ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY Amy Alonzo, RENO GAZETTE JOURNAL
The COVD-19 pandemic created a confusing paradox for Nevada’s outdoor industry.
While people appeared to be spending more time outside during the lockdown, the state’s outdoor industry took a substantial hit during the pandemic, according to a recently released report from the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition.
That’s because far fewer people traveled to and around Nevada, and those who did spent a lot less money while doing it.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, more than 55 million people visited Nevada. Only 42 million people visited the state during the same months in 2019 and 2020.
Last year, April saw less than a half million visitors to the state, compared to nearly 5 million people during April of 2019 — a 92 percent decrease.
As COVID restrictions rolled out, Nevada’s restaurants and hotels saw a nearly 20 percent decrease in revenue, impacting many of the 60,000 Nevadans who are employed in the outdoor recreation industry, which includes retail, accommodation and food services.
“With fewer people going to outdoor sites, there’s just less spending,” said Michael Verdone at BBC Research and Consulting, the firm that organized the report for NOBC.
Pre-pandemic, $5.5 billion — or 3.1 percent of Nevada’s gross domestic product — was directly correlated to outdoor recreation, according to the NOBC.
“If the outdoor recreation economy were to go missing suddenly, it would be the same as if the state’s economy stopped growing,” Verdone said.
At Reno’s Gear Hut, a consignment shop specializing in used outdoor equipment, holiday and ski-related traffic was down during the pandemic, said co-owner Leah Wzientek. Fewer families came in to purchase skis and equipment, and there were virtually no out-of-town shoppers, she said.
Gear Hut relies on individuals to bring in new or used outdoor items that the shop then sells, splitting the profits with the person who brought the item in. People who bring in items can either have a credit at the store or cash out their credit.
“Since the pandemic started and people have been more financially insecure, people are coming in to get checks rather than let it sit there,” Wzientek said. “We have a lot more people who are like, ‘I poked around today, I’m not buying anything, I’ll take a check’.”
LV Cyclery/Escape Adventures in Las Vegas relied on its bike retail and repair shop to keep the guided tour portion of the business afloat. Usually the least profitable portion of his company, “the cycle shop has been saving the company,” owner Jared Fisher said.
During the pandemic, business tripled for the bike shop while the company stopped offering tours due to COVID restrictions and a lack of tourists. While the number of people employed by the company dropped, the bike shop simultaneously struggled to hire enough mechanics “because every bike shop in the nation was looking to hire.”
Prior to the pandemic, local trips — within 50 miles of home — were the largest source of revenue for the outdoor industry in the state, contributing about $249 million per year. Guided tours and outfits, often relying on tourists, add $234 million per year.
But guided services all but dried up during the start of the pandemic.
Alpenglow Expeditions, a Tahoe-based company that guides skiers and rock climbers both locally and internationally, saw its business grind to a halt last spring. A trip to Mt. Everest was cancelled in February, and then in March, all business shut down through May due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We had people calling our phones off the hook, begging us to guide because the snow was off the hook, but we couldn’t,” said Sean Kristl, Alpenglow’s director of marketing and sales. “We had literally zero income.”
Once restrictions eased, the business was able to reopen, but international guiding remained shuttered.
“That hurt us from a business perspective,” Kristl said. “When people spend $85,000 for an Everest trip, that’s a lot different than a $200 climb.
“We can’t sell trips to foreign countries if we don’t know if they will be open or not when we get there.”
Kristl said that since reopening, local business has remained steady, but what was once an international clientele has shifted to almost exclusively from the Reno, Tahoe, Sacramento and Bay areas.
“There were not a lot of interstate travelers. We did see a couple, and when we did, it was notable because it was unusual,” he said. “Our business really did turn into a locally-based business.”
Wzientek said Gear Hut saw business shift to local residents as well.
Prior to the pandemic, the shop would get people from out of the area picking up last minute gear purchases.
“There was none of that traffic,” she said.