Hailing from the rugged hills of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the wetlands of Metro Detroit, Michigan's foremost outdoor organizations just gathered in Traverse City for the 2023 Michigan Outdoor Summit. We were lucky enough to join them and gather these invaluable takeaways from the Summit.
"Think of us like a base camp for the outdoors - we've got a big tent, so everyone should fit just fine. Come curious, leave inspired."
That is how the talented marketing team for the 2023 Michigan Outdoor Summit promoted the event, and we at Expedition Detroit found ourselves immediately hooked. Although let's be honest, selling a mid-week, early fall conference in Traverse City shouldn't pose too much of a challenge. Especially when the summit features an opportunity for all sectors of the outdoor economy in Michigan to connect, learn, grow, and collaboratively build a vision for the future, health, and vitality of Michigan’s outdoors. We were down to book after the first Instagram posting crossed our feed back in July.
Like any startup, our primary goal at the Michigan Outdoor Summit was simply to introduce ourselves, make connections, and learn more about we can solidify a strategic place in Michigan's outdoor economy. I can confidently report that we accomplished all three objectives, but the learn component truly characterized the predominant value of the Summit.
Through presentations sponsored by formidable institutions like the nation's leading outdoor advocacy organization, Outdoor Industry Association, and the Michigan Outdoor Industry Office, to more intimate panels featuring representatives from small nonprofits like Friendship Miles and podcasts like Points North, the Michigan Outdoor Summit successfully and beautifully depicted the full spectrum of our state's outdoor industry. The successes. The challenges. The culture. And the opportunities for continued, sustainable growth.
By the time the Michigan Outdoor Summit wrapped up on Wednesday evening, I packed up my truck with two bags of merch, a stack of business cards from new contacts, a head filled to the brim with inspiration, and a notebook filled with my chicken-scratch takeaways from the conference.
This article synthesizes those notes into our most important takeaways from the Summit. Key themes that will undeniably impact the future of Michigan's outdoor economy for years, if not generations, to come. Four significant aspects of our industry that Expedition Detroit proudly endorses and will continue to support as integral to our mission.
1. PANDEMIC PASSION FOR THE OUTDOORS REMAINS STRONG
In case you missed it, Michigan's outdoor economy boomed in the midst of the pandemic - and the pace hasn't let up. Our state's outdoor recreation industry contributed $10.8 Billion in value-add in 2021, supporting 110,000 jobs and $4.7 billion in compensation to employee households. Michigan's outdoor recreation economy also continues to impact local retailers across the state - to the tune of $2.7 Billion - accounting for nearly 32% of the total value-add impact. Retail jobs supporting outdoor recreation totaled just under 41,000, while there are more than 7,000 outdoor recreation industry companies in Michigan ranging from manufacturing to hospitality and service providers.
These exciting stats follow the macroeconomic trend for the United States' outdoor recreation industry as a whole. As Rich Harper of the Outdoor Industry Association stated during his presentation at the Michigan Outdoor Summit, the outdoor industry now represents an $862 Billion force to be reckoned with, including a 2.3% industry growth in 2022. The post-pandemic spike in outdoor recreation across the country means that our industry has earned immensely more leverage in the national and international arena, including its ability to positively influence legislation, industrial sustainability, and conservation practices.
For the attendees at the Michigan Outdoor Summit, these statistics reinforce the fundamental economic notion that the market is rewarding our investment in outdoor recreational innovation. Simply put, the pandemic introduced millions of Americans to the physical, mental, and general lifestyle benefits of a life spent in the great outdoors. Nearly four years later, those lasting experiences continue to influence the habits of consumers, especially those that fell in love with the Detroit region's parks, trails, and waterways.
This is amazing news for our team and everyone working within the outdoor recreation industry. Better yet, these trends all but ensure that your favorite retailers, park managers, and outdoor media companies like Expedition Detroit will continue fine-tuning our products and processes for your benefit. Who doesn't love a win-win scenario?
2. NECESSITY OF BUILDING AN INCLUSIVE OUTDOOR STATE
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives - commonly referred to as "DEI" - have held a central pillar in the progression of the outdoor economy for several years now. From industry-leading retailers and advocacy groups to governmental agencies, the outdoor industry as a whole has sought to advocate for and implement such policies throughout every facet of their operations. For example, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources prominently stated within their "Five Year Strategic Plan" that the DNR will remain "committed to fostering and promoting an environment focused on equity and inclusion to expand and broaden the diversity of its visitors and workforce," including the implementation of improvements "to ensure the provision of acceptable service to all visitors, regardless of ability, ethnic background, and location."
DEI initiatives on their face are fantastic and undeniably necessary for the growth and sustainability of the outdoor recreation history. While the great outdoors represents a hallowed destination for millions of Americans to find peace and refuge from modern society, the sad truth remains that this has not - and for certain demographics, still does not - reflect the experience of all aspiring American recreationists. Discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and identity has left a deep stain on our outdoor culture. One requiring intentional action to alleviate and overcome towards creating an inclusive and vibrant industry.
While the attendees at the Michigan Outdoor Summit appeared unanimously in support of DEI initiatives across our industry, there was a glaring elephant in the conference room. One that the summit's main spokesperson so eloquently stated:
"Guys, I know that the last person to be speaking on this at an outdoor summit is another white man in a flannel."
As I looked around the room, the vast majority of conference participants were also white men - and to a lesser degree, white women - in flannels (myself included). The point that the presenter was making didn't reflect the early fall fashion choices of white men, but rather that even after years of advocating for DEI throughout Michigan's outdoor industry, the demographics at its most important summit still reflected how much work in this arena remains unfulfilled. The point struck home, and we at Expedition Detroit truly believe that our industry will immensely benefit from the expanded consumer base, breadth of ideas, and exponential recreational engagement stemming from successful DEI implementation.
While us white men in flannels will most likely continue to fill many seats at the Michigan Outdoor Summit for years to come, I personally am looking forward to learning and collaborating with a more diverse pool of summit participants and presenters in the years to come.
3. DEFINING THE FUTURE OF MICHIGAN'S OUTDOOR CULTURE
When Expedition Detroit launched roughly a year ago, we designed our platform to predominantly connect with two demographics. In line with our second takeaway, the first demographic involves Metro Detroit residents that may have also internalized a societal stigma that "the outdoors aren't for us." Whether that rationale originated from discriminatory, social, economic, or familial sentiments, we wanted to create a company that demonstrated that Detroit's world class outdoor ecosystem is accessible for everyone.
The second demographic may surprise you, but it is equally important for the sustainability of Michigan's outdoor economy. A demographic that often wields the most power in effectuating change, regardless of whether that change benefits or harms a region's outdoor culture.
The demographic that I, and most of the constituents at the Michigan Outdoor Summit, fall into: the established outdoor enthusiasts.
Who fits into this demographic? Recreationists of every race, gender, and background that were fortunate enough to either grow up experiencing the outdoors or find a way to dedicate years of their lives to developing their passion for an outdoor lifestyle. If you've ever gone on a backpacking trip up north, a ski trip out west, multiple extended hunting or fishing trips, or carry a REI Co-op Card, then yes, you're in this demographic.
For better or for worse, this "established" demographic will define the culture of Michigan's outdoor industry for the foreseeable future. Beyond deciding how and where to spend their recreational dollars, this demographic also carries the responsibility of acting as the de facto ambassadors for our state's outdoor recreation industry. Will we continue to discount and devalue the spectacular beauty of Michigan's natural environment when compared to the mountainous regions of our continent? Will we perpetuate the long-held and ill-founded stereotypes and prejudices that once defined an outdoor lifestyle as an exclusive "Boy's Club"?
Or will we initiate a new chapter in the long and storied history of Michigan's outdoors? One where a vibrant, diverse, and accomplished consumer base demonstrates to the world that often overlooked destinations like the Detroit region contain adventurous, accessible, and conservation-worthy ecosystems. An era where the Great Lakes region sets the new golden standard for how to reimagine and develop a sustainable outdoor industry.
Accomplished outdoor enthusiast Stacy Bare, a presenter at the Michigan Outdoor Summit, described this sentiment perfectly in his article "The Great Lakes Called. We Answered." for The Boardman Review. We'll let Stacy close out this section in his own words:
The outdoor people, you, and me, can and should be the leaders in all these reconciliations necessary in Michigan . . . This means we need to not just talk about, but also show, that the experience in a neighborhood or county park in Detroit or Bay City, can be just as incredible as a multi-day hike through the Porkies, which can be just as fine as a drift boat on the Grand or sitting in a deer stand on your uncle's farm just outside Grayling.
4. MASSIVE INVESTMENTS IN MICHIGAN'S OUTDOOR ECONOMY
Of all of the takeaways from the Michigan Outdoor Summit, this fourth and final one may be the one that we're the most excited about. Beyond encompassing each of the earlier takeaways - the future of Michigan's outdoor economy depends on continuing growth metrics, an inclusive consumer base, and proactive culture - broad institutional investment in the future of the industry means that key stakeholders are willing to bet their dollars on our outdoors.
As demonstrated by the actions of large institutional organizations and international coalitions, major "game-changers" are actively investing in the future of the Great Lakes Region's outdoor economy. The most public example of this trend includes the binational collaboration involving the forthcoming Gordie Howe International Bridge. Stemming from a multinational investment into the creation of a "Great Lakes Tourism Experience," the completed bridge will feature a toll-free, multi-use, and two-way path for pedestrians and cyclists to walk or bike across the Windsor-Detroit border and connect onto adjacent road and trail networks like the Trans-Canada Trail and Iron Belle Trail. This collaboration also entails shared investment into marketing strategies, technology geared towards enhancing the trail-user experience, development of eco-tourism, and the promotion of conservation.
Within the state, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II recently announced a new $1,225,000 grant program and strategic collaboration aimed towards positioning Michigan as the country's leading state for outdoor recreation innovation, vehicle technology, and sustainability. Northern Michigan University - a presented at the Michigan Outdoor Summit - also offers an undergraduate degree in "Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management" and a master's degree in "Administration of Outdoor Recreation and Nature Based Tourism." Last, a massive $250 million in funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act will benefit a significant portion of the Michigan State Parks’ infrastructure needs.
These massive investments in Michigan's outdoor economy - especially in outdoor infrastructure throughout the Detroit region - have positioned our state to become an international leader in outdoor innovation and sustainable growth. The macroeconomic pieces are all falling into place, from cross-industry collaborations involving facilitative governmental action to small business dynamism partnering with effective grassroots advocacy. Like these new and improved Detroit Lions taking a formidable lead into the 4th quarter, all that we in the industry need to focus on is maintaining this momentum. The Lions do that via big sacks and steady drives; we accomplish that through developing industry-redefining opportunities, technologies, and experiences.
If we manage to reach that goal - and we at Expedition Detroit don't see any reason why we couldn't - then the sky is the limit for all that Michigan's outdoor industry can accomplish in this next century.
While we wish you could've joined us at the Michigan Outdoor Summit, our sincere hope is that this article ignites the same fire within you that inspires our passion for Michigan's growing outdoor industry. Our state's best days on the trail are truly ahead of us, thanks largely to the cross-industry consumers and providers that reinforce our commitment to Michigan's thriving outdoor economy on a daily basis.
We'd like to close out this article with a special thank you to Land of Outsiders, Heart of the Lakes, the Michigan Outdoor Industry Office, and the other sponsors of the Michigan Outdoor Summit. Simply put, you all crushed it with an engaging, collaborative, and inspiring conference. Well done.
We can't wait see you all next year.