The rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas—representing a generous chunk of Ozark mountains—counts as one of the great underappreciated treasures of the American landscape. Few travelers have it on their to-do lists, yet its natural beauty and abundance of recreational opportunities such as biking, rafting, climbing, and hiking, draw a steady stream of enthusiasts year-round.
Still, when Bentonville crowned itself the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World” earlier this year, the idea raised eyebrows. Wouldn’t Moab have something to say about that? Or maybe Whistler? Or Switzerland? Sure, those destinations have the advantage of ridiculous mountain terrain, but most of that tends to count as scenery anyway. The real success of a mountain biking experience is the quality of the actual trails. After spending a week in the Northwest Arkansas region over two visits, I began to see the logic behind Bentonville’s brash claim. The cohesiveness of the trail network, its instantaneous access right from downtown, and the ever-interesting challenges of the trail made even my brief ride exhilarating. Being able to pop back out and return to my hotel or stop in for a craft brew was not-insignificant icing on the outdoorsy cake.
Local governments and outdoor entrepreneurs—clustered primarily around Bentonville, birthplace of Walmart yet still possessing a distinct high-end, small-town vibe—have been working to nudge the region more into the spotlight as an outdoors destination for more than a decade. They’re aggressively touting the outdoors as a key part of the appeal for businesses and residents contemplating relocation. When the pandemic hit, that turned out to be an extremely lucky bet.
Across the country, the outdoors is unexpectedly turning into a hot investment area as the pandemic digs in for the long-haul. Mark Jones-Pritchard, a director in Lincoln International’s Global Consumer Group, notes that hiking, cycling and fishing and camping were already ascendant pre-COVID due to increasing health and fitness awareness among consumers. The pandemic has allowed—even forced—consumers to find new ways to maintain health and fitness. Also, in the absences of work-related travel or daily commutes, they’ve had more free time for recreation. Jones Pritchard believes the trend will stick. “Despite many workplaces starting to reopen, consumers are reevaluating their commutes and using their increased awareness of the health benefits of continuing outdoor recreation, to maintain their newfound outdoor fitness routines,” he says.
Outdoor Businesses Boom
Several public companies have returned to or exceeded pre-COVID valuations, including Lululemon, Shimano, Johnson Outdoors, Yeti Holdings, Clarus Corporation and Polaris. The Outdoor Industry Association pegged U.S. annual spending on outdoor recreation at $887 billion in 2017, and 7.6 million jobs. The Bureau of Economic Analysis put it at $427 billion for 2017.
But outdoor entrepreneurs have some unique challenges. Just as the outdoors activity world is itself and deeply interconnected community of enthusiasts, manufacturers, service providers, and local, state, and national parks and facilities managers, so is the industry that supports it. Capitalizing on the new growth potential means more than ensuring that individual businesses are prepared, but that they’re working with all the other players as part of an ecosystem. It requires innovation, communication, collaboration, and balancing of all the variables, including the need to preserve and protect what is being used: The outdoors. The players in Northwest Arkansas tapped years of planning and innovative partnering to coax their constituents businesses—and by extension their customers—through these challenging times.
By May, Bentonville-area outdoors businesses were seeing hundreds of restless locals trying to alleviate their cabin fever—well beyond a simple recovery from the initial shock. “I had probably 700 people show up on a single day back in May, and we weren’t even re-opened yet. It was scary,” jokes Ernie Kilman, owner of Kings River Outfitters, which offers rafting daytrips about 30 miles west of Bentonville, across the sprawling Beaver Lake. “The weather was perfect and people had already been trapped inside for a month and a half, so they were all looking for an escape. June turned out to be the best month we ever had.”
This pattern of consumer enthusiasm has repeated itself across the country, with outdoor activities spiking significantly, according to research by the Outdoor Industry Association. The group says that in April, May and June of this year, Americans tried out new activities in greater numbers—with running, cycling, and hiking being seeing the largest draws—and outdoor activities saw the lowest quarantine-related reduction compared to other key recreational categories of team sports, general fitness, individual activity, and racquet sports. The study also found that urban dwellers turned to bird watching, camping, and cycling in greater numbers, and day-hiking participation bounced 8.4 percent compared to 2019.
Anecdotally, parks and trails have seemed far busier than usual, and kayaks and mountain bikes have been flying off their physical and virtual shelves. Kilman says that even his high-priced collector canoes sold out—for three times what he expected them to fetch. He wouldn’t say how much they were selling for, but high-end canoes can cost in the thousands.
Outdoor Entrepreneurs Look To Post-Corona Half-Life
These aren’t likely to be mere blips, either. According to the Lincoln study, 38 percent of consumers will likely lock in these changes to their outdoor recreation activities for the foreseeable future, and more than 50 percent of consumers will opt for recreation locations within two miles of their homes—making the kind of ease-of-access that Bentonville promotes particularly clutch going forward. Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce president Graham Cobb said outreach efforts in the past year have resulted in multiple queries from corporate leaders keen on relocating their companies to escape rising costs elsewhere—something that has only accelerated during the pandemic.
Though many areas around the country have been taken off-guard by the outflux—with sudden needs for traffic control at parks and record-setting crowds on trails, lakes, and rivers, all mixed in with the need to manage social-distancing protocols—the Northwest Arkansas region integrated outdoors access in its development strategy in the late 2000s. That process has generated a sprawling network of resources, including 130 miles of maintained, feature-rich mountain biking and hiking trails that accommodate all skill levels and are connected to downtown Bentonville, with access to a further 250 miles of regional trails.
A Chain Of Bike Shops Adapts
According to Tim Robinson, cofounder of the Phat Tire chain of regional bicycle shops, the process has been deliberate and inclusive of the broader business community. “It began with a revitalization of the town square, with new businesses and restaurants and things like First Friday events, a farmer’s market, and a walkable link to the new Crystal Bridges museum,” says Robinson, who describes the town he grew up in as “pretty boring” during the late 90s and early 2000s. (Disclosure: The museum was founded in 2005 by philanthropist and arts patron Alice Walton. The Walton Family Foundation is a sponsor of reporting in the Times of Entrepreneurship).
“Then the town focused on building a network of biking trails originating right downtown, but they made it really interesting and fun, with rock features, bridges, jumps and other features that give it this nice flow. Normally you have to drive an hour outside of town for something like this, making it a half-day affair that often discourages people from going at all.”
The extension to slightly farther-flung recreational entry points, such as Kilman’s rafting operation, has also been developed, with shuttles to and from the Bentonville area and even a growing network of remote grass airstrips that allow those with pilots’ licenses to reach trails, lakes, and rivers more easily. The local non-commercial airport, Bentonville Municipal, has the new publicly-accessible Thaden Fieldhouse flying club that offers scenic flights, a training school, a restaurant, and hosting for aircraft visiting the area.
The surge in outdoor offerings represented a broader effort within the Bentonville business community to, in essence, reinvent itself. The Walton family has been conscious of helping to build an identity for the region beyond Walmart – a pursuit reinforced this year by layoffs at the company’s headquarters.
A Deceptively Small Impact
Cobb notes that the town’s business leaders began touting the $7 million economic impact of the cycling industry on the community, holding business development meetings at the upscale, art-infused 21C Hotel instead of bland conference centers. Bentonville traded an annual golf tournament for a town bike ride, and worked to bring “the suits and beards” together—a reference to the new, hyper-connected, and free-spirited generation of young entrepreneurs.
In response to the pandemic, the region swung into gear. The city council developed ordinances for public safety and enabled restaurants to adapt with outdoor seating and curbside pickup, Robinson said. The business community responded cooperatively, with his bike store working with restaurants to provide cyclists with lists of places they can go.. For his own business, Robinson began more carefully monitoring the availability of bicycles from suppliers, and relaying that information to customers. They offered phone-based consulting while shopping online, curbside pickup of bikes and even home delivery—with many of these enhancements likely to linger even beyond the pandemic, Robinson says. “We would have never done some of this stuff before, even though you see companies like Walmart doing it all the time,” he notes wryly. “It made a lot of small businesses think harder about their capabilities, and it will affect us for years to come. Curbside pickup isn’t going away.”
Jones-Pritchard notes that startups tend to focus on trends and consumer demands more diligently than legacy outdoors companies, with lifestyle and brand expectations sitting more prominently in their toolboxes. “Consumers are looking for more than performance and technology from their outdoor products,” he explains. “Mission and values are increasingly important parts of the brand experience. Sustainability is critical. Authenticity and Inclusivity are increasingly important.” Consumers, he concludes, want to connect with brands that understand them, and smart outdoor brands that adapt their marketing and business models to the experience economy will benefit.”
That might manifest in long-term agility or immediate responsiveness to more urgent shifts in the market, such as with the pandemic—even if it means being a bit conservative in modulating the consumer experience. Out in the Ozarks, river outfitter Kilman explained that after the pandemic hit and customer interest skyrocketed, the company began reducing their number of daily passengers below pre-COVID levels. “It quickly began putting a lot of pressure on all of our systems,” he notes. “Our personnel were being overworked and the river was starting to suffer from the traffic—and that’s a resource we want to protect. It’s supposed to be a back-to-nature experience, but if it’s overcrowded and people are playing loud music through 400-watt waterproof Bluetooth speakers like it’s Party Cove, then that’s a problem.”
It sounds counterintuitive, but Kilman’s effort worked—Kings River Outfitters retains its excellent review status.
Ultimately, managing these resources as diligently they’re cultivated—especially through crises like the pandemic, which on the whole still has the region reeling—will have multiple payoffs, both long-term economic and in the quality-of-life in the region. After all, the goal is not just to support a network of outdoor entrepreneurs, but to draw more residents to the area—something that both investors and communities elsewhere can keep in mind as they develop their strategies. “People may not think that a business like biking is all that important,” Cobb concludes. “But future workforces, especially now that remote work is truly taking hold, will want to escape the high costs of the major cities and find places that have a lot of things to do, where they can bike to work, and where they can easily access everything the area has to offer. That’s what we’re going for.”
But there’s a still higher calling in mind for all these efforts. According to Robinson, bicycle sales during the pandemic have shown increases in electric bikes, children’s bikes, and women’s bikes, suggesting, yes, a broadening of the customer base but more importantly to him, the fact that people are out exploring and doing things as families. “I really hope that maybe this whole thing is going to be a generational hobby shift,” he says. “Maybe kids will stop playing video games so much and head outside on bikes more. I think that could actually happen, and that would be a really cool outcome if we see that stick.”
This story was produced as part of the Arkansas Reporting Project, focusing on entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.