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WNC Business

Business growth and opportunities in the outdoor industry

Jun 08, 2023 01:08PM ● By Randee Brown

Ken Stamps, CEO of Forest & Park, LLC and co-owner of Navitat Canopy Adventures, understands the impact of the natural amenities of Western North Carolina on business opportunities in the region.

With a foundation of architecture and engineering, Stamps made his entrance into the outdoor recreation industry by founding Navitat Canopy Adventures in 2009. “I wish I could say that I chose to open Navitat in WNC because I knew of the area’s riches,” Stamps said. “The truth is that I chose a location close to Asheville because I have family living nearby. It was only later that I realized the uniqueness of the abundant natural resources of the region.”

Stamps said that other Navitat locations have included Wrightwood, CA and Knoxville, TN, and that neither of those had the same appeal or demand as the WNC location north of Asheville. The wonderful cities and the sprinkling of small towns across the region only enhances the draw of the area. 

“This region is unique in the nation,” Stamps said. “We are within a day’s drive of almost one third of the population of the nation. About 85% of our customers are from out of town; they come from everywhere across the entire nation, and international travelers are becoming much more frequent. It’s truly a tourism-based recreation market, and the visitors coming to this area are looking for a different experience than those visiting Charleston, Savannah, or even Gatlinburg.”

Similarly, Stamps attributes the ability to staff local operations to the community of people that live here. He said that the demographic of the region’s residents embraces the outdoors and that many really want to work in the outdoor industry, making staffing these facilities less of a challenge than it was in other regions. He also said that the Outdoor Recreation programs at Western Carolina University makes a difference in finding available and eager staff.

The outdoor recreation industry is one that has paradoxically benefited from Covid, according to Stamps. “Covid was a huge factor in increased visitation for every outdoor recreation business,” he said. “Campground occupancy at our facilities couldn’t get any higher. Navitat had its biggest year ever in 2021, and so did every other adventure provider I know.”

Many people were introduced to the outdoors during the pandemic, and according to Stamps, this had a major positive impact on interest for the entire sector. He said that while there was a little softening of popularity and demand in 2022, the majority of businesses are still running at rates far above what they were in 2019. Stamps said that he is optimistic that the elevated interest will be a continued trend.

Bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah National Forest, and DuPont State Recreational Forest, this region is perfect for people seeking these outdoor recreation opportunities, according to Stamps. He said the temperate weather enhances that advantage, and the region makes the ‘top of the list’ of places to start an outdoor recreation business.

“Natural resources are abundant and recreational opportunities are unlimited,” Stamps said. “The capacity is huge, and there’s a powerful opportunity here for anyone interested in exploring the idea of starting a business in the industry.”

Forest & Park, LLC, founded by the previous owners of the Nantahala Outdoor Center Sutton Bacon and Michael Smith in 2017, is a business that manages recreation and camping complexes for the US Forest Service and currently operates facilities in Pisgah National Forest as well as in Ocala National Forest in Florida. These facilities are opportunities for people to get out of urban areas and into the wilderness. 

“The original mission of the Forest Service was to manage tracts of forest resources. The recreational opportunity was realized later, and they now outsource the management of large recreational complexes,” Stamps said.

Of their 11 WNC campgrounds and day use facilities, 90% of the company’s visitors visit the main three - Davidson River Campground, Lake Powhatan Recreation Area & Campground, and Sliding Rock Recreational Area. “As many as 300,000 to 400,000 people a year come through our operations in the Pisgah Forest,” Stamps said. “Sliding Rock alone can get 150,000 people in a three-month period.”

Stamps also discussed the growing interest in unique lodging opportunities. “There is an opportunity to create more experiential outdoor-focused lodging facilities,” Stamps said. “There is a huge potential for success for companies providing a lodging/outdoor adventure combination. People want to walk right outside their door and be in an adventure, and WNC is the perfect region to facilitate that kind of experience.”