IEDC Conference Recap: Leveraging Outdoor Recreation for Economic Recovery
October 15, 2021
In early October, Streetsense joined over 1,200 economic development professionals at the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Annual Conference in Nashville, TN. This year’s theme, “Creative Economic Development, Tourism, Transportation & Technology,” highlighted the amazing advances and transformations led by rural towns and cities to manage industry growth and retain spending through the pandemic. As we celebrated a Gold Award win alongside client, Foundation for Puerto Rico, for the Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative, our team reflected on the major opportunities forthcoming in destination planning.
The Economic Power of Outdoor Recreation
Before the pandemic, travel, tourism and outdoor recreation jobs made up approximately 4-5% of total private employment in most states across the country, with even higher shares in states that boast year-round destinations and assets such as Florida (7.1%) and Hawaii (14.4%).
Although the overall tourism industry suffered drastic employment losses during the pandemic due to travel restrictions, destinations with outdoor recreation assets such as beaches, marinas, parks, trails, farms, and ranches, have seen record visitation and participation rates – especially amongst high-earning households. Across the country, families and individuals were on the lookout for safe places to socialize and to manage physical and mental health, which resulted in 7.1 million more Americans participating in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in the year prior.
So, what can destination management entities and their downtown counterparts do to leverage this accelerated trend as part of an overall economic recovery strategy?
1 – Develop holistic itineraries and cross-promote to a diverse audience
The reality is that many of our downtowns aren’t located too far away from some of the greatest outdoor destinations. Downtown Ithaca and Buttermilk Falls State Park, Downtown Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, El Centro Fajardo and El Yunque National Forest, to name a few. Visitors, however, may not intuitively associate the two destinations without concerted cross-marketing efforts.
An important first step is to develop regional visitor itineraries that encourage spillover spending from national park visitors to your local retail and hospitality businesses downtown. This might mean aligning downtown events/activities with peak outdoor recreation days, coordinating store promotions for national park ticket holders, or even adapting marketing campaigns to resonate with eco-conscious or adventure-seeking audiences that typically frequent outdoor recreation assets.
2 – Create seamless connections
Another important strategy to consider is limiting any friction for visitors traveling to and from your outdoor recreation assets and downtowns. Often, this means enhancing physical connections between the two destinations through clear wayfinding/signage systems, and safe and comfortable pedestrian/bike infrastructure. Today, many of our dense and urban downtowns have already taken major steps in this direction by constructing major multi-use trails and park connectors that take visitors out into nearby reserves quickly, and that cut through commercial nodes to ensure visibility for retailers. Other downtowns have even fostered a culture of bike-friendly businesses that each provide safe and convenient bike parking arrangements or public bathrooms for use by recreational cyclists.
In the Town of Vienna, where the W&OD trail cuts right through its commercial core, our team developed recommendations to enhance connectivity between the trail and adjacent storefronts through building design guidelines. Read the Town’s seminal economic development strategy here.
3 – Combine organizational capacity and resources
In order to successfully drive cross-visitation between downtowns and outdoor recreation assets, however, downtown management entities and destination management organizations (DMOs) will need to initiate and/or grow collaborative efforts. If you’re a downtown manager and you’ve never worked with your State or regional DMO, this means opening lines of communication and finding aligned goals or creating shared regional destination plans/visions. And if you’re a step ahead and having a working relationship with a DMO, continue to collaborate and share knowledge and resources through regular check-ins and work sessions. After all, meaningful partnerships are the foundation for success.
If your organization is looking to develop regional destination plans that better connect your downtown to surrounding outdoor recreation assets, contact Streetsense’s Public + Non Profit Solutions Group, Assistant Director, Nur Asri.