Thursday, 30 April 2009

Heading for the hills...and the valleys, and the forests, and the water...

The UK outdoor industry has always been fairly resilient during an economic downturn. It’s not recession proof of course, but certain factors work in its favour. When people have to tighten their belts, they tend to eschew holidays abroad and instead spend leisure time closer to home (an Outdoor Industries Association survey from as recently as January established that 49% of the UK public is now more likely to consider an outdoor break in this country, rather than head overseas). The great outdoors offers a handy venue that is generally low cost, while camping and caravanning are also budget alternatives to hotels. Similarly, consumers tend to cut back on luxury fashion products but will continue to invest in practical, durable kit such as that designed for the outdoors.

In the current economic climate, there is even more happening that indicates that 2009 will turn out to be a strong year for the outdoor industry. For a start, from January to March the country experienced something close to a proper winter, which had an immediate positive impact on sales of products like waterproof jackets, insulation layers, and hats and gloves. Meanwhile, the Pound was at its weakest against the Dollar and Euro, so many people chose to stay in the UK to enjoy their winter outdoor adventures, keeping money in the country’s economy.

As we head towards the summer, the situation continues to favour the outdoor industry. In recent weeks, we have enjoyed bursts of warm, dry weather which has focused eyes on outdoor horizons. Campsites are enjoying a boom time and the Camping and Caravanning Club has reported a huge increase in advance bookings for sites across the country (27% up on the same time last year). As well as sunshine, there have also been cloudbursts, so the need to be properly equipped with waterproof kit has remained at the forefront of minds.

And now the Met Office has announced that we can expect a hot, dry summer. This is going to do no harm at all to business for campsites, outdoor activity providers and manufacturers of tents, warm weather performance outdoor products, and especially footwear. At the same time, the general interest in and appetite for outdoor activities has been on a steady upward curve for several years. This trend is not about to change and is actually being accelerated by numerous central and regional government initiatives designed to get people into the outdoors.

So, it makes absolute sense for different parts of the UK to promote the outdoors as a key part of their tourism offer. This week, North East England started its own campaign to do just that. The Outdoor and Active initiative has kicked off by encouraging the region’s public to move around the North East to try out the many outdoor activities that are available really close to home. Press Ahead arranged a day of fun for the bosses of three outdoor tourism businesses from different parts of the region. They tried out each other’s specialist activities and visited various locations, all in one busy day.

Amy Craggs from Beamish Wild Ropes Activity Centre, Simon White from Tees Active watersports and Andrew Straw from Saddle Skedaddle cycling tours were our three adventurers. They really got stuck into the task and I think they enjoyed their day – the photos certainly seem to indicate that they had a good time.

We’re looking forward to getting the North East into the outdoors over the next few months, but we have also been tasked with bringing visitors from elsewhere to the region. We have some phenomenal outdoor locations up here and they are generally really accessible. However, many of these are relatively unknown, so there’s a great opportunity to show off this wonderful part of the world to a huge audience that is absolutely ready to head for the outdoors and open to suggestions. We’ve got some exciting, and I think innovative, ideas up our technical wicking fabric sleeves, so expect to see and hear much more about Outdoor and Active in North East England soon.

Of course, the North East is not the only region or nation that is promoting its outdoor assets this year, which is even more good news for the outdoor industry in general. Taking all of the above into consideration, it is no wonder that brands like Berghaus remain relatively bullish about prospects for 2009. Although there is no complacency among firms and there are previously successful retailers and brands in the sector that are really struggling (or worse), this particular business landscape is in generally better health than many others at the moment.

In short, heading for the hills (and the rest) has never been more popular. As Richard Cotter, Berghaus brand president, stated recently:
“Over the next few years, outdoor participation will increase massively, not in its original sense, but in the widest context. More than ever, people want to find a route of escape from everyday life and outdoor activities offer that. They choose to do something active, but not just one activity. These days, the opportunity to try out a wide range of ‘adventure sports’ is massive and this is one of the fastest growing sectors in the whole leisure industry.
“Huge numbers of people are heading outdoors every weekend looking for their definition of adventure – camping, hiking, scrambling, biking, climbing and much more. Crucially, many of these people have never previously been aligned to the outdoor industry and only now do companies like Berghaus really have the chance to communicate with them."

Amen to that. Right, I’m off to find a map, a compass and plan an adventure or two of my own.

Friday, 24 April 2009

iROC Rocks in Weardale

Congratulations to Morgan Donnelly (right) and Nicola MacLeod who were the men’s and women’s overall winners of the inaugural iROC adventure race event last weekend. Morgan won the first race of the event on the Saturday morning and finished in the top three of each race he competed in. Similarly, Nicola achieved top three finishes in all of her races, so both achieved aggregate scores that put them ahead of their respective fields. The full results can be found on the iROC website.

The sun shone for iROC, which ran on the 18th and 19th April, and the race director Shane Ohly was delighted with feedback from competitors and spectators. Visitors from as far afield as Plymouth, Ireland, Holland and Germany attended, some turning up to take part in just one of the races.

The Lafarge site in the heart of Weardale was hailed as the perfect venue thanks to its spectacular views and challenging terrain. Entertainment on the Saturday night included local groups New Era, Christian and Georgia, Ashleigh Maddison, and Two Foot Maid. The evening was topped off by Rick Jackson, a one man Irish rock band.

So, all in all, iROC definitely seems to have been a success. I await news of future plans with much anticipation.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A new outdoor adventure races North East

After the slightly unfulfilling 'outdoor' experience of the Outdoors Show a few weeks ago (see blog post from 28 March), I was delighted to be on hand to witness the start of a proper grass roots event on Saturday. iROC introduced a new concept in adventure racing and made its debut over the weekend in the beautiful surroundings of the Durham Dales.

iROC, sponsored by Weardale based outdoor brand inov-8, used a new format that combined a series of different races across three different disciplines that included fell running, mountain biking and orienteering. On Saturday and Sunday, there were six individual races, with varying periods of down-time (hours or minutes) between each. The close succession of these six races made iROC a true adventure racing weekend and the different skill sets required to complete the various disciplines meant that only a true all-rounder could become outright winner. The organisers also staged races for novices and families, so iROC offered something for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts.

iROC marked the start of a summer in the North East that will be packed with outdoor events and initiatives. North East tourism organisations have put the theme of ‘Outdoor and Active’ at the heart of their plans for 2009 and attractions across the region will be playing their part in a sustained push to encourage the public to explore the great outdoors that surrounds them. Press Ahead has been hired to promote Outdoor and Active, so look out for much more on this during the next few months.

iROC certainly got the region's outdoor programme of activity off to an energetic start and was based in an ideal location, at the heart of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Upper Weardale and the Durham Dales in general deserve the well worn phrase 'hidden gems'. That neck of the woods is a wonderful part of the world - lovely villages, a gorgeous landscape and not too many people. Don't get me wrong - I'm no misanthrope, but it's sometimes a real pleasure to go for a walk in the hills without bumping into anyone else (or at least very few others). You can do that in Upper Weardale and part of our job this summer is to encourage more people to try the experience. Success in the latter might seem to make the former less likely, but in truth there is loads of empty space up there.

I took my two sons along to see the start of iROC on Saturday. The first race of the weekend was a 13km fell run, which was well contested by a strong field. Watching the runners as they made their way along the horizon, we were amused to spot a herd of cows who took an interest and started to criss cross the hillside, following the runners back and forth. I think they provided as much of a natural obstacle as the steep climb, rapid descent and the river.

The winner of the first race was Morgan Donnelly (right) and afterwards, the organisers were getting plenty of positive feedback about the course. I'll update this post with more results when I have them. I had to leave after that race, but based on what I witnessed, I think that iROC will be judged a big success and I hope that it becomes a regular date on the outdoor calendar - I may even have a go at one or two of the races myself next time.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The lost art of communication?

On the curve

I read an article in the Newcastle Journal last week that made we wonder where I am on ‘the curve’. This article reported a presentation in which a digital media ‘expert’ called Joanne Jacobs claimed that bloggers are ‘old and finished’. Great – I only started mine recently and already I’m at the wrong end of the curve, or worse, behind it. That’s if Joanne Jacobs knows her onions of course. The report in which she was quoted came from a conference held at The Sage Gateshead called re:boot re:place. According to the Journal, Joanne went on to say that, because bloggers are finished, ‘people are moving towards Twitter’. Well now, I tweet too, so perhaps that puts me back into a better position on the curve.

You know what, I shouldn’t worry about this too much. I have never been desperately concerned about how ‘on trend’ I am – anyone who has witnessed my choice of hairstyle (and I use the second syllable here cautiously), music and ties over the years will understand that. The choices I make about my use of digital media are based on whether a) I can understand and engage with the platforms myself, b) I think that they can add something of value to the communications mix for my business and the businesses of my clients and, c) I have something of interest to communicate through them. Reading this, you may judge that I have mis-calculated on that last point. But I hope not.

This all brings me neatly to Twitter. Fad, phenomenon, irritant, viral nirvana. All of these and the rest. I use Twitter a lot and I believe that it has real relevance now to my trade, but I’m not obsessing and I aim to always use it responsibly and in a communal way. There is an ethos of sharing that is integral to Twitter, allowing information and insight to pass quickly to many people – I hope that fundamental principal remains a constant and it is what I mean when I refer to responsible use. Someone from the world of PR who has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to social media is Ste Davies, founder of 3W PR.

Ste recently spoke about the relationship between Twitter and PR at a conference and then kindly shared his thoughts with the rest of us via Twitter. The presentation,
Twitter and Public Relations, is still online on Ste's own blog site. It’s definitely worth a read and, along with a lot of sage practical advice, includes a few great ‘car crash’ examples of people using Twitter without due care and attention – slides 44-46 had me wincing instinctively.

I have embraced several forms of social media and will continue to use them extensively. However, there is a big part of me that is a traditionalist and I worry about the impact that these new forms of communication are having on society and in particular the written word. Suddenly, the point that someone wants to make has to be synthesised and distilled into a mere 140 characters in order to be communicated to the world. Incidentally, that last sentence came to 151 characters, so is too long to qualify as a tweet.

I enjoy reading well structured, cleverly composed copy that uses imaginative language, multiple clauses and ‘sparkles’. Even more, I love creating lively prose myself – writing is one of the real pleasures of my job (whether it is a pleasure to read or not!). But Twitter simply doesn’t allow for such elaboration and other social networks certainly don’t encourage it. This approach to communications will become habit and aspects of it will (and already do) infect the written word elsewhere.

Younger (though not exclusively) generations already text rather than email (as opposed to email rather than write a letter). And it's not just written communications that are affected by this developing trend. Use of the spoken word is changing too and a new programme on BBC2 called The Lost Art of Oratory explores this theme. The Beeb has also just launched a search for the UK's best young speaker - that could be interesting.

In the final analysis, I fear that we are losing a lot by gaining Twitter, Facebook and their like. While I accept a degree of the inevitability of that, it is also one of the reasons that I will continue to blog. I can express myself at will and at length – if you decide that what I produce is tedious, then you don’t have to read any more. Meanwhile, I’m already planning future blogs on the state of the media and The State of Play, and what makes a good song (in my humble opinion). I really don’t care where that puts me curve-wise and I certainly don’t feel finished, or too old.