Call of the Wild

Sleeping under the stars. Breathing in the forest air. Unplugging and decompressing.

These are just some of the benefits of spending time in the great outdoors, which is proving especially appealing to new audiences. And who can blame them? Amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, and requirements for masking up and social distancing, lots of people see the outdoors as an ideal, easy-to-access landscape in which to unwind with family and friends.

And that’s keeping those who serve the industry busy – even expanding.

Take Roslyn Height-based US eDirect.

The tech company counts state and national parks as its clients. It provides recreation and campground management services through its reservation and point-of-sale platform that makes it easy for outdoor enthusiasts to book a campsite or cabin, or other recreational activities, at any number of parks.

But like most companies initially facing the pandemic, business at first looked bleak.

US eDirect’s Michael Giannone, Melonie Kolega and Andrew Davies serve state and national parks from their Roslyn Heights office. (Photo by Judy Walker)

“Our revenue comes from bookings,” said Andrew Davies, the vice president handling implementations at US eDirect. And when COVID-19 first hit and business activity came to a halt, “for a spell of time our clients were in the same boat. Everything shut down in the industry.”

But when restrictions began to loosen, people were ready to get out of the house, with many choosing camping as the way to go. That yearning drove more than 10.1 million new households to camping, according to Kampgrounds of America North American Camping Report, with more than 60 percent of these first timers saying they plan to camp more in 2021. At the same time, more than 2.6 million households purchased RVs, ready to get back to nature. Overall, more than 48 million households took at least one camping trip in 2020, an increase of more than 6 million in 2019.

These new outdoor-experience participants tend to be “female, younger, living in an urban area and slightly more ethnically diverse than existing participants,” according to Outdoor Industry Association, which commissioned a study to understand the current outdoor community amid COVID-19.

These participants are gravitating towards ways to “spend time with loved ones safely, to exercise, stay healthy or to reduce screen-time fatigue,” according to the study. Such recreation activities offer “low barriers to entry that are available and accessible within 10 miles of their homes, including walking, running, biking and hiking.”

Such activities are big draws on Long Island.

“The popularity of outdoor events, venues, attractions and lodging have skyrocketed since COVID-19, leading to record numbers of campers and a new surge in glamorous camping known as glamping,” Discover Long Island President and CEO Kristen Reynolds told LIBN.

“Visitor are flocking to camping and glamping sites including cottages at Heckscher State Park, FINS glamping on Fire Island and in East Hampton and coming soon at Usdan in Wheatley Heights,” she added. “These new outdoor offerings in a luxury setting provide a refined experience that meets the needs of today’s visitor.”

 

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The fueled interest in the outdoors brings opportunities to companies that support the industry. Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a presence on Long Island, is opening a new retail concept, Public Lands. The first two stores, which were developed before the pandemic, are slated for Pittsburgh and Columbus, according to published reports. The store will focus on outdoor activities that include camping, hiking and biking.

And meanwhile, as restrictions began loosening earlier in the pandemic, US eDirect’s systems began to navigate “heavy loads,” as outdoor enthusiasts, eager for updates, rendered as many as 50,000 hits at a time. But the system was built with the scalability to handle the surge, said Michael Giannone, the firm’s vice president of technical services. Fortunately for the outdoor enthusiasts, and US eDirect park-system clients, the firm had “prepared a scalable system that didn’t go down.”

That allowed for clients to generate much-needed revenue quickly for clients, he said.

Ever since the pandemic, more people see outdoor activities as a way to connect with families. (Photo courtesy of US eDirect)

US eDirect went on to win new business, including Florida State Parks, serving millions of visitors who flock to the state’s “beaches, springs, natural areas and cultural resources,” Florida State Parks Director Eric Draper said in a statement in mid-June. As clients, Florida would join state park systems in California, Ohio and Minnesota, as well as the national park system in Australia, and later this year, Canada.

In the pandemic’s early phase, many park agencies “were revenue-strapped,” Davies pointed out. “They also need other ways to make money – camping isn’t their only thing.” The company’s system accommodated tour reservations, annual passes, retail and golf shops, as well as the ability to register people for swimming lessons and meeting space rentals. “Those peripheral things add value to the software,” Davies said.

At the same time, mandates were changing frequently, and outdoor enthusiasts needed answers so they could plan their excursions. Among their many questions: Is the park pet-friendly? What are the COVID safety measures? Will the park be cancelling reservations based on the on-the-fly changing guidelines or possible COVID exposures?

“Clients got bombarded,” Davies said, adding that the tech firm helped them be “proactive” by pushing out notifications as needed. The firm helped make things easier for clients to handle contactless retail, which became essential amid the pandemic to help people limit exposure to others. It also ensured that the agencies allowed for the ability to send internal alerts to staff members “who are not classically sitting at a desk but are out and about in the park,” he said.

“Business started booming,” Giannone said. And the company added staff, said US eDirect’s Melonie Kolega.

Meanwhile, the growing enthusiasm for outdoor activities shows no signs of slowing down. Some people are even incorporating camping into their lifestyles. According to the North American Camping Report, 41 percent of all campers, and 51 percent of new campers, say they sometimes or always work while camping, with millennial campers most likely to work while camping (54 percent), up 11 percentage points since 2019. And families are the most likely to say that being able to work or school remotely allowed them to camp more often.

This new pattern, experts say, highlights the way some Americans are adapting to a life-changing pandemic.

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