A synopsis of the Recreation Summit
So what are the three messages that I carried away from the Summit as important for our region’s long term competitiveness in recreation? I’ll summarize them here and will then go into more detail in the next sections.
- Presentation: Professor Emilyn Sheffield, California State University
- Presentation: Karen Ballard, Idaho Department of Tourism
- Survey Report, Guest Research
1. Adapt or decline
Professor Sheffield’s presentation focused on the demographics of our visitor base, noting that it is slanted towards the baby-boomers – a greying section of the population born before 1964. Her message was clear: unless we learn to also connect to families with children and the up-and-coming millennials (born 1980-2000) we will eventually face a steady decline of our recreation economy. Sheffield’s recommendations included a stronger focus on multigenerational families and connections with local colleges.
2. A winter activity for everyone
The Winter Recreation Group has done a great job in balancing terrain availability against demand; otherwise we would not have heard the comment of “uncrowded conditions” as often as we did. Activity specific endorsements ranged from a high of 83% for snowmobiling to a very modest 58% for snowshoeing. So what, you may ask; Are snowshoe recreants important? If we want to appeal to multigenerational families we need to have an activity to suit everyone’s needs. Snowshoeing might be such an activity.
3. Do we really need more restaurants?
A customer satisfaction survey is especially well suited for finding the weak points. The overall weak points highlighted by this survey are our region’s diversity of retail and hospitality amenities. 87% of our respondents are repeat visitors so we can assume that they know our area and it is not our lack of marketing or wayfinding (maps and signage) causing these survey results. Amenities in retail and hospitality are closely associated with a vibrant downtown and cultural diversity. This is not an easy feat to accomplish in a rural county with 10,000 residents. We are doing better than most communities, but it is worthwhile exploring how we can continue to make our communities attractive for both residents and visitors, and what role our amenities and downtowns can and should play.
Before I elaborate on these three messages, I want to remind us of one important limitation of the survey. Guest Research in coordination with the different user groups designed the 2012/2013 winter recreation survey to provide a pulse on what recreants liked and disliked. As such, the survey was deliberately designed as a customer satisfaction survey, not to provide a complete and representative overview of all winter recreation or its economic impact on our region.
Adapt or decline
One of the biggest “aha moments”, and I think I speak for many of us, came from Professor Emilyn Sheffield’s presentation on the demographics of our respondents. Survey respondents overwhelmingly mirrored our own region’s greying demographic of baby boomers more so than the more diverse mix of the US population. A greying customer-base is not necessarily bad; retirees are a vital component of our economy and we should keep them happy. However, Sheffield’s message was clear: we will eventually face a steady decline of our recreation economy unless we connect to the up-and-coming generation as well – the millennials (born early 1980s to early 2000s; also called Generation-Y).
That up-and-coming generation is:
- Of equal size as the current baby boomer generation
- Culturally and racially much more diverse than the baby boomers
- Urban based and thus less familiar with the outdoors;
- Generally more into walkable amenities and with an explosive interest for biking.
Sheffield had multiple suggestions to cater to the millennials and help our region adapt and transition which you can read in her presentation. Her recommendations included a stronger focus on multigenerational families and connections with local colleges. The latter suggestion was based on her own experience with student volunteer programs and seemed particularly powerful: when students from close-by Boise State University and University of Idaho fall in love with the region through volunteer programs and special welcomes we gain an automatic tie to every generation to come.
A winter activity for everyone
All user groups expressed a desire to have more (mutually exclusive) terrain or grooming, but still expressed appreciation for the (relatively) uncrowded conditions in our region. The Winter Recreation Committee must be commended for a job well-done in balancing the increasing demand against the terrain availability. With the Boise metro-area experiencing an ever expanding population and the reach of motorized recreation asking for more and more terrain, we see a rapid increase in demand, in conflicts and in need for stewardship from user groups and forest service. A collaboration of recreant groups and land management, as represented by the Winter Recreation Committee, has been and will be important balancing the needs. As a matter of fact, there is a growing realization that we need such a collaborative effort for summer recreation as well.
To many of our winter recreants, snowshoeing or tubing barely shows on the radar. But families and groups, certainly multigenerational ones, will need to find activities to allow everyone to enjoy the snow and scenery. Snowshoeing and tubing offer more options for the extended family.
So what does it mean that snowshoeing received the lowest satisfaction rating? It may mean that a family would have stayed longer if only Mom or Dad could have had more fun snowshoeing; perhaps had some more dedicated trails, or a guided hike with a naturalist.
Cross-country skiers may be an important group in satisfying diversity as well. Of all survey respondents they were most likely to dabble in all different winter sports – including alpine skiing (65%), snowshoeing (42%) and even snowmobiling (10%). Snowshoe recreants would like more opportunity and quiet; cross-country skiers more grooming and better wayfinding; scenery is particularly important for both of them. Considering the limited terrain they command (at least relative to snowmobiling and alpine skiing), they may be worth that investment.
We don’t really need more restaurants, do we?
A customer satisfaction survey is most useful in pointing out what areas are potentially holding us back and can thus help us to devise strategies for improvement. Our weak points, according to the survey, are specifically in diversity of our retail and hospitality amenities. 87% of our respondents are repeat visitors so we can assume that they know our area and it is not our lack of marketing or wayfinding (maps and signage) causing these survey results. At the same time, visitor expectations and amenities are difficult to satisfy. If McCall is the norm, Cascade will fall short; if Sun Valley or Boise is the norm, McCall will disappoint. And diversity is in the eye of the beholder. A more urban diversity includes an array of elements covering not only price, quality, service, cleanliness & ambience and ethnic cuisine (Italian, American) but increasingly also less tangible elements like lifestyle (vegetarian, locally-sourced, etc). Check out Portlandia’s (as in Portland, Oregon) satirical videos on the subject matter; you’ll enjoy both the humor and the underlying message.
Amenities in retail and hospitality are closely associated with a vibrant downtown and cultural diversity. We are doing better than most communities, but it is worthwhile exploring how we can continue to make our communities attractive for both residents and visitors, and what role our amenities and downtowns can and should play. Downtowns are not “zero-sum” economies where one establishment always gains at the expense of another. If a downtown is fun and easy to get around, people will actually spend more; the shops and restaurants do better and expand and become more specialized and diverse – in turn attracting more visitors and reinforcing the cycle. This is not an easy feat to accomplish in a rural county with 10,000 residents. So how do we get there? Some of the following thoughts may be worth considering:
- The “wandering” from store to restaurant to store is only fun if establishments are actually open; shopping malls have long ago figured out that predictable and published hours are important – maybe something the chambers or business districts may want to consider.
- Boring walkways and disconnected amenities force us back into the car and disrupt the spillover; nobody wants to cross parking lots and gas stations in order to find out if they missed a gem. Our regulations and ordinances should therefore make it attractive to do infill development and contiguous (adjacent) development in our downtowns, and tax or development fees should be proportional to business efforts and investments to allow for economic succession (pay more when you grow bigger) thus keeping the economic threshold of starting a new amenity in retail or hospitality to a minimum.
- Potential investments in area nightlife, like a cinema or bowling alley, are borderline viable considering our region’s population and visitation numbers. They have a better chance with the economic spillover from combination outings (e.g. dinner and movie) and should be located such that existing shopping and hospitality can support such an activity and vice versa.
- The downtown master plans of our cities should not only encourage walkways, connectivity and contiguous development but also centralized parking in close proximity with easy access to these walkways. The one does not go without the other, especially in our region where car access to town is essential.