Why the business of outside is exploding
At the start of the lockdowns in March, there were few places to go but outside. Five months in and with at least some opportunity to go to places we once could go without question – open-air areas in restaurants and bars, retailers of all kinds – many New Jerseyans are opting to spend their free time outdoors, and not just because it’s summer.
Year-over-year comparisons from outdoor businesses of various kinds tells a similar story: This year’s numbers are higher than last year’s. This year’s numbers, in some cases, hit record levels.
“It’s been an interesting summer. It’s been a crazy ride, that’s for sure,” said Hugh Reynolds, vice president of marketing and sales at Mountain Creek in Vernon, which hosts skiing in winter and has a bike park, golf course, and water park for the non-snowy months.
The mountain bike park is up 25 percent in season passes over last year and 7 percent over its best year ever. At the golf course, memberships are up 20 percent year to date, with the course virtually sold out daily since it opened except during inclement weather.
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“When COVID came, we pulled back some of the orders, and our vendors did as well,” said Jason Fenton, who owns Halter’s Cycles in Skillman. “But there was a rush on bikes, and with that in mind we brought in more than we ever had. And we crushed everything we could get.”
“If there’s any silver linings to come out of these last six months, first is the amount of time that we’re all finding to spend with family. I look at myself personally and I’ll probably never get this much time to spend with my family at home again. And with that, you’re also seeing this return to nature. People are getting fatigued of being stuck in the house and they’re looking to get out and spend quality time together outdoors. I see it in my personal life. I go to my local mountain trail center where I used to see six people on the weekend, now I easily pass 20 people every time I go out,” Reynolds said. “You look at any business that has to do with the outdoors and they’re booming. Anyone who sells anything to outdoor recreation is doing well right now. That’s what I’m hearing and seeing, talking to local reps who sell products to the retailers. They’re experiencing it, and retailers are, too, and I’m seeing it with my own eyes.”
Rounds of golf are up 38 percent year to date, despite missing a month or more of business and being subject to 25 percent capacity limits throughout May and half of June until state officials lifted the capacity limitations so long as golf courses could maintain social distancing. Reynolds said a lot of that business is coming through midweek visitation.
“People are finding better work-life balance, and with the ability to work from home, they’re finding ways to be more efficient,” Reynolds said.
At the municipal Par 3 golf course and members-only tennis courts in Millburn and Short Hills, Assistant Superintendent of Recreation Neil Healy has noticed a similar trend. Compared to last year, golf memberships are up 32 percent while tennis court memberships are up 49 percent.
“The play has increased immensely because people are working from home, unfortunately some are not working, and some may have retired,” Healy said. “People aren’t leaving the town as much. They’re staying here and enjoying the nice facilities we have. I’d think nationally that travel is down, and people are staying home and doing things they’re capable of doing during this time.”
He noted that while an average game of golf elsewhere could take around five hours, the 1,200 yard Par 3 course is “a nice, enjoyable unstressful hour and a half out, and [then you] go on your way.”
Currently, the golf course, which costs $180 per year plus a $9 greens fee on weekends, has 856 members; while the tennis courts have 963 members. Residents of contiguous towns are permitted to buy memberships at Par 3.
Down the shore, folks aren’t just walking around the boardwalk or laying on the beach. At Grassy Sound Marina in Middle Township, crabbing and fishing boats are out in multiples compared to previous years.
“Boat rentals are off the charts, and we’re selling way more gas for boats on the water. Friends of mine who are boat dealers are saying that people are buying anything that floats, and our outdoor restaurant [The Lazy Bayside Bar & Grill] is booming—it’s new this year. It was opened in June, and it’s booming,” said owner Debbie Mooers.
The same goes for the marina’s 284-foot pier, where she said people are constantly fishing and crabbing.
“I’m working really hard—we’re working really long, really hard hours. It’s nonstop. More gas, more boat rentals, more people fishing and crabbing on the pier, more inquiries. If we had 100 pontoon boats, we’d be able to rent 100 out every day, it’s nuts,” Mooers said. “The boat traffic, compared to previous years, is at least two or three times the amount of boats on the water.”
They’re figuring out how to structure their work so they can get as much recreation time in as possible.
— Hugh Reynolds, vice president of sales & marketing, Mountain Creek Resorts
She was concerned about the summer earlier on in the pandemic after what she called “a ton of cancellations” at the two AirBnb homes she owns near the marina. But now, with the opportunity for outdoor recreation and the no-brainer that is social distancing on the water, the AirBnbs are booked through the summer; and her boat slips are fully booked for the season with no room for transients.
“People are outside. It’s a safe place to be, and they’re on the water,” Mooers said.
Back up north at Mountain Creek, bike rentals are up 55 percent over last year. While many hobbyists have their own equipment to ride, Mountain Creek’s 60-bike fleet allows the inexperienced to come to the mountain and give downhill riding a try. People come in from urban areas looking to get out and enjoy nature in a challenging, new way, Reynolds said, and about 10 percent of them do so with Mountain Creek’s “Experience Downhill” beginner package.
The busiest day on the mountain this year brought in around 450 people, with average weekend day attendance hovering between 300 and 350 over Mountain Creek’s 40 miles of trails.
But the uptick in ridership isn’t just based on newbies coming in from the city. There’s a whole segment of mountain bike riders who traditionally spend their summer weekends traveling around the Northeast to visit or compete in races at other parks; but with travel restrictions and a largely cancelled racing season, folks are sticking to their local trails.
“Instead of doing two or four days with us, they’re doing all of their riding with us, so we’re benefiting from that. And that’s something that we’ve seen on the ski side – in times of economic downturn, Mountain Creek and other ski areas in this region have benefited from that in terms of visitation because whereas people would normally take a weekend to go up north or out west, they’re forgoing that due to economic restrictions or travel restrictions,” Reynolds explained. “So they’re finding close-to-home opportunities to do things they love locally,” Reynolds said. “In challenging times, the local drive-to resorts tend to benefit, or at least not hurt as much as, the larger destination resorts that depend on people taking longer trips to get to them.”
And, as with golf, he cites the bike park’s midweek attendance, calling it “the best he’s ever seen” in his 10-plus years with the park.
“They’re figuring out how to structure their work so they can get as much recreation time in as possible. We’re seeing a lot of Monday through Friday 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. [business]. People are maybe cutting their workday short, because they know they can make it up when they get home.”o