6 critical strategies for outdoor entrepreneurs to benefit in the growing outdoor economy
When I started kayaking and leading nature tours in South Carolina, I worked for the only outfitter on Shem Creek. We led occasional tours out to the harbor and back without seeing another kayak. Over the first several years, there were a couple new kayak operations that came and went out of business like the tides. In the last 6 years, there has been an explosion of new outdoor businesses on the waterways. Today, that same creek is filled with kayakers and stand-up paddleboards with multiple tours daily. Paddling outfitters have sprung up all around the outlying areas as well. Now, an increasing number of motorboats are offering eco-tours and bird watching adventures.
You would think this increased competition would have hurt the outfitters that once ruled the waterways? Think again! Every kayak outfitter that I have spoken to (about 8) has experienced an increase of 15-30% in business in 2013. The business has been able to thrive even through the worst of the recession.
This increase is not untypical. Outdoor recreation often does well when times are tough. Most outdoor businesses have experienced an increase in trips, travel and retail through 2008-2013.
Not every business makes it despite the surge in demand. The margins of the business can be pretty tight when you factor in equipment, guides, insurance, maintenance, rent, and other expenses. In a competitive market, your customer service better be stellar. It is easy to get overwhelmed and over promise. If your reservation system is not organized, you may have clients showing up unexpectedly and not have the time or resources to serve them. It is too easy for them to just go up the street to your competitors.
If you are in a market that is not as competitive, you will still need to forge ahead and set a precedent. Once you get established, competition is likely to follow. It requires excellent organizational skills as well as marketing skills to stay afloat. Your business can live or die by the people answering your phone as well as those leading the trips.
Qualified guides are also an issue. This is usually your main product. The right guide can make a dreary place come alive, while the wrong guide can make a spectacular place dull. This requires training and impeccable social skills.
The outdoor businesses that are able to develop systems that allow them to stay ahead of the game, maintain the morale of their employees, consistently provide a quality product, while maintaining control of their cashflow are the ones that survive. In a seasonal business, it is important to plan ahead.
Here are a few key things that help outfitters survive:
Have a clear idea of who you intend to serve
Knowing what type of client you attend to attract will make a difference in the product you deliver, the people you invest in, and your entire marketing strategy. The adrenalin junkie is very different than the serene wildlife watcher. Are you going to offer easy day-trips or longer multi-day adventures? Having a clear idea of your ideal customer is an important place to start. Ask yourself: Who am I meant to serve? Then spend some time finding out all you can about them and how to attract them.
Clearly define yourself
Why would anyone choose your business over everyone else? What is it that makes your business unique? This is something that most outdoor businesses fail to do. They look at their competitors and offer the same thing. Everyone thinks they have a superior product than their competitors, but very few can define it or prove it. No one wants to hear how great you think you are. Customers want to know how you are going to give them the best experience that meets their needs better than anyone else. It is important to be specialized and focused on what you do well. Too many businesses try to fight it out in copy-cat manner. There is plenty of business for everyone and together everyone achieves more.
Know what you expect from your employees
There was a time when I helped to interview potential new guides for a kayak company. We considered whether we should focus on those with the most kayak experience, naturalist skills, or personal skills. It turned out, the new hires with the best kayaking skills tended to be the most difficult to coach and were increasingly critical of the company constantly comparing it with others they had worked with. The ones with the best personable skills were open to learn and eventually became excellent kayakers and naturalists. Some did not work out either way for one reason or another. It has always been a philosophy of mine to allow someone to show themselves in the first 30-60 days. Some will show themselves right away. Some are slow beginners and eventually become superstars or grand failures. Some come to the table with everything and then break away. One important thing to do is to be upfront for what you expect. Have a written policy. This helps in times of trouble. The more prepared you are the better.
Create a fail safe reservation and scheduling system
The reservation system is the information hub in which the whole business revolves. That is the interface with the customers, the guides, and the marketing team. Everything flows in and flows out through the office. You must put systems in place to be sure you are prepared for who comes through your door and ready to deliver the best service possible to suit their needs. Put safeguards in place to catch errors and double check the schedules for guides and equipment. This is key for your success. The more diversified your business is the more important it is to keep accurate records.
Keep an eye on the cash-flow and plan for the future
In a seasonal business it is important to know how much you are taking in and how much you are paying out. People need to get paid on time if you want to keep up morale. You will need to have the right amount of inventory to provide for your clients A good credit account can help when things get tight, but you need to be careful that you don’t over use it. Cash flow will make or break you. It takes a long time to build a reputation, and an instant to wreck it.
Create a measurable marketing strategy
Where are your customers coming from? How are you reaching them? What is the strategy to get them to your door? What is their impression of your company? Most outdoor companies become advertising victims and base their marketing on what ever salesman calls to offer them the best story. This not a good strategy. A well thought out marketing strategy is one that is run with organized campaigns that can be measured. Often it is a good idea to run two simultaneous campaigns with slightly different strategies or wording to help measure what is working. A lot of time and money can be wasted on marketing that does not produce results.
Manage risk and prepare for the worst
Many a good outfitter has failed suddenly because of one mistake. It is critical to operate with the high regard for safety. Be ready with a clear action plan and a written policy to handle tragedy. In our line of work, there is a lot that can go wrong. Use the off season to conduct drills and training. Make sure you have adequate insurance.
These are just a few of the key strategies that make the difference if an outdoor business will be successful or not.