On-Demand Recreation Experiences

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The outdoor industry has changed. The barriers that newcomers used to face when embarking on new experiences are being replaced with technology that makes recreational activities available on demand. How will you keep up?

Like many people, my first camping experience was with a girl scout troup when I was ten years old. It was with this fine group of pre-teens that I was introduced to the basics of making s’mores, sleeping on the ground, and enjoying the crackle of a fire under the stars.

Fast forward ten years and suddenly I was yearning for a new experience in nature. I wanted to go backcountry camping in the wilderness. Like most things in my life, I dived head first into this exciting new endeavor. I had no idea the amount of planning and investment it would take to make it successful.

I planned out a simple loop in Coosa Backcountry Trail in Northern Georgia, which was a 12-mile round trip hike with dispersed camping along the way. Getting everything I needed for that 2-day camping trip became a real challenge. As a cash-strapped college student, I felt drained as I walked out of REI with well over $300 worth of gear. Rain jacket, water filter, dried foods, stove, fuel, backpack, hiking boots, lightweight tent, sleeping bag. I (thought) I had it all.

Once I purchased the equipment I needed for each of this new adventure, I had to plan out next steps. Where would we park? How much water should we bring? Where were the best camping spots with a view? What time of day should we leave? Which trails were busy, and which could we find solitude?

Funny thing is, when I wanted to try something new again – mountain biking this time – I spent just as much time figuring out mountain bike trails, etiquette, and technique. I spent an arm and a leg embarking on a new outdoor experience. Mountain bike, clipless pedals, helmet, spandex, jerseys. You get the idea.

I’ve learned that mountain biking, camping, and most other outdoor recreational opportunities are often described “Rich Man’s sports.”

Most people think that nature is free, and no one can argue that it’s not. But to truly experience the outdoors (and be prepared), it’s expensive to get involved with these new activities. You can literally spend thousands of dollars on new gear only to retire the equipment after a few trips. This financial burden creates a barrier for low income individuals to try certain outdoor activities.

On the other hand, I know that parks and recreation agencies pride themselves on providing free and low-cost programs to their community. These programs may provide a basic overview of outdoor activities but do not provide the full experience. To truly engage the entire community, even those with little disposable income, we need to make outdoor experiences affordable to remove hurdles for newcomers.

Agencies may not be able to buy equipment for anyone who needs it – that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting. But what if we had a collection of outdoor gear that we could rent out, at reasonable rates, to our community members? Some universities do it. Why don’t we?

We also have to realize that as parks and recreation agencies, maybe our responsibility isn’t to engage everyone in OUR programs, but rather provide the equipment and tools necessary so that they can go out and explore on their own.

Beyond the financial burden of outdoor experiences, we can also make it easier for community members to find our programs and sign up for them. I think we’d all agree that our recreation registration systems don’t always fit the bill.

Let’s talk about reserving campground for a second, because it’s similar to our registration programs.

Take yourself back just 10 years and you’ll remember a world of difference in the camping reservation process. You might have been able to find a campground’s contact information online, in which case you would call and try to find a place that was reasonably priced. You wouldn’t know where you were staying until you arrived. Pleasantly surprised — or not — this was the reality of the camping reservation system.

Platforms like HipCamp, Tentrr, and AutoCamp are paving the way for new campers to try this outdoor experience for the first time. Today, you have access to professional quality photos of the campsite, reviews of the experience, and a full list of amenities. Not only that, but you can book your site right from your phone.

While you probably knew that you could rent out campsites on demand using these apps, there’s a lot more to explore with a new thing called Experiences.

AirBNB Experiences cater to individuals who want to try something new, led by experts in that area. A few examples of current AirBNB Experiences: Hollywood Sign & Summit With a Yogi, $25. Discover the lost art of blueprint photography, $91. Uncover the secret life of honey bees on an urban farm, $39. Bike through the city with a lifelong local, $42.

A good way to find experiences in your area is to search in google “AirBNB experiences [location or activity].”

I believe that this could change the game for parks and recreation. Why?

  • Finally! A way to reach a broad audience on a very established platform to advertise our programs and services
  • We can move away from free programs (that aren’t sustainable) to charging reasonable rates for the programs and services that we offer. Learn more about cost recovery here.
  • We can start being more creative with our programs and services. With this platform, you can try a new program, post it online, and see if you get traction.
  • Why do ALL of our programs have to be sent to the rec guide 4 months in advance, only to be cancelled if they don’t fill? You have no way of knowing the true potential of programs unless you try it out.
  • Variable testing will allow you to find out which programs are popular by listening to the response of your community.
  • Many long time outdoor enthusiasts and managers may dismiss this new trend. They may call it a fad that will fade. But for those of us who are passionate about making outdoor experiences accessible for all, this movement may be the kickstarter for the change we wish to see in the outdoor rec scene.

We can see the viability for small business and land owners to utilize these online apps? But what about park and recreation managers? When will we start to truly value innovation?

What do you think? Would you ever consider using these platforms for your programs? Let me know in the comments!

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