The 23 students gathered from across the West. The skiers, climbers, bikers, paddlers, hunters and anglers strolled around the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show floor earlier this month, immersing themselves in an industry that desperately needs them.
“We are doing this on a charge from the outdoor industry, which was saying we want people who have these skills and these toolkits that are hard to find in the industry,” said Peter Sherman, the Western Colorado University business school dean who last year assembled the team directing the nation’s first-ever outdoor-industry MBA program. “The outdoor industry too often has to look outside its boundaries to fill executive-level positions. We hope to change that.”
This first cohort of students pursuing graduate degrees in outdoor business administration are the future of an industry that is establishing itself as an economic force with as much might as as the auto, energy and pharmaceutical industries.
With the outdoor economy accounting for $887 billion in annual spending and pursuing specific political agendas on public lands, sustainability and conservation, Sherman and three other professors at Western Colorado have forged yet another level of legitimacy for recreation, which has long languished as a leisurely pursuit rather than a critical economic engine.
When Western Colorado took the leap in 2018, the university hoped to register six students — maybe even 10 — to the MBA program that they had been planning for a year. They enlisted 23 students, all hailing from different career paths but eager to take the first step toward a formal education in an industry that typically shapes leaders with on-the-job training.
“This is an absolutely rigorous business program,” said Dan Robertson, who came to Colorado from the corporate world in Washington, D.C., several years ago to own and run a rafting company in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. “I moved to this state because I wanted to be in the business of the outdoors. And how lucky am I to be in the first class. We are becoming more and more professional and more advanced, and we are pushing a trillion dollars in our collective impact. Now, more than ever, you need to have a strong business education to help build the business of the outdoors.”
“This can be pretty dog-eat-dog”
The two-year, 36-credit program has all the hallmarks of a typical MBA, with accounting, finance-management and capital-budgeting classes. (During their immersion at the retailer show, the students were required to pretty much always have their financial calculators in reach.)
But it’s an MBA program like no other, with deep dives on the outdoor industry’s most pressing issues, including sustainability, climate, stewardship, water, diversity, public lands, social-media strategy, global trade and supply-chain management. At the end of their two years, the students will work with an outdoor company on a final project that, in all likelihood, will result in more than a grade, with new products and services finding their way into the market.
The online program — which has immersion sessions such as those last week at the retailer show, as well as internship-like work at Crested Butte Mountain Resort — offers students two tracks. The product concentration directs study toward areas such as innovative product development, sourcing and supply-chain sustainability. The service concentration focuses on resort management, working with federal land-management regulations and customer experience.
“It’s been really cool to see this creativity,” said professor Jay Whitacre, whose Gunnison Valley career includes consulting with entrepreneurs eager to bring new products to market. “But this can be pretty dog-eat-dog in this industry when it comes to making products.”
The students work in close teams. They are building relationships they know will linger over long careers in the outdoor industry. These students probably will have a lasting impact on the industry, not only with their formal business educations but also with the camaraderie they built as they paved a new path.
“We are all really passionate about what we do,” said Michael Clayton of his fellow students, all of whom have both work and play experience in the realm of recreation. “And that gives us more respect for our conversations and different perspectives.”
Diversifying the industry
The recreation industry is an extremely diverse lot that only recently began finding common ground to create a unified voice in the political arena.
So, on top of the teamwork and financial analysis, Sherman and his professors — Whitacre, Brooke Moran and D. Scott Borden — are pushing into political and cultural topics that challenge the future of recreation as a business.
As a warming climate tests the resilience of ski areas, one assignment has the students creating a marketing plan for resorts that could be snowless by 2050.
In another, they are studying political pushes to protect public lands and to make them more accessible — two missions that can clash. Students review case studies on brands that have taken up the mantle of climate and public lands, as well as other brands that avoid stepping into contentious political discussions.
They study the growing push for sustainability in production, hearing from overseas manufacturers on the challenges of, say, getting a factory in China to follow progressive recycling protocols. They hear from sustainable tourism promoters seeking to ease the impact of visiting masses in sensitive, remote areas.
They contemplate the future of conservation funding, which could soon spread beyond the shoulders of hunters and anglers whose spending on gear and licenses support most of the country’s recreational-land protection. They talk about the need for the industry to reach into underprivileged communities and grow new generations of outdoor enthusiasts among people of color.
“We absolutely have to and need to talk about these things head-on and serve a diverse population and explore how we can influence the industry so it’s not just rad dudes pulling down hard on every magazine, or the woman in the sports bra,” Moran said. “It’s unavoidable. We need talk about all these things.”
“It’s a tricky world out there, and we are not avoiding any topic,” Borden said. “We have issues in this industry that span across political divides, and this industry is really more similar than we are different.”
A program still taking shape
The students are helping to shape the program as well.
Matt Swanson spent more than 20 years with Oakley, eventually reaching a top-level corporate position that had him jetting across the globe with the brand’s high-profile athletes, promoting Oakley’s latest-and-greatest innovations. Then he lost his dream job during corporate downsizing.
He then spent four years shopping his expertise to different brands, and today he, at age 48, is among the oldest students in the Western Colorado MBA cohort, learning a new career and offering insight to younger students.
“In this program, we are learning how we need to fail to move forward. That’s something I know,” he said among his team of students who are scheming a hypothetical event scenario at a remote ski resort, a job that he did in real life at his previous career. “I will say this, taking on this MBA, at age 48, … will be the hardest challenge I’ve taken in my career.”
The outdoor MBA program at Western Colorado was a vision of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper and his first outdoor-recreation chief, Luis Benitez. When Benitez stepped into office, he hit the road. The politicos called it a “listening tour.” At every stop, he visited with outdoor businesses, where he asked what’s missing as they planned for the future. And every business owner said the same thing: We need workforce training and education at every level.
At last week’s Snow Show, Benitez hung out at the Western Colorado MBA booth, which was staffed with a rotation of students.
“Dozens of company executives from different brands — the biggest in the world — we’re stopping by saying they’ve got mid-level managers and high-potential employees they want in this program,” Benitez said. “We are an industry that grows up within our own walls. So to get this kind of external global perspective and really nerd out on case studies on things like situational leadership for supply-chain management and global trade and social strategies — I’m just supremely confident this program will generate the next evolution of leadership for our industry.”