Outdoor industry thriving in Wyoming
Millions flock to Wyoming every year to see natural wonders like the geysers and big game of Yellowstone National Park, the imposing peaks of Grand Teton National Park and the strange, spiritual sight of Devils Tower National Monument standing sentinel over the rolling plains.
Those tourists fill the coffers of hoteliers, restaurateurs, retailers and service providers to the tune of $5.6 billion every year as they travel the state.
Local guides take the thrill seekers on rafting trips, climbing expeditions, horseback rides and backcountry hunts for experiences of a lifetime.
Some of the gear those guides use is designed and manufactured by Wyoming businesses. Those companies sell their products all over the world, capturing new dollars and bringing them back to the state.
This is the outdoor industry in Wyoming. It provides 50,000 direct jobs – nearly double that of the oil, gas, mining and extraction industries combined.
A cultural and economic fit
In the wake of a precipitous drop in resource prices, energy companies have reined in spending to compete at a “new normal.” In response, state and local officials have teamed with captains of Wyoming industry and concerned citizens to find new ways to create a more resilient economy.
One of the state's early actions was to form the Outdoor Recreation Task Force in fall 2016, a conglomeration of industry executives, outfitters, enthusiasts and local officials.
The group's report is nearly ready for release and includes an economic assessment of the industry and the results of a survey of outdoor businesses around the state.
What the task force found was a small, but growing, industry well-suited to Wyoming. Nearly all of Wyoming’s primary outdoor businesses employed fewer than 100 people, but they provide good wages in occupations like design, marketing and manufacturing.
“One of Wyoming's biggest growth opportunities for stable, nonmineral dependent industries are businesses like mine,” said Cade Maestas, cofounder of optics maker Maven. “It's easier to recruit someone who has a passion for this lifestyle than to shoehorn in a company that doesn't have that culture front of mind.”
In a town the size of Lander, where Maven is located, a three-to-five person firm that makes tents or sleeping bags or binoculars is a big deal, Maestas explained. Those are high-income, sustainable jobs compatible with the population and lifestyle offered in Wyoming.
Operating a smaller company also means favoring high-end, high-margin gear over mass-produced products. It’s a mindset that matches Wyoming's culture.
“In Wyoming, we want unique. We want the right gear and the best gear because we are using it in extreme conditions,” Maestas said. “In Wyoming, we are discerning in how and when we spend our money, and so are our customers.”
Wyoming gear firms are also more nimble than their much larger competition. They can respond to customers’ needs quickly because they are seeing how the gear is used in the mountains, rivers and forests where they spend their weekends. Starting an outdoor gear company in Wyoming is the ultimate expression in field testing.
The industry also draws the kind of worker likely to be attracted to Wyoming in the first place. These are independent, active, creative types who need open spaces and embrace the weather because it means more powder days in the winter and fewer people on the peaks on windy summer days. Three in four Wyomingites participate in outdoor recreation each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. That figure does not include hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing.
The outdoor industry's potential to thrive in Wyoming is not a surprise to economic developers at the local or state level. Many outdoor companies have received state grants to attend trade shows around the country and internationally.
“I think the Wyoming story plays well in the outdoor world,” said Michael Jones, founder of Riverton-based Fremont Knives.
The Wyoming Business Council, the state's economic development agency, has helped Jones attend trade expos like the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trades (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas. It is the outdoor industry's largest event. Jones has met some of his best wholesalers and customers through the show.
Export opportunities like the training and trade missions provided by the Business Council through the State Trade and Export Promotion federal grant have also benefited companies like Maven who are building international markets.
Ninety percent of Wyoming's outdoor firms sell products outside of Wyoming, and two-thirds of those businesses see their international sales increasing, according to a Business Council survey.
Business owners like Jones cite easy access to key officials from the governor to the Senate president as one of Wyoming's biggest business advantages over other states.
“I sold a hatchet to Matt Mead once when he was in town for a shooting competition,” Jones said. “(Sen.) Eli Bebout loves my products. Wyoming is just a small town with long streets, it really is. It's amazing to have this kind of access to government leaders and to be able to speak my mind to them and have them listen.”
Like many in the industry, Jones is optimistic about his company's growth. He recently broke into the Cabela's online store. It was like hitting the jackpot, he explained.
Two-thirds of outdoor businesses surveyed by the Business Council said they planned to expand by 2020.
That growth is good for everybody in the industry, according to business owners.
“We have good relations with Wyoming outfitters and some of their customers become our customers,” said Don Gould, owner of Sheridan Tent and Awning, a nearly century-old business now in the hands of its third family.
“Those hunting guides I know, they take people out 30-40 times a year. You start to look at those dollars and multiply it by however many are in the state and it’s huge for our small towns. It extends the tourism season right into winter.”
It's about this time of year former customers begin filing through Gould's doors asking to have a seam resewn here or a hole patched there. Some of the tents he works on are 60-years-old or more, yet the cloth remains in good shape. He still has records of every tent sold by the company since its beginnings in 1909.
Gearing up for the future
Rather than reveal a previously undiscovered industry, the renewed focus on outdoor companies offers private executives and public officials alike an opportunity to introduce more businesses to existing assistance like finances, market research, business plan creation and research and development. Nearly three in five Wyoming outdoor companies spend six percent or more of their sales on R&D activities.
The Business Council is also working toward alleviating challenges like access to a trained and available workforce and high living costs.
A new degree in natural resources, recreation and tourism will be introduced at the University of Wyoming in 2018. The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources would teach students business and social psychology skills and how to apply those to the recreation and natural resources industry.
The Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School is also a renowned institution for instilling outdoor skills that can prepare students for outfitting and touring jobs.
Meanwhile, the Business Council is approaching the workforce housing crunch, a common challenge statewide, through a combination of federal assistance programs and local education.
“We have to be rigorous in our process and patient in our hiring because we don't have the large labor pool that a bigger place might have,” Gould said. “But, if you're patient, and if you interview right, you can find the people you need.”
People move here for the outdoors, he explained. Whether it’s the stunning Bighorn Mountains, the foreboding but spectacular Red Desert or the lush expanse of the Shoshone National Forest, the access to the outdoors makes employees and business owners alike willing to overlook some of the difficulties of working in Wyoming.
The reward is jobs that fit an outdoor lifestyle, working for businesses dedicated to high-quality gear and serving customers who trust that product to get them through their next adventure safely.
About the Wyoming Business Council: Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.