The Pandemic Pushed People Outside And Now, Some Companies Hope They Stay There Millions of people headed outside for recreation during the pandemic, sparking a banner year for many outdoor gear companies. Now, those companies hope to lock in their newly expanded markets.
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The Pandemic Pushed People Outside And Now, Some Companies Hope They Stay There

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The Pandemic Pushed People Outside And Now, Some Companies Hope They Stay There

The Pandemic Pushed People Outside And Now, Some Companies Hope They Stay There

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One basic rule of the pandemic is that things you do outside tend to be safer than things inside. Visitors in your living room is a bad idea. Visitors in the front yard might be OK. Museums may be closed or restricted, but sidewalks and parks are not. And the push outdoors has boosted sales of bikes, boats and other items. Some companies are banking that people will stay outside long after the pandemic. Here's Frank Morris of our member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: A funny thing happened early in the pandemic, and it amazed Coleen Voeks, a trail running coach in Kansas City.

COLEEN VOEKS: Two-and-a-half, three weeks into it, it was crazy.

MORRIS: Crazy in that miles and miles of normally quiet trails running through the woods and over the hills here at Shawnee Mission Park in suburban Kansas City were suddenly jampacked.

VOEKS: Soon as the pandemic hit, everybody went outside. So the trails became so crowded with people - new people, families, you know, people who had never been to the trails before.

MORRIS: One of the new people out crowding the trails was 18-year-old, Awak Awak, who moved to Kansas City from Kenya five years ago. He says he'd been playing video games up to 12 hours a day before the pandemic. Now, here he was, out riding a mountain bike for the first time.

AWAK AWAK: First day, went hard - puked a bunch of times, fell a bunch of times.

MORRIS: Did you say you puked a bunch of times?

AWAK: Yeah, I was out of shape.

MORRIS: Awak picked up mountain biking just after COVID forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.

AWAK: When we closed, it was a lot of anxiety because we didn't know what was going to happen or how long we were going to close. So like - that's when I was, like, getting into, like, mountain biking. And I was like, this is actually kind of fun.

MORRIS: Now, with lots of encouragement from his boss, Awak is out riding his bike most days. He's training for races. He bought himself a high-end model. And this awakening of sorts is worldwide, according to Nick Hage, general manager of Cannondale and GT Bicycles for North America and Japan.

NICK HAGE: This global pandemic caused people globally to change their behaviors, which ultimately has led to a global bike boom.

MORRIS: While it's hard to say how much bike sales are up globally, Hage's Cannondale and GT brands have surged as much as 50%, and sales would be even more robust if factories could keep up with demand.

HAGE: Every category of bikes that appeals to every style of rider, we're seeing crazy demand for.

MORRIS: And it's not just bikes. Golf club sales are shattering records. Camper sales are off the charts. And boats are doing even better.

GREG FALKNER: It's just been through the roof. We have been having a record year.

MORRIS: Greg Falkner is general manager of Lowe Boats, which builds primarily small fishing and pontoon boats in rural Lebanon, Mo. It's added 100 new workers and automated parts of the process, but still can't build them fast enough to meet demand. Buy a boat today, get it delivered by the end of summer at best. And almost a third of the new boats are going to people who had never owned a boat before.

FALKNER: Any time you see a dramatic societal shift like we have going on right now, a certain portion of that does stick. Right? You know, there's a certain portion of it that just becomes, well, I like going outside. I like hiking. I like bicycling. I like boating.

MORRIS: And that presents a lot of opportunity for companies like Garmin International in Olathe, Kan. It specializes in navigation and fitness devices.

AUDRA RATLIFF: Everything that our company is about is getting outside and being active. And that's what everyone was trying to do last year amid the pandemic.

MORRIS: Audra Ratliff, product marketing manager for Garmin's outdoor recreation segment, says 2020 was the company's best year ever and that 2021 will likely top it. She has hard numbers to back that up. Garmin compiles all the data collected by its smartwatches all over the world. And since the pandemic, Garmin users are branching out.

RATLIFF: People were trying new activities.

MORRIS: Everything from birdwatching to fishing to surfing. And of course, thousands and thousands of people are now out most days walking their new dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTDOOR AMBIENCE)

MORRIS: Back at the trails near Kansas City, Coleen Voeks says she really hopes the pandemic reset sticks.

VOEKS: During the pandemic, everybody just talked about, like, oh, I can't wait to go back to, you know, normal or whatever. But how about a new normal? How about a new normal where we don't just wall ourselves up inside, that we go outside? It'll make you feel good. It really does. A little time spent outside will make you feel amazing.

MORRIS: And that can be true even if a product you want to enhance your time outside is on back order.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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