Outdoor Products: Making a Business Out of Having Fun

By Richelle Johnson, Center for Economic Development Lead Analyst

Richelle Johnson enjoying Arctic Valley

Richelle Johnson enjoying Arctic Valley

Growing up here in Alaska, I feel like I took the playground that is Alaska for granted. Living right on the edge of Chugach State Park I could take my dog and notepad and disappear into the woods for hours (my mom would inevitably find me up a tree, covered in leaves and mud). It wasn’t until I left for my first year of college out of state that I truly understood what I had at home.

CED recently released its latest report in our Emerging Sector Series, done in partnership for the State of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development – Division of Economic Development. Emerging Sectors: Outdoor Products attempts to capture the current state of the outdoor products industry in Alaska and identify opportunities for growth. As an avid adventurer and outdoorswoman, working on the report was a dream (and a test of willpower to not buy everything).

The team combined national level analysis of the outdoor recreation industry, adjacent retail industries, and consumer research with interviews with Alaskan entrepreneurs manufacturing and designing outdoor products. We found that Alaska’s outdoor product entrepreneurs shine in the niche and specialty products markets. From specialty snow bikes, to custom made cold weather clothing, and soft shell bikepacking bags, Alaska’s outdoor product manufacturers and designers have found strength in pushing their Alaskan brand. Almost all of our entrepreneurs have capitalized on this brand and we found that it had power from two angles. The first is to customers outside of Alaska where the Alaska brand speaks to the strength, ruggedness, and durability of being tried and tested in our wilderness. The second is in the strength of the local brand to Alaskans would would much rather support a local business.

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Here are some of our exciting recommendations that we developed from our findings.

  • Branding and Marketing. Creation of a coordinated marketing effort to elevate the Alaska brand with regard to outdoor recreation could generate higher demand for Alaska-made, designed, and tested products. There is also potential for marketing Alaska as a testing ground for outdoor products manufactured or designed out of state.

  • Trade shows and networking events. The State and University of Alaska, or a coalition of private businesses and nonprofits could play a valuable role to raise awareness and boost participation at in- and out-of-state outdoor recreation trade shows, as well as hosting networking events to help businesses and entrepreneurs access consumers, communities, and resources.

  • Talent development. Many businesses interviewed in this study discussed facing workforce challenges, an issue that is not uncommon to many industries in Alaska. A greater focus on design thinking and “soft skills” through the use of university, vocational, and high school partnerships. These workforce networks could also play a role in connecting students with entrepreneurs.

  • Sprints and design thinking tools. These are two approaches to spurring the development of new products that solve customer needs. Alaskans’ affinity for outdoor recreation could make the state a hotbed of innovation in a growing industry. Utilization of design thinking principles help entrepreneurs come up with new, creative ideas in a short amount of time and promotes working in a diverse team.

As part of our report release the team also attended Confluence, a conference bringing together leaders in the outdoor recreation industry and beyond to collaborate and promote the outdoor industry. The conference was put on by the Valdez Adventure Alliance and the team trekked to Valdez to primarily participate in the first day, focusing on the business of outdoor recreation. Nolan debuted our report to kick off the conference and Gretchen and the rest of the team hosted a 70’s themed pitch competition featuring entrepreneurs from the outdoor industry in recognition of the creation Division of Parks in Alaska in 1970. Very Groovy!

We think there’s some pretty awesome power in this budding industry! If you’re interested in more of our findings and recommendations you should check out our report.

P.S. Throughout our interviews and research we noticed that there’s a ton of excitement and passion surrounding the outdoor economy in Alaska. The the refrain of “outdoor recreation is BIG in Alaska” was echoed by almost everyone we talked to. The outdoor products industry is just a single piece of this, so stay tuned for our larger report on the outdoor economy in Alaska to be released at the start of 2019! Happy trails!