September 30, 2022
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Vermont outdoor businesses watch to see if high gas prices deter tourists

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Kayakers navigate a section of whitewater on the Gihon River near the Power House covered bridge in Johnson on Sunday, May 2, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Steve Brownlee is waiting a few more weeks to get a picture of what his summer tour business is going to be like. 

Brownlee, the owner of Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, in Stowe, Richmond and Waterbury, organizes half-day tours on the Winooski and Lamoille rivers. 

“We do have advanced reservations that are coming in strong,” Brownlee told VTDigger, but he noted that people tend to book just a week or two ahead. Though he has a number of reservations after June 15, when most schools let out, Brownlee is expecting a slower summer because of high gas prices. 

As of Friday, the American Automotive Association (AAA) reported that the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Vermont was $5.03. 

Brownlee said people from Boston and New York may not drive as far north as Stowe because of those prices. About half his store customers hail from out of state. 

“I just had two gentlemen from New Hampshire, two nice little solo canoes a few minutes ago,” Brownlee said in an interview Thursday. “They could not get them at all down in their neck of the woods.”

The pandemic has also brought a flood of second-home owners from out of state eager to buy canoes and kayaks, Brownlee said. The newcomers are also those most likely to book canoe and kayak tours, Brownlee said, along with tourists staying in local lodges and short-term rentals. 

Vermonters tend to gravitate toward tubing tours and lake rentals, according to Brownlee. “That’s because those activities are shorter in duration and less expensive,” he said. “And so they seem to hit the budget for a lot of local folks.”

At the other end of the state, Parker Rice expects fuel prices to affect his business, too. 

Rice owns Equipe Sport and Mountain Riders, which operates in Rawsonville, Stratton Mountain and West Dover. 

“The major issue for us is just fuel prices, which are going to lead to travel issues,” Rice said. During the summer his out-of-state customers tend to come from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Rice, too, is waiting for schools to let out to get a better sense of what summer business will be like.

Gas prices are also affecting the cost of equipment at the outdoor businesses. 

Brownlee said the canoes and kayaks cost about 10% to 20% more than they did before the pandemic. He said fuel price increases have raised the cost of the resin used to make the boats as well as the cost of transporting them. And he observed that the cost of American and Canadian labor to make the product by hand has gone up, as well. He said he is paying his own employees more as they face higher fuel costs to get to work. 

Both outfitters report that business is slowing down to more moderate growth after a boom during the first two years of the pandemic. 

Brownlee said sales of canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards at his stores in Stowe and Richmond are stronger than before the pandemic but not as strong as they were in the last two years. 

“Those strong sales were based on people trying to get away from the crowds and go off into the wilderness,” Brownlee said.

Rice is also expecting business to grow more slowly now that the pandemic appears to be receding. 

“Our business is definitely not seeing the rapid growth that we saw during Covid,” he said. “We definitely saw unsustainable growth, and we’re seeing it flatten out a little bit, not in a bad way, just it’s becoming a little bit more measured.”

One reason for that, said Issa Sawabini, founder of FUSE Marketing, in Winooski, is that people have more options now. “I would expect growth of new participation to slow simply because there are more things to do and the outdoors isn’t that refuge that it’s been for the past few years,” Sawabini said. 

Outfitters are also reporting that supply-chain problems are largely behind them.

Brownlee said he was able to keep sales up at the height of the pandemic because he buys from 14 manufacturers, and so was always able to obtain canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.  He said competitors canceled orders as the pandemic hit, while he kept up his practice of ordering everything a year-and-a-half ahead. Because of that, he said, what supply chain problems he did face are behind him now. 

Rice said he is seeing supply-chain problems ease up, especially with international suppliers.

“Our international vendors are getting back to a much more normal cadence,” he said.

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