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WNC Business

Growing support for outdoor businesses impacts communities and their economies

Jun 06, 2024 07:32AM ● By Randee Brown

Started as a collaboration of outdoor gear manufacturers in 2013, the former Outdoor Gear Builders transitioned to the Outdoor Business Alliance in 2023. Executive Director Matt Godfrey  said the organization’s mission changed in order to be more inclusive of all sectors, creating an opportunity to be mutually beneficial for any business that may be in any way involved with the outdoor industry.

The Outdoor Business Alliance’s goal is to foster a prosperous outdoor business community by cultivating, connecting, and supporting WNC’s outdoor industry. Godfrey said this is done with a collective membership of nonprofit organizations, retailers, experiential-based companies, skills instructors, and professional services working in collaboration with the area’s gear manufacturers. As the Alliance transitioned from its former name, 59 new members were added to the collective.

“The momentum started in 2022,” Godfrey said. “Before that, everything was managed by volunteers and spreadsheets. We implemented new member management software, coordinated more in-person events, and launched new projects. The growth in membership was organic; there was no marketing campaign, but we were getting great energy. The great Get In Gear Fest in 2023 really lit the match for growth.”

Seeing a continued thirst for connection coming out of the pandemic, Godfrey said communication among members has increased 10-fold compared to the early days of the organization. There are now a board of directors, committees for different events, professional education programs, and more consistency being offered, which is also helping with traction on the organization’s growth goals.

“The outdoor industry is mostly made up of small companies, but they come together collectively as a big industry,” Godfrey said. “One of the main benefits is always connecting, and having a platform facilitating that creates a larger community and a larger network. Launching the rebrand was definitely a contributing factor in gaining new members who want to engage and collaborate within that space.”

The growth of the organization reflects the continued growing realization of the impact of the outdoor industry across the country. The increasing number of people Godfrey sees enjoying outdoor spaces in a variety of ways can play a role in economic development, healthier communities, job creation, expanding diversity, and environmental awareness.

“There are more people in the outdoor space, which means more appreciation for physical and mental health and more protection for the areas where we recreate,” Godfrey said. “We must take care of those spaces. Maintaining and protecting our spaces continues the potential for these areas to be enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts, and if they get overrun, we won’t have that.”

A concern of the Alliance and many outdoor enthusiasts is the effect the industry’s growth will have on the spaces themselves. If the spaces become overcrowded and/or damaged, there is a possibility of a reduction in the profitability from the consumer base that will purchase gear and experiences. Godfrey said protection and profitability go hand in hand, and he is excited to see outdoor conservation nonprofits as part of the Alliance’s new members.

The 2023 Outdoor Industry Conference hosted multiple business alliances from around the state and the country, and according to Godfrey, the conference gave each alliance an opportunity to learn what the others are doing. What he heard was all outdoor business alliances are underfunded and understaffed for the impact they have and the number of businesses which are supported. 

“We are funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and have one director and a board that helps fill gaps, but we could use another full-time staff member and then some to have a greater impact,” Godfrey said. “We saw that with alliances across the country.”

Many alliance leaders want to get to the point of sustainable operations in order to be self-funded, rather than requiring grant funding for operations, which can be a challenge. In other states, some alliances are funded by private means, partners, or specific foundations, and the OBA continues to research potential sources.

“It’s such a huge economic driver, especially for rural communities,” Godfrey said. “This is an opportunity to leverage dollars and keep them local. We all strive to be the best we can be, and hope to lead to business growth, job connections, and attract other businesses here. This is all because of the existing business community.”