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.

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