Rick Saez’s Outdoor Biz Podcast Episode #299 – How To Future-Proof Your Outdoor Business In The Digital Age With SIA President Nick Sargent
October 26, 2021
The unexpected pandemic impacted a large number of businesses, most especially in the outdoor industry. So the question everyone now asks is, how can you future-proof your business with such seemingly fickle circumstances? Today’s guest is Nick Sargent, President of SnowSports Industries America(SIA). SIA is an organization on a mission to help the winter outdoor community thrive by delivering invaluable education, data, and research. Nick joins host Rick Saez to offer advice on how businesses can adapt as the world moves toward a more digital and consumer-centric approach. He also speaks on why it’s important to value diversity, inclusion, and sustainable action as we dive into the future. Tune in to learn more!
How To Future – Proof Your Outdoor Business In The Digital Age With SIA President Nick Sargent [EP 299]
SIA has evolved to become much more than a trade organization. President Nick Sargent tells us how they’ve changed about their six pillars: advocacy, consumers, participation, inclusion, education, and insights, and how via these six pillars, they’re affording members the tools they need to future proof their businesses as well.
I (Rick Saez) am talking with Nick Sargent from SIA, Snowsports Industries America, for those of you who are not in the industry. Welcome to the show, Nick.
Thanks for having me glad to be here.
Good to be chatting with you. Was it blustery there in Park City?
It started out sunny. It got cloudy, windy, rainy, then snowing. We are experiencing a number of seasons in the afternoon but we’re okay with that. We want the snow.
We got the same thing here in the Eastside. The mountains were all socked, the wind kicked up in the afternoon, but we’re all good. I always start off by trying to find out how everybody was introduced to the outdoors. Tell us how you were introduced to the outdoors.
It was pretty simple. In our family, we were raised in Vermont and the outdoors was our playground. I have three brothers and we’re all very rambunctious. As you can imagine, most mothers with boys, you’re instructed to get out of the house and stay out until dinner. We grew up outside, running around in the woods, building cabins and forks, running around farm fields, and having a ball. I think that was before the outdoor lifestyle. That was just part of our life. We love Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. We were always trying to emulate and trying to find trouble.
Tell us about your first time on skis.
I don’t recall the exact moment. I know it was in the ’70s. I was 5 or 6. An uncle possibly gave me a Nordic setup. I had a lot of energy. Whether it was summer or winter, the rule from my mom was saying stay outside. That Nordic setup, once I figured it out, it gave me a lot of freedom. I was able to ski all over town and the area I grew up in. I even Nordic ski to school. That was cool both ways. It’s the things you could do back in the ’70s.
How about your most recent time on skis?
I had a good one on this past winter of 2020. COVID was good in some ways, not so good in others. Living here in Utah was dry up until mid-January or so, and then February, it dumped. I had a buddy with a sprinter van. All decked out on the interior, we went to Powder Mountain. We hit it. It was nice to have a little coffee in the van, do some laps, do some cat turns, and then finish it off with some libations in the van. It was great. I’ve never done that before.
I’ve never done that either. These guys with these vans are just the way to go. It looks really comfy.
It’s the way to go for sure. In Powder Mountain, when you hit that place, it is just all time. It’s mellow and laid back. The powder was deep.
Do you get big plans going in 2021? Are you going to stay close to home and ski? Do you get any overseas plans?
I’m looking at all different things. I just don’t know what the restrictions are going to be. I went to Japan in January 2020, just before COVID. It was such a great trip. I’m jonesing for something like that. It’s also hard when you live in Utah. You get the best of everything. You got to take it with strides.
You’ve been with SIA since 2016. Aside from the pandemic, how has the industry changed you think in the previous years?
How has it not changed? I know it’s hard to believe I’ve been here for a couple of years. My last job prior to SIA was at Burton Snowboards. Burton was leading this charge of consumer opening flagship direct-to-consumer working with the wholesale channel to support everything. I got hands-on experience with that. I’ve always followed this industry and how it’s becoming more consumer-centric. Certainly, over the last handful of years, we’re seeing retailers move to more of this experiential retail environment. They’re catering to what the consumers want and what they expect.
When I was at Burton, we were one of the first winter brands, if not the first winter brand. I could be mistaken there but that opened Burton.com. We got a lot of heat for it. The rising tide lifted all ships. During these last few years, we have seen brands that are moving to support both wholesale and direct-to-consume so that consumers can have that option of buying in-store and/or online and again, meeting the consumer where they are.
You got to be everywhere because the consumers are everywhere.
Over the last handful of years, we’re seeing retailers move to more of this experiential retail environment, and they’re really catering to what the consumers want and what they expect.
COVID was the greatest accelerator of this. We had nothing to do, but sit at home and shop on the internet, daily runs of UPS, FedEx, and Prime. When I started at SIA, it’s what I was preparing our members to start looking towards. I was still wearing my burden hat at the time a little bit. I couldn’t see a different way. Kids only buy certain products that meet certain criteria of price, delivery, frequency, and things like that.
I’m seeing life through my kids’ eyes, but I’m also looking it through my day job and my business hat on, how technology has become more important in how the industry does business, whether it’s B2B or B2C. Those that are already within our industry start becoming more aware of that climate of technology, the internet, the effects, how you can work with your wholesale channel, and how you can support your needs through direct. We’re going to see a lot of some significant change. It’s going to be fast. Nothing in this digital space is slow.
SIA is a trade organization, but you guys have evolved to become much more than that. How do you view yourself now? Who are you and how do you look at yourself?
When I inherited this job, we were a trade show organization focused on one trade show. I was hired under the guidelines of change and modernization. What I did was make this transition from a trade show organization to a trade organization to support the industry. We are the vehicle for the industry. Our mission is to help the winter outdoor community thrive. To do that, we’ve created six pillars, which provide a roadmap to help our members drive their business and the industry grow and thrive into the future.
What do you guys offer your members before we dig into the six pillars?
I’ll give you the six pillars. We focus on advocacy, consumers, education, inclusion, insights, and participation. Those are the six pillars that guide us. Those are the initiatives that create the roadmap. The question was, “What do you offer your members?” We offer a roadmap utilizing the six pillars to help your business thrive. We do that through education, in-person, virtual, everything from technology to consumer, the insights to inclusion. We offer year-round education in the winter outdoor community.
That was shown probably the brightest during COVID while everyone was at home trying to figure out how to work and what’s this new work from home model. We produced over 70 different education pieces from eCommerce, tariffs, inclusion, PPP loans, how to survive COVID and UPC. Also, we’re focusing on growing the industry through a diverse group of participants.
Understanding the numbers around who’s participating in outdoor sports, where do you come from, what do you do, when do you purchase, how much do you purchase, and how frequently do you purchase. Giving our members direct access, not only to participants but direct access to consumers, we had bought a consumer platform. Probably the timing wasn’t so good when we bought it. We closed in January of 2020 and then COVID hit.
Nobody knew, so we had to put our plans on the back burner. The good news was we bought this platform for the consumer database. We bought a couple of hundred thousand names. We were able to communicate with those people. Like us who are working from home, wanting to get outside and participate as was the consumer base, we were able to have direct access to that.
How did you guys pull off the training? You got a YouTube channel or something. How did that work? A lot of Zoom calls, I’m sure.
A ton of Zoom calls, a ton of panels, webinars, and Facebook Live, any type of digital access, we were using it as was everyone else. Most importantly, everything that was recorded. If you are a member of SIA, you can go into the member portal on Snowsports.org and you can access all of this library of content. It was super cool.
Did you do anything in person?
I’m glad you asked that. I think the answer is no.
I don’t think anybody did, but I got to ask. There’s a handful of people that did.
We tried but no one was ready for that yet. It was fun and great. Beyond that, we also are doing advocacy. We have a climate platform called ClimateUnited. We focus a lot on tariffs. That’s a huge topic between the US and China relations and the growth of tariffs. We create a lot of impactful data, consumer insights, trends, habits, and the season retail. Also, sales data, winter sport recreation participation, annual wholesale sales and orders. We do a ton of custom research capabilities to name a few. We’ll get into some of the other stuff but those are a few of the benefits that we provide our members.
I’m glad you guys had the climate piece in there, too because climate sustainability these days are a couple of my hot buttons. Being here in the Eastern Sierra, I guess everywhere, no one’s exempt from it, but we got to fast-track some of that stuff.
When I took on this role, I was already down the climate path in my job at Burton and starting to formulate thoughts around the what ifs. What if there is no snow? There’s no winter business.
The future is consumer.
What if it’s a full-on drought? There’s nothing exactly.
I had spent tons of winter in Vermont, where it poured Christmas week and anyone that’s spent time for Vermont knows that you can expect that Christmas week. This whole notion of climate and is it science-based, I don’t believe in it, or you’re full of malarkey, whatever that was. When I took on this role at SIA, I’m like, “This is going to be a huge initiative for the industry. I want to front-load SIA. I want to become a resource back to our members.”
You don’t have to join right away if you’re a little slow or just need a little more time or whatever that is, it’s fine by me, but we knew it was an imperative and it was something we had to do. We created ClimateUnited. It’s a platform to unite and align the winter outdoor industry around meaningful climate action and guide them along the way.
What does that mean? It’s pretty simple. You can join our climate pact and you can be part of an industry pact. We have a set of achievable principles that you can align with your company and our industry. The second is that those who join the pact can use the Climate Lab, which includes a playbook and valuable resources to help them achieve the goal that they set for their organization. This is all included in the cost of your membership.
What are some of those things that you help them do? Do you help them to reduce their energy footprint?
It’s as simple as putting in LED lights and a recycling receptacle at the very ground level. You can then take that all the way up to measuring your footprint and reducing your footprint. We don’t support carbon offsets, but you can do that. We have a lot of members that are like, “Climate? That’s someone else’s problem. It just keeps sending us the data.”
I’m trying to figure out a way to help these members. I want to do something we haven’t budgeted for or we don’t have the resources. I hate to hear that, not in a bad way, because I’m like, “Everyone should have these tools.” That’s why as part of the SIA membership, you have these tools. You can choose where you want to start.
They can pick up on some of those, even if they can’t quite afford it at the moment.
You can choose to swim in the shallow end or you can go off the ten-meter board. We also have members who are way down the road on climate. They’re good at not only challenging us but challenging our industry. That’s been a nice alternative to this as well.
Probably, lean on those guys for some help.
We see our role different from POW. We love what POW does. They’re all about policy and they’re mobilizing the industry, but not all of our industry is willing to go that deep. With a group like POW, not to say, you have to go all in. We offer this nice transitional phase.
What are some of the tools that you have? You help these guys from everything, how to calculate a proper margin so that you’re making money, not just selling stuff, and how to run a retail shop. What kind of things do you offer that in the retail side of the world, so that they can better retailers?
That’s where we focus a lot on data. Helping the industry understand the impact of the industry. Whether we are focusing on different data pieces that are sales related or they’re participation related, whether they’re trends, habits or most importantly, consumer insights. Going back to this impactful data, we find a lot of our members rely on the data and use it in their everyday business.
We have a lot of members who just flat out say, “We don’t use data.” Part of what we do, whether you don’t know how to use the data, read the data, and leverage the data, we have different educational pieces that you can deploy to help you understand how to read a spreadsheet, and how to work a pivot table.
As you said, you can start them at ground zero and get them all the way up to the tenth floor.
We have gone as far as to create graphics to help people understand data on a very foundational level like pie charts and so on. We have data junkies who dig in and then we have specialists that can converse with one another. They can theorize or they can challenge the data. The thing with data is there is no A-plus data out there. The data at its best is somewhere in this B range.
If you just follow your passion, and work hard, and make strong connections, the rest will fall into place.
You got to be able to understand it. There’s a bunch of different ways to slice it. If you can’t slice what’s right for you, you’re right.
You can manipulate that data and achieve what you’re looking for.
Tell us about the future. What’s the future of SIA look like without a consumer trade show versus a trade focus show? How’s that look?
The consumer side is fascinating and that’s where everything is moving. If you talk to anyone in any other industry, it’s all about consumer. Consumer this and that, instant demand for research and data. We are focused on helping our members have direct access to winter outdoor enthusiasts through our Snowbound festival.
We’re sitting on this database, we’re leveraging the database, we’re mining it, and we’re trying to create valuable and meaningful, direct conversations between the supplier and retailers, and current and future consumers. It is something that is 1) It’s cool but 2) This industry is as wonderful as it is and as fruitful as it’s been to so many people, companies, retailers, reps and suppliers. We’ve lived in this little bubble of go to a trade show, retailer, and all valuable tools, but the future is consumer.
Going back to this digital age, you can buy a house and a car online. Two of your biggest purchases in your life, you can do online. Helping our members understand who that consumer is. As I said, when they buy, how much they spend, and how frequently are they spending. It’s not just winter gear. It’s outdoor gear. I don’t know if we’re in this post-pandemic space yet, but just for conversation. I’m living in Park City like everyone is living in a resort town or outside of the city environment, the world has found the city.
They’re buying all the gear to fill up their garage. The garage is the modern-day sports locker, whether it’s uphill, Nordic snowboard, skiing, golf, bike, or fly fishing, everyone is filling up that garage and wanting to spend more time outside. We want to share that information with our members, so they can build a plan for the future. They can capitalize on the consumer and when they buy and how much they buy. We can help get them into this modern world.
Are you doing this through consumer-focused groups like online calls with consumers? Are you going to try to pull it off at the trade show or through the buying data?
As I said, we have a database that we’re farming and milking. The idea for us is with the trade show to increase participation and consumer group. We’re also looking for other data points where we can continue to get more information and drive harder data.
It’d be interesting to get some consumer meetups at a ski area or on a Zoom call or something and just do a round table with them. Have you done that? That would be fascinating.
We have not in this modern day with the multi-mountain passes. A lot of the resorts are doing that with the data that they’re collecting. I wouldn’t say restricting or limiting what you could do at resort but definitely looking out for themselves. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They’re trying to create a different data group as well. I would say there are large groups of consumer data out there. Whether you’re ski magazine, snowboarder magazine, or your outside media group, that’s where you’re going to get volume. We need to be partnering with groups like that to continue to drive this valuable data back to our members.
You could probably partner with everybody from credit card companies to the ski areas to the hoteliers. I’m sure there are all kinds of opportunities for that.
There’s a ton of opportunity. That goes back into my past world at Burton, where I was doing partnerships and licensing it, and whatnot. I’m pulling on those old tools in my box to create those relationships and grow our database.
What about backcountry skiing? That’s a big thing here in the Eastern Sierra. There’s a great backcountry skier right outside our front door here in the Eastside. What are your plans to support the backcountry?
We support all winter outdoor activities, Nordic, telemark, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledding, fat bike, anything that you can do in the snow. Like everyone in this winter space, we’ve seen a huge growth in backcountry skiing and riding over the past few years. As your industry vehicle, we’re here to help and be welcoming to those newcomers to this community.
We welcomed them. The majority of our members make the gear for the backcountry. Whatever we can do to help get involved, our doors are wide open. I think one of the things that I think about frequently is we have our sister organization or cousin association, National Ski Areas Association. Like SIA, we work with the suppliers, the reps, the retailers, and we do work with a ton of resorts as well.
They’re resort-focused and they measure skier visits. Oddly, during COVID, there were 59 million-plus skier visits this last ski season, so that would have been 2021. That was the fifth-largest visitation since NSAA has been recording visitation, which is greater than 40 years. That’s the good news. The demand is there, people are there, and they’re buying tickets.
We, SIA, measures participation. We work with the outdoor council to measure participation. Whether you are sledding, snowshoeing, Nordic, backcountry, plus inbounds resort skiing. We get a higher number. We’re just getting ready to produce that report but it’s not that our numbers are different from NSAAs. It’s just that NSAA measures skier visits. We’re measuring those that go through a turnstile but also theorizing because there is no way to measure who’s in the backcountry.
The industry is open to all. The outdoors are open to all. We want and need diversity in our world to make it a healthier place whether it’s work or play.
I look at that as the area of opportunity that delta between a skier visit and a participation number. That’s what backcountry falls into play. We can support the backcountry by creating more data points around who’s in the backcountry. We can speak to the frequency. We also can speak to the safety of the backcountry and the product and tools you need in your backpack before you go.
You can probably get some good data from guides too, because they all have to have a permit. They have the data points. They have to track that.
There’s a huge opportunity whether you’re a backcountry guide or all guides. We are here to continue to seek growth. We want to promote it. We want to leverage it and we want to share it. If we’re doing our job in promoting the six pillars, we continue to grow our industry, and be more inclusive, this is only going to benefit the entire community.
You’re right on the visitation. All the visitation here in the Eastern Sierra, I think anybody near a recreation area saw people hiking, biking, and skiing, all of it. It’s amazing to see people out. It’s good in a lot of ways, but in some ways, it’s like, “What are these people near in my backyard?”
We love to get in the outside outdoors. We love the solace that tranquility, the Zen, it brings you, or whatever it is that the outside does to you. However it speaks to you. I’m not here to tell anyone that this is our space. Let’s keep it the way it is. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We have to be promoting outdoors to everyone. If we’re doing our jobs and we’re doing it well, we can create this inclusive environment and that’s great for the local economies, the suppliers, and the hotels. It runs so much deeper than just the ski area. The guy driving the taxi to and from the airport. It just impacts everything.
Let’s shift gears a little bit here. Who are some of the mentors that have helped you along your career path?
There’s been a few. If I didn’t mention my dad, I’ll probably kick myself. He’s given me the freedom to do what I want, pursue my passions, and supported me along the way, which has been cool. I was fortunate to work at Burton Snowboards during this incredible growth of snowboarding and work directly with Jake. I got to know Jake. Everybody knew Jake one way or another. I got to spend a lot of time with him. We both lived in the same town. It was the town I grew up in Stowe, Vermont.
I got to spend a lot of time with him outside of work. We became friends, whether we were hiking or hiking in the off season. I got to know him at a personal level. He was a hard-driving, intense guy and I enjoyed that part of his personality. Maybe not so much when the focus was on me. I’m thankful having worked and coming up through the Alpine side of the business. Making the jump over the fence in snowboarding, getting to see and experience the culture through Jake’s eyes and his vision. I value that time there and those that I was able to work with and meet. All the fun things that Jake provided and through work, travel, and play.
He had a big footprint.
I was one of those fortunate ones that got to be on the inside there. I think early on in my career, there was a guy who ran Salomon back in the late ’90s, early 2000s. He’s a guy by the name of Tom Wright. He came from Canada. It was like working for your dad. He was a good leader. He was fair, hard and challenging. For whatever reason, when I started in Salomon, my desk was right outside of his office. I was not his assistant by the way. He would get to work at 6:30. I had it in my work ethic that I was going to get there at 6:00 in the morning. I was always there when he got there.
I always left sometimes 30 seconds or 30 minutes after he left. I got to spend 10 or 15 minutes with him, most mornings just drinking a coffee and getting a little education around what it’s like to befriend a CEO as you’re a young guy working your way up. He didn’t have to do any of that, but he did. I valued that. There’s been a lot of others, but I think those were the three that jumped out at me.
Here’s your turn. Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor ski biz or grow their career if they’re already in?
How lucky are you to have what exists now? I remember in college, there was physical education, sports marketing, and kinesiology because the schools did not know what to do with anyone that had an interest in the outdoors.
I had a wildlife law enforcement angle too. You could be a ranger or a cop.
There was the Outdoor Club. Now, they have full-on outdoor degrees. They have master’s programs. There are so many amazing jobs in this industry, and every one of us is fighting to bring in that talent and to welcome individuals into this space. I couldn’t be more excited for those that are just getting their feet wet and want to choose this path. It is fun, exciting, healthy, and it’s hard.
It is a job but when you do something you love, like, and care about it, it just feels like you get to have fun every day. When you have fun every day, does it feel like work? Even the hard days. I’m very excited for people getting in this business and the opportunities. I always say to people, “If you just follow your passion, work hard, and make strong connections and the rest will fall into place.”
A lot of people have said that comes up a lot. If you were able to hang a huge banner to the entrance of one of the shows, what would it say?
Welcome to all. Because of the work that we’re doing with DEI and everything that’s fallen in place here since 2020, it put a microscope on our industry as being maybe not very inclusive and closed. Going back to the comments around the more, the merrier. We want everyone to enjoy the outdoors. We at SIA want to convey an inclusive message to all. This industry and the outdoors are open to all. We want and need diversity in our world to make it a healthier place, whether it’s work or play. It’s one world, one planet. It’s everyone’s. I would love to see an inclusive message at the entrance of a show, where I come back to welcome to all.
Do you have any daily routines to keep your sanity? Do you meditate, pray, get a lot of exercises or walk the dog?
I get a lot of exercise. I do an app exercise program. Most mornings, I work 4 or 5 days a week, 100 pushups, sit-ups, and crunches to get blood moving and keep things looking the way I like it. Exercise is important to me for my mind and my body. I like that first 30 to 45 minutes in the morning, just to drink coffee and wake up. I like it quiet. I think that’s my form of meditation. I love that smell of coffee in the morning and quiet. Those are my dailies.
What’s your favorite outdoor gear purchase under $100?
Headlamps. It’s like that one thing that I buy a lot of and never can seem to find them.
They disappear easily. You use them all the time, even just around the house.
Whether you’re fixing the toilet handle or trying to find something behind a couch. It’s probably one of the most universal tools on the planet.
As we go to wrap this, is there anything else you want to ask or say of our audience?
In closing, in this COVID world, I think of inclusion, participation, and climate. These things aren’t going away. This is what I tell my team and our members like, “This work is in perpetuity.” For those who don’t know what that means, it’s forever. It’s not changing. I want this audience, our industry, and our community to keep this momentum.
I want to keep it moving forward. I want everyone to welcome, welcome everyone in the winter outdoor community. I look towards being able to spend more time outside with friends, family, and loved ones. I look forward to seeing this momentum. It’s ours to lose and it’s ours to appreciate. I go with the appreciation side.
It’s ours to keep it available for everybody. How can people follow up with you? What’s the best way?
They can find me on Snowsports.org. They can email me at [email protected]. They can find me on Twitter and Instagram under @SIASnowSports.
Thanks, Nick. It’s been great learning about all this stuff and the changes at SIA. I’m excited to see what you guys do moving forward.
Thank you very much for having me. I look forward to the next time we get to talk.
Hopefully, one of these shows.
I hope so.
Take it easy.