The nature of Boulder's outdoor industry

Boulder touts a high quality of life and is equally proud of its outdoor industry.

When researching Colorado, and Boulder in particular, one inevitably finds statements about our high quality of life. Volumes of text and images highlight our 300 + days of sunshine, access to trails, open spaces, and national treasures. We attract both adventure seekers and those looking for a serene experience. Further, it is a fact that Boulder’s thriving outdoor industry is a major contributor to our local economy.

This past week the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) held their annual Outdoor Retailer: Summer Expo at the Denver Convention Center. Despite general COVID restrictions, the event had an energetic feel. Amidst somewhat limited attendance, those present were once again happy to interact with both their customers and colleagues, with the conversation ultimately turning to recent, pandemic-induced, trends.

What is OIA? The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is a membership-driven trade organization for the outdoor industry. They are a force for the industry in recreation and trade policy, sustainable business innovation, and increasing outdoor participation. Although global in scope, their roots, and headquarters, are here in Boulder.

Economic impact of the outdoor industry

Nationally, the outdoor industry supports 5.2 million jobs, generates nearly $800 billion of consumer spending, and contributes 2.1% of GDP. Here in Colorado, we are above average as the industry contributes over 3% to our state GDP with nearly 150,000 jobs and over $6 billion in wages and salaries. Further, and not surprisingly, Colorado is ranked first in the nation for the economic value added from snow activities!

Locally, Boulder County outranks innovation and peer communities more than two-fold with 0.55 sporting goods, wholesalers and retailers, manufacturers, and sports instruction businesses per 1,000 residents. Lastly, in a recent article published in 5280 Magazine, Pearl Street was identified as a leading outdoor apparel nexus. With most of the aforementioned representing pre-pandemic levels, real insight is gleaned from a deeper dive.

Pandemic-induced trends

In 2020, per a report on outdoor participation trends, “53 percent of Americans ages 6 and over participated in outdoor recreation at least once, the highest participation rate on record.” As this fact might portend a growing industry, it is balanced by the fact that children ages 6-17 spent far less time outdoors, and outdoor participation remains heavily skewed towards white ethnicity groups. Even though COVID created a local spike in participation, and perhaps an increased overall awareness of the health impacts of outdoor activities, there is consensus that participation levels will decrease as the population returns to pre-pandemic work-life habits.

Gadgets, gizmos and garments

In conjunction with the Outdoor Retailer Expo, Outside magazine published its first issue of Outside Business Journal in print. The entire edition is dedicated to the impacts of technology on the outdoor industry. With a cadre of wearables, digital visualization and access apps, high-tech devices, and sustainable fabrics hitting the market, the outdoors have never been more accessible and enjoyable. This is a trend that is certain to continue. Whether applicable to an athlete, outdoors-person or naturalist, the utilization of experience enhancing devices and services is expected to grow.

In closing, perhaps the two most encouraging trends are centered around the protection of our environment and inclusive access to the outdoors. The pandemic gave us a glimpse of both the opportunities and shortcomings of our outdoor behavior. The great news is we have entities like OIA that advocate for climate change actions, preservation of public lands and waters, the need for balanced and fair trade, and increased outdoor participation from underrepresented populations.

As you catch a local glimpse of either the Flatirons or the high mountain tops of the Rockies, know that Boulder is not only a great place to live, work and play, but also is home to leaders, innovators, and trendsetters in the outdoor industry.

By Scott Sternberg, Executive Director of the Boulder Economic Council