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The Pandemic Pushed People Outside And Now, Some Companies Hope They Stay There

Mar 25, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 9:43 am

Something weird happened on the primitive mountain bike trails outside of Kansas City last spring. Coleen Voeks says she went from seeing a person or two stretched out along miles of trail there, to seeing a mass of humanity.

"As soon as the pandemic hit everybody went outside," says Voeks, a trail running coach. "So the trails became so crowded with people, new people, families, you know, people who'd never been to the trails before."

One the new people out crowding trails was 18-year-old Awak Awak, who moved to Kansas City from Kenya five years ago. He picked up mountain biking when the pandemic forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.

"When we closed it was a lot of anxiety because we didn't know what was going to happen, or how long we were going to close," Awak says. "That's when I was getting into mountain biking. And I was like, 'This is actually kind of fun!'"

This awakening of sorts is worldwide, according to Nick Hage, general manager of Cannondale and GT Bicycles for North America and Japan.

"This global pandemic caused people to globally to change their behaviors, which ultimately has led to a global bike boom," Hage says.

In the United States bike sales climbed 65% last year, and electric bike sales shot up 145%, despite shortages at many bike shops. Hage says sales would still more robust if factories could keep up with demand.

"Every category of bike that appeals to every style of rider, we're seeing crazy demand for," Hage says.

And that's not just bikes, sales of golf equipment climbed 10%, in January camper sales were up almost 40% compared to January 2020, and boats are doing even better.

"It's just been through the roof. We are having a record model year," says Greg Falkner, general manager of Lowe Boats. Lowe primarily builds small fishing and pontoon boots in rural Lebanon, Mo.

The company has added 100 extra workers, and automated parts of the process, but still can't build them fast enough to meet demand. Buy a boat today, get it delivered by the end of summer, at best. The most popular brands and models could take a year to deliver. And about a third of the new boats sold last year went people who had never owned a boat before, a remarkable expansion of the market.

"Anytime you see a dramatic societal shift, like we have going on right now, a certain portion of that does stick," Falkner says. "There's a certain portion of it that just becomes, well, I like going outside. I like hiking. I like bicycling. I like boating."

A society shift toward outdoor recreation presents sweeping opportunity for a company like Garmin International, in Olathe, Kan. It specializes in navigation and fitness devises.

"Everything that our company is about is getting outside and being active. And that's what everyone was trying to do last year, amid the pandemic," says Audra Ratliff, product marketing manager for Garmin's outdoor recreation segment.

Ratliff says 2020 was Garmin's best year ever, with revenue up 11% over 2019, despite slumps in the company's automotive and aviation segments. She says 2021 is on track to set another record, and she expects that growth to keep coming.

Ratliff has hard data to back up her optimism. Garmin compiles all the data collected by its smart watches all over the world. And since the pandemic Garmin users are branching out, trying new activities, everything from yoga, to fishing, to surfing, and of course thousands and thousands of people are now out most days walking their new dogs.

For Garmin, locking in those new customers is partly a matter of rolling out new activity-specific devices, like the line of Descent dive computers it launched last year.

Cannondale is looking to build on gains in new bike riders with a new electric bike that its marketing aggressively to non-bike enthusiasts in larger cities.

And back at the trails near Kansas City, Coleen Voeks is dreaming and preaching a new post-pandemic normal where spending time outdoors is the default.

"It'll make you feel good. It really does. Little time spent outside will make you feel amazing," Voeks says, moments before setting off on a nature run with Fiona, her enormous Great Dane.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One basic rule of the pandemic is that things you do outside tend to be safer than things inside. Visitors in your living room is a bad idea. Visitors in the front yard might be OK. Museums may be closed or restricted, but sidewalks and parks are not. And the push outdoors has boosted sales of bikes, boats and other items. Some companies are banking that people will stay outside long after the pandemic. Here's Frank Morris of our member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: A funny thing happened early in the pandemic, and it amazed Coleen Voeks, a trail running coach in Kansas City.

COLEEN VOEKS: Two-and-a-half, three weeks into it, it was crazy.

MORRIS: Crazy in that miles and miles of normally quiet trails running through the woods and over the hills here at Shawnee Mission Park in suburban Kansas City were suddenly jampacked.

VOEKS: Soon as the pandemic hit, everybody went outside. So the trails became so crowded with people - new people, families, you know, people who had never been to the trails before.

MORRIS: One of the new people out crowding the trails was 18-year-old, Awak Awak, who moved to Kansas City from Kenya five years ago. He says he'd been playing video games up to 12 hours a day before the pandemic. Now, here he was, out riding a mountain bike for the first time.

AWAK AWAK: First day, went hard - puked a bunch of times, fell a bunch of times.

MORRIS: Did you say you puked a bunch of times?

AWAK: Yeah, I was out of shape.

MORRIS: Awak picked up mountain biking just after COVID forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.

AWAK: When we closed, it was a lot of anxiety because we didn't know what was going to happen or how long we were going to close. So like - that's when I was, like, getting into, like, mountain biking. And I was like, this is actually kind of fun.

MORRIS: Now, with lots of encouragement from his boss, Awak is out riding his bike most days. He's training for races. He bought himself a high-end model. And this awakening of sorts is worldwide, according to Nick Hage, general manager of Cannondale and GT Bicycles for North America and Japan.

NICK HAGE: This global pandemic caused people globally to change their behaviors, which ultimately has led to a global bike boom.

MORRIS: While it's hard to say how much bike sales are up globally, Hage's Cannondale and GT brands have surged as much as 50%, and sales would be even more robust if factories could keep up with demand.

HAGE: Every category of bikes that appeals to every style of rider, we're seeing crazy demand for.

MORRIS: And it's not just bikes. Golf club sales are shattering records. Camper sales are off the charts. And boats are doing even better.

GREG FALKNER: It's just been through the roof. We have been having a record year.

MORRIS: Greg Falkner is general manager of Lowe Boats, which builds primarily small fishing and pontoon boats in rural Lebanon, Mo. It's added 100 new workers and automated parts of the process, but still can't build them fast enough to meet demand. Buy a boat today, get it delivered by the end of summer at best. And almost a third of the new boats are going to people who had never owned a boat before.

FALKNER: Any time you see a dramatic societal shift like we have going on right now, a certain portion of that does stick. Right? You know, there's a certain portion of it that just becomes, well, I like going outside. I like hiking. I like bicycling. I like boating.

MORRIS: And that presents a lot of opportunity for companies like Garmin International in Olathe, Kan. It specializes in navigation and fitness devices.

AUDRA RATLIFF: Everything that our company is about is getting outside and being active. And that's what everyone was trying to do last year amid the pandemic.

MORRIS: Audra Ratliff, product marketing manager for Garmin's outdoor recreation segment, says 2020 was the company's best year ever and that 2021 will likely top it. She has hard numbers to back that up. Garmin compiles all the data collected by its smartwatches all over the world. And since the pandemic, Garmin users are branching out.

RATLIFF: People were trying new activities.

MORRIS: Everything from birdwatching to fishing to surfing. And of course, thousands and thousands of people are now out most days walking their new dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTDOOR AMBIENCE)

MORRIS: Back at the trails near Kansas City, Coleen Voeks says she really hopes the pandemic reset sticks.

VOEKS: During the pandemic, everybody just talked about, like, oh, I can't wait to go back to, you know, normal or whatever. But how about a new normal? How about a new normal where we don't just wall ourselves up inside, that we go outside? It'll make you feel good. It really does. A little time spent outside will make you feel amazing.

MORRIS: And that can be true even if a product you want to enhance your time outside is on back order.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.