Millennials see outdoors more about being there, not getting there

Barbara Platts
Special to Aspen Times Weekly

Early this spring, valley local Bob Wade decided to take a trip to Weller Lake up Independence Pass. He was curious to see how much snow was still remaining after such a light winter.

On the brief hike, he ran across a couple of young men relaxing in hammocks. He greeted them, assuming they were in the area for an early-season backpacking trip. However, he quickly realized that neither of them had packs or any extra gear. They were just there for the afternoon, enjoying the views with each other while swinging from the trees in their fabric cradles.

“I thought that was so cool that they just went up there to hang,” says Wade, who is a baby boomer. “(My generation) always has to have an objective, they have to get up early and get something complete.”

Wade founded the outdoor sports store Ute Mountaineer in Aspen with his wife-to-be, Ruth, in 1977. The great outdoors has not changed drastically since then, but how different age groups interact with it has.

“I’ve tried to observe what people want in their shopping and buying experience and give that to them rather than saying they should do it my way, or they should want this,” Wade says. “You have to be able to adjust, I think.”

A big difference Wade has noticed is between millennials and baby boomers. Millennials are looking for more community time in the outdoors, whereas his generation likes to reach a goal, often on their own — just like the situation he ran into at Weller Lake.

“I think the stereotype that has developed about millennials is they want to have more hang time with each other. They’re more into things like car camping and hanging around the campfire, and sharing stories,” Wade says. “Baby boomers always have an objective. They have to get up early and get something complete, like me, I had to get up and around the lake that morning.”

Wade has seen the business of the outdoors blossom into the behemoth of an industry it is today.

The most recent outdoor participation numbers show that 48.8 percent of Americans, or 144.4 million people, participated in an outdoor activity at least once in 2016, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. In February of this year, the Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that the outdoor recreation industry comprised 2 precent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2016.

To give some perspective, that’s more than oil, gas and mining extraction combined.

The largest industry trade show in North America is Outdoor Retailer, which just finished its summer event in Denver on July 26. The show moved from Salt Lake City at the start of 2018 after several outdoor retailers came together to protest the stance many of Utah’s politicians have on public lands.

Outdoor Retailer started 36 years ago and has grown significantly. The show’s organizers work hard to be inclusive of every generation, from young kids who attend with their parents to industry vets who have been in the business for decades.

Marisa Nicholson, the vice president and show director for all Outdoor Retailer events, says it is important to cater to every type of outdoor enthusiast, from a casual day-hiker to a backcountry adventurer.

“Outdoor Retailer started over 35 years ago as a trade show for just a few manufacturers that identified themselves as part of the outdoor industry,” she says. “The show has continued to grow as the industry has to be more inclusive of different generations.”

This season’s Outdoor Retailer show displayed the most variety yet with nearly 300 new exhibitors displaying products for everything from overlanding (vehicle-supported travel), to specialty surfing, to drinking beer and whiskey (yes, that can be an outdoor sport). Nicholson says it’s important to cater to each age group because they don’t all want the same thing from their experiences.

“For today’s generation, they want something lighter,” she says. “They’re looking for products that fit into their lifestyle.”

Even with the tremendous growth of the outdoor industry, there have been some setbacks as of late. Sales in the United States on outdoor retail products saw a 4 percent decline last year.

Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry adviser for the NPD Group, a market research company, thinks a large reason for the decrease is that the industry is not responding to the desires of the latest generation with buying power: millennials.

“The boomer generation in particular was focused on pinnacle products. They believed that the most expensive item was the best item,” Powell says. “I think the big steps we’ve seen with the younger generation is that they are looking for products that are versatile for what I’m calling ‘good enough activities.’”

Powell says millennials have a great love for the outdoors and wellness, but they want to be more practical about their buying. Their predecessors ­ — both baby boomers and Generation X — bought products that could get them through extreme outdoor situations, but millennials want gear and apparel for more casual excursions and intriguing experiences. Millennials also don’t want to accumulate a lot of things or spend as much money as generations before, often leading them to borrow or rent equipment.

John Charters, a co-owner of Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt, which he bought with three others in April 2017, has experienced many of the differences between millennials and previous generations.

“(Millennials) are experiential-oriented, they want an experience when they’re shopping,” Charters, who is right on the cusp of Generation X but considers himself more of a baby boomer, says. “They’re also very brand-focused. They pick a brand that stands for what they stand for.”

Charters says that baby boomers are Bristlecone’s biggest customer base, but they try to bring millennials through the door by selling brands that focus on sustainability and by hosting events. They’ve partnered with nonprofits for two film festivals and started a Give Back to the Valley Day, where five local charities are chosen to receive a portion of sales for a business day. For the first one they raised around $15,000.

“We’re trying to create the experiences that go along with going in and shopping,” Charters says. “You want to create brand loyalty, but also store loyalty.”

Local Kalle Edwards is a millennial who is well-versed in the outdoor industry. She’s a senior merchandiser at Obermeyer and launched her own women’s sportswear brand, In Play Athletics, in 2011. She was originally inspired to start her own clothing line because she thought there was such a lack of versatile athletic apparel.

“I wanted one outfit that I could wear for everything,” she says. “Something I could feel cute wearing from golf to yoga to getting a drink in town with my friends.”

Edwards thinks the trend toward versatility is something that resonates with most millennials. Instead of buying a different piece of outerwear for every outdoor adventure, her generation looks for items that can be worn and used in many different situations. Because, she says, at the end of the day, millennials would rather spend their money elsewhere.

“I feel like a lot of us aren’t spending money on things as much as travel and experience,” she says.

Although most of the research on outdoor trends is focused on currently active generations, the need to go outdoors and derive pleasure from nature existed long before the baby boomers. Deborah Williams, the managing content editor for the Outdoor Industry Association, says the roots of the outdoor industry date back to the mid-1800s with leaders like Teddy Roosevelt (long before he was president) and naturalist John Muir, who simply encouraged people to go outside and breathe the fresh air. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s, when the baby boomers came into the world, that it became about more than just being out in nature.

“It wasn’t just about going out to be out there anymore, it became about achieving something,” Williams says. “It was a period of seeking accolades.”

The middle of the 20th century was very “gear-focused,” as Williams puts it. Outdoor activities were more of a status, an identifier for who someone was and what they valued, and that was conveyed through the stuff one bought and the magnitude of the adventure they were going on. Now, Williams says, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.

“The research is showing a shift away from consumerism,” she says. “It’s a totally different ethic.”

Williams thinks this breaks the typical stereotype about millennials only being focused on themselves.

“When you look at how they’re engaging with the outdoors, there’s a unique element to the (millennial) generation where they are recognizing how to engage in activism through their outdoor experiences,” she says. “It’s an interesting paradox, in a way.”

For all intents and purposes, it seems like the ethos of the millennial generation are here to stay and may become even more intense, according to Powell, with the next generation. Centennials, or Generation Z, are coming of age; the oldest just turning 18. They will soon be a major contender in the retail market and it doesn’t look like they will be taking after their parents.

“Generation Z is sort of millennials on steroids,” Powell says, meaning outdoor retailers should expect young buyers to value experiences, crave community activities and be heavily engaged in activism for their environment.

Still, no matter the generation, it’s clear that we all have a common appreciation and love for the outdoors — whether we’re enjoying it from the comfort of a hammock or trekking through the mud in the latest pair of top-rated hiking boots.

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