlined the check-in process,” he says. “Most people during 2020 started to say ‘goodbye’ to cash and were forced to order and pay for many more items and services online. Our online reservation policy will remain in place because of the steep learning curve that people experienced in 2020.”
Wilson agrees. “Online bookings are not going anywhere,” he says. “The pandemic and continued prevalence of smartphones have helped to make people realize that it’s easy to make the step from gathering information to reserving accommodations and/or activities.”
Customer data. Dave Belin, director of consulting services at RRC Associates, a Colorado-based research and analysis firm, says online reservations offer another great benefit to park operators.
“It’s a big opportunity for any business in the outdoor industry to really be able to leverage those customers that are coming to you, and to be able to gather info about customers ahead of time,” says Belin. “In the past, a lot of businesses in the outdoor industry didn’t do a good job at collecting information about visitors. Now you have online reservations and pre-purchased tickets, even with the National Park Service.”
Internal communication. On the operational side, Fisher says The Adventure Park has started using Beekeeper to disseminate info to its several hundred front-line employees at its five locations. The mobile/desktop-based platform allows the company to send out mass messages and keep everybody on the same page. “It’s basically Facebook for internal communication,” says Fisher. “This has been vital in the last 18 months of constant changes and updates and will remain integral to communications moving forward.”
In reality, it might be too soon to tell if and how the outdoor consumer has changed, and what trends will have longevity. More than 60 percent of those who started or resumed outdoor activities intend to continue with them. Will they follow through on this intention? That may depend, in part, on how well outdoor businesses succeed in retaining share of mind.
“I see a lot of people who went outside but didn’t necessarily get passionate about it,” says Fisher. “But with adventure parks, people came and tried it, and had a great experience, and will maybe come back once a year. I do think kids that weren’t exposed before because they went to, say, a rec center, might be more likely to ask to go, because now they know parks exist.”
It’s a little tricky to quantify this growth without research specifically targeted at first-timers, agrees Belin, though recent trend reports do provide some insight on navigating these new markets.
Family time. The Outdoor Foundation’s “2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report” points out that spending time with family and friends is by far the most important non-outdoor activity among new participants. The good news for us: Adventure parks are inherently social and multiple generations can enjoy them together. So, the opportunity for adventure parks is to position themselves as a safe and fun way to spend time with friends and family, which could lead to stronger retention among new participants.
The study offers a few more ideas to improve retention:
- develop programs with the specific goal of diversifying the customer base;
- develop strategies for encouraging people to start small;
- utilize social media to share info about close-to-home activities; and
- position outdoor recreation as a boon for mental health, a way to combat screen fatigue, and a means to focus on what’s important.
Understanding barriers. On the flip side, it’s good to note the top barriers for continuing outdoor activities post-pandemic, including travel, resuming other activities, and family demands. Understanding what activities new visitors stopped participating in last year (restaurants, theater, fitness classes, etc.) helps identify activities that will compete with aerial adventures in the future. There’s an opportunity to develop marketing that positions the outdoors as an attractive alternative.
According to a May 2021 survey of activity providers by Arival, U.S. tour/activity bookings in 2020 were down 74 percent. However, two out of three operators said at the time that they were reinventing their business to come out stronger. The report went on to notice a demand for outdoor adventure. “This sector is seeing a strong rebound,” it says. “The fast rebound in markets that are open indicates clear demand and capacity to travel and book experiences.”
The time is right to capitalize on new markets and the trends they have presented. “With many people wanting to spend more time outdoors,” Adventure on the Gorge’s Wilson notes, “this is a great opportunity for our company—and our community—to flourish.”