How do we keep from loving Colorado to death? One Outside Fest organizer says education and stewardship are key

Director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office Conor Hall (left) moderates a panel on the future of the outdoor industry including Denver Mayor Mike Johnston (right) on Friday, May 31, 2024. This was Day 1 of Outside Festival, called “The Summit.” Photo Courtesy of Backbone Media.

Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry generated $13.9 billion in 2022. That’s according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that a state with such a booming outdoors economy hosted an “Outside Festival” over the weekend. It was the first of its kind here, a massive two-day event with panels, workshops, networking opportunities, and some live music by the likes of Thundercat and Fleet Foxes.

Conor Hall, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, joined KGNU’s Jackie Sedley on the Morning Magazine. He worked with Boulder-based Outside Interactive, Inc. to develop Outside Fest.

Listen:

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    Conor Hall Jackie Sedley

Transcript:

Jackie Sedley: 8:09 on listener-supported KGNU. This is the Morning Magazine. I’m Jackie Sedley. Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry generated 13. 9 billion dollars in 2022. That’s according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that a state with such a booming outdoors economy hosted an outside festival over the weekend. It was the first of its kind here, a massive two day event with panels, workshops, networking opportunities, and some live music by the likes of Thundercat and Fleet Foxes. Here to talk about it is Connor Hall, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. He worked with Boulder-based Outside Interactive Inc. to develop the event. Good morning, Connor.

Conor Hall: Morning Jackie, great to be with you this morning.

Sedley: So let’s talk a bit, starting just with the festival. What inspired it and what did it provide to the community from your perspective that maybe wasn’t there before?

Hall: Yeah, great question. We were really happy with how the festival turned out this weekend and really there are a couple different components to the festival or the greater idea here. One of them was to, you know, really create the national gathering place for the outdoor industry but also for all those people that love the outdoors. 92 percent of Coloradans participate. In outdoor recreation on an annual basis. And that’s, you know, a huge percentage of the population. It crosses rural and urban divides you know, political divides, all these other divides. It really brings people together. And so we wanted to create that space to bring the industry and, and the people who love the outdoors all together in one place. And really, you know, it’s most akin to like a South by Southwest festival of all things outdoors. So we had on Friday, a full industry day. We had 570 or so industry leaders from across the country gathered together to talk about issues like growing the political voice of the outdoors sustainability and conservation trying to create more equitable access to the outdoors. The role of social media in, in the industry, some really, really interesting topics like that that was hugely successful. We had a huge workforce development event with, you know, a thousand people who want to be in the industry and, you know, 30 or 40 different brands or organizations that are hiring and a number of other great events. And then the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were the big public facing days. And so, we had, of course, the incredible music to bring people in, but we also had a whole film festival track that we created really focused on telling stories of inclusion in the outdoors. We had a whole ideas track with speakers like Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, Sean White, Diana Nyad, just some really interesting, inspiring recognizable figures and, and thought leaders. We had all kinds of different activations. There were there was a professional climbing wall, a kids climbing wall, an adaptive climbing wall, which we’re so happy about. All kinds of different kind of, you know, brands and, and things to do. We had a kid’s zone. The big focus on making it really family friendly. We let kids under 12 in for free. And so, you know, really just, again, a celebration of, you know, the outdoors of Colorado is really the mecca of all things outdoors.

Sedley: You mentioned panels and conversations that are political, talking about equity, sustainability. Colorado, as I mentioned at the top, generated 13.9 billion in 2022. And that involves factors that people may feel like are sometimes contradictory to environmental sustainability. One example is tourism. Like I said, we’re the number one state in the country for snow activities. I wanted to ask you, Conor, what is the Colorado Outdoors Recreation Industry Office doing to mitigate the environmental impact of travelers to Colorado? Kind of, how do we keep from loving Colorado to death?

Hall: It’s a, it’s a really great question and it’s an important question. And the reality is that, you know, you never, fully fix or solve that it’s, it’s not a problem in that sense. It’s, it’s a polarity. It’s something that you’re always seeking balance in. And so in, in this question you know, we saw a huge increase in usage of the outdoors through the pandemic. There was a UPenn study that said that usage increased nearly 20%. And there were probably between 14 and 60 million new users in the outdoors. And many of them came to Colorado because we are known for our outdoors. And that created some real challenges in especially along the ice heavy corridor, along some of our mature tourist destinations. And so we’ve been working, you know, closely now for some time with a lot of other partners, maybe most importantly the Colorado Tourism Office, which is a sister division, to shift just focus and resources to destination stewardship and management. And we’ve you know, worked with many of those destinations to help them do stewardship plans. And, and those really do have to come from the community so we can support. But each one is a little bit unique based on the community. And also shift you know. We shifted some of the marketing, destination marketing money to, you know, try to bring people to Colorado to destination stewardship and getting out messaging, targeted messaging to tourists about Leave No Trace or the Duke Colorado Right campaign and, you know, we’ve, we’ve seen that be you know, fairly effective, but the other piece of this is just You know, education and, and education in a way that’s not consent, you know, condescending I think that generally speaking, when people experience the outdoors and are you know, kind of taught the way to do it, you know, leave no trace or do it in a responsible, respectful fashion you know, people generally tend to want to steward the outdoors, but again, we don’t always, you know, teach that in the right way. And so the more that we can educate kids, especially to become lifelong stewards it, it changes that stewardship ethic right there. But in, in terms of what we’re doing, you know, local plans that are around stewardship, we’re, we’re now just finishing up begin with CTO’s leadership, the statewide stewardship plan. That is the first know that we’ve done in Colorado. Shifting some of those resources into destination stewardship, and then you know. helping support local organizations that are doing that work. Again, some of them education, some of them nonprofit, but we’ve got a lot of great organizations in Colorado.

Sedley: The outdoor industry has an inherently strong stake in environmental health, right? Since it’s largely the beauty of the natural world that attracts people to come ski and hike. In rock climb. But we also see, again, a lot of those conflicting interests in Colorado. We have renowned ski resorts in places like Aspen, but we also have Suncor, one of the country’s biggest polluters. And so from a leadership perspective where how can you prioritize both, how can you prioritize booming outdoor recreation industry? And also understand that Colorado is far from perfect, and that there are a lot of initiatives working to address the negative environmental aspects in this state, not just the forward facing, environmentally conscious and inviting place.

Hall: Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s the reality of, you know, modern life, really. We have to balance those things. I think that oftentimes we can leverage, you know, the outdoors and the beauty of our nature and the way that, you know, we get to enjoy it, hopefully leverage that to drive positive change on the other pieces. We know that if we, you know, if our air quality doesn’t improve or continues to degrade, it’s tougher for us to be outside. It’s detrimental to our health. People develop asthma. There’s all kinds of other negative health impacts. So, Again, we know all these things to be true. We also know that, you know, there are jobs and economic impact attached to some of those other industries as well that can have a negative environmental impact. And so it’s the, it’s that balance we’re working on, which is, you know, maybe with regulation or different policies increasing the standard, the environmental standards around those industries. In some cases, those industries are being, are going away due to market forces. You know, I look to you know, some of the power plants down in Pueblo or Craig. And, you know, those are huge sources of generally good, good paying staple jobs and, and that’s, you know, been tough on those communities. And so we’re working pretty deeply in those communities to expand their outdoor recreation economies. That’s not going to be a one for one trade but we know that if we can diversify those economies that will be tremendously helpful. And one thing about outdoor recreation is that it exists in every community in Colorado. Again, when 92 percent of Coloradans do this, when we get 90 million visitors a year from around the country it exists strongly in every, every place. And it’s, and it’s, you know, something that people do and love. And so it’s a very natural thing, I think. You know, an economic pivot for many of those communities that have relied on maybe traditionally extractive industries.

Sedley: And with just about 45 seconds here or so, based on what you’ve said, it sounds like Outside Fest was a success. Will there be another one next year? Was it a one-off, or is this something that’ll continue?

Hall: Nope, there will absolutely be another one next year, and I think the year after that. We are. Pretty bullish with Outside Interactive that we want to grow this again into the South by Southwest of all things outdoors, in a way to bring the industry together, but also bring the public together to celebrate and champion the great outdoors.

Sedley: And did it seem like a lot of people were coming in from outside, kind of speaking on that tourism aspect with the environment? That could probably be a little tricky.

Hall: Yeah, so we, we haven’t, we don’t have the final numbers yet, but we were tracking right around 20 percent of folks coming in from, you know, outside of Colorado, which is, again, great to drive economic impact and, you know, hotel spends and, and other kind of key pieces. But, you know, also important to bring those folks in to, you know, enrich that conversation, really make this something national and establish and, you know, clarify Colorado as, again, that true mecca of all things outdoors.

Sedley: Conor Hall, Director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, speaking about Outside Fest that happened this past weekend. Conor, thanks for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

Hall: Yeah. Thanks so much, Jackie.

Picture of Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley

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