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

Awak Awak started mountain biking when the pandemic forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Awak Awak started mountain biking when the pandemic forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.

Something weird happened on the primitive mountain bike trails outside of Kansas City last spring. Coleen Voeks says she went from seeing a person or two stretched out along miles of trail there, to seeing a mass of humanity.

"As soon as the pandemic hit everybody went outside," says Voeks, a trail running coach. "So the trails became so crowded with people, new people, families, you know, people who'd never been to the trails before."

One the new people out crowding trails was 18-year-old Awak Awak, who moved to Kansas City from Kenya five years ago. He picked up mountain biking when the pandemic forced the restaurant where he worked to shut down.

"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," Awak says. "That's when I was getting into mountain biking. And I was like, 'This is actually kind of fun!'"

This awakening of sorts is worldwide, according to Nick Hage, general manager of Cannondale and GT Bicycles for North America and Japan.

"This global pandemic caused people to globally to change their behaviors, which ultimately has led to a global bike boom," Hage says.

In the United States bike sales climbed 65% last year, and electric bike sales shot up 145%, despite shortages at many bike shops. Hage says sales would still more robust if factories could keep up with demand.

"Every category of bike that appeals to every style of rider, we're seeing crazy demand for," Hage says.

And that's not just bikes, sales of golf equipment climbed 10%, in January camper sales were up almost 40% compared to January 2020, and boats are doing even better.

"It's just been through the roof. We are having a record model year," says Greg Falkner, general manager of Lowe Boats. Lowe primarily builds small fishing and pontoon boots in rural Lebanon, Mo.

The company has added 100 extra 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. The most popular brands and models could take a year to deliver. And about a third of the new boats sold last year went people who had never owned a boat before, a remarkable expansion of the market.

"Anytime you see a dramatic societal shift, like we have going on right now, a certain portion of that does stick," Falkner says. "There's a certain portion of it that just becomes, well, I like going outside. I like hiking. I like bicycling. I like boating."

A society shift toward outdoor recreation presents sweeping opportunity for a company like Garmin International, in Olathe, Kan. It specializes in navigation and fitness devises.

"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," says Audra Ratliff, product marketing manager for Garmin's outdoor recreation segment.

Ratliff says 2020 was Garmin's best year ever, with revenue up 11% over 2019, despite slumps in the company's automotive and aviation segments. She says 2021 is on track to set another record, and she expects that growth to keep coming.

Ratliff has hard data to back up her optimism. Garmin compiles all the data collected by its smart watches all over the world. And since the pandemic Garmin users are branching out, trying new activities, everything from yoga, to fishing, to surfing, and of course thousands and thousands of people are now out most days walking their new dogs.

For Garmin, locking in those new customers is partly a matter of rolling out new activity-specific devices, like the line of Descent dive computers it launched last year.

Cannondale is looking to build on gains in new bike riders with a new electric bike that its marketing aggressively to non-bike enthusiasts in larger cities.

And back at the trails near Kansas City, Coleen Voeks is dreaming and preaching a new post-pandemic normal where spending time outdoors is the default.

"It'll make you feel good. It really does. Little time spent outside will make you feel amazing," Voeks says, moments before setting off on a nature run with Fiona, her enormous Great Dane.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.