It has been a busy July for campers in Northern Arizona. For the government, people and businesses of Flagstaff, camping means much more than sleeping bags and s’mores. In a city surrounded by the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, many stores are finding that the great outdoors is good business.
The downtown Flagstaff store Peace Surplus receives a large piece of their profits from catering to the needs of campers, owner Steve Chatinsky said.
“About 30 to 40 percent of our overall business [is devoted to camping],” said Chatinsky. “Yeah, it’s big — it’s a big part of our summer business.”
Like Chatinsky, Keith Harris, the manager of Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters, also said a good deal of his summer commerce comes from camping gear.
“I’d say about half,” Harris said. “If you’re looking at headgear and clothing, which is allocated toward that, I’d say half. Maybe 40 percent. But, half is a good estimate.”
Harris said that while most Flagstaff residents already have their basic camping gear, tourists and out-of-city residents — and their tendency to be repeat customers on a single trip — are a big boon for outdoor supply stores.
“The locals that come in to go camping are backpacking, usually,” Harris said. “They’ll come in to get supplies, but they’ll usually have most of the things they need — unless it’s their first time. But tourists, definitely. When they’re going camping, what’s big is the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ trip [to our store]. Surprisingly, the ‘after’ trip is often quite amazing with how much stuff they buy afterwards — they realize what they need and what they saw that someone else had.”
Chatinsky said most beginning campers keep it simple with the basic supplies, especially those on family vacations.
“It’s usually a tent and a sleeping bag,” Chatinsky said. “Not everyone goes backpacking. It’s a lot of family camping. Maybe a cooler, or something like that. It’s family camping products – coffee pots and so forth. We do a lot of family camping. I love to see backpackers, but there’s not as many backpackers out there today as there were 15 or 20 years ago.”
Yet, according to Harris, even the sleeping bag and tent are optional items. Harris said a new trend in camping involves ditching both for the comfort of one’s car.
Jon Novak, a student at Northern Arizona University (NAU) and a regular camper in the Prescott area, said he bought some supplies in Flagstaff at Peace Surplus. “In 2008, I spent near $500 dollars on camping equipment at Peace Surplus, I’ve got everything I need in one backpacking pack. It’s too much equipment, actually,” said Novak.
Despite the enthusiasm for camping displayed by Flagstaff business owners and reflected in their sales figures, campers remain in the minority when compared to other types of tourists. In the 2008-2009 Flagstaff Visitor Study by the NAU Hospitality Research and Resource Center, only six percent of visitors to the city chose to stay in an RV or to camp – a small number compared to the 77 percent who stay in hotels and inns.
Chatinsky said the city – from businesses to the government to local residents — needs to talk more about camping, which he believes often is overshadowed by Flagstaff’s hotels.
“I don’t think it’s really promoted,” Chatinsky said. “I think they could do a better job. I think they’re trying to push the hotel business because there’s more dollars to be made. And I understand that, and it’s fine. When you sell out a hotel room, you’re starting at a minimum of 60 to 75 dollars and going up to 100 dollars. You’re going to be making more money [than] pushing a campsite for 15 to 20 dollars.”
However, Harris said he believes the people of Flagstaff are doing a good job of introducing tourists to camping opportunities, and that such advertising is not necessary for the large number of visitors from nearby cities and states.
“I think it’s promoted pretty well,” Harris said. “It doesn’t always need to be promoted that way, because I think a lot of the people are ‘semi-local’ – they are people from Phoenix and Tucson who come up all the time. So, they’re not locals, but they’re certainly familiar with the area.”
Yet, there are other economic indicators that show that camping tourism has staying power in an ever-changing economy. Cheryl Cothran, director of the Arizona Hospitality Research and Resource Center, said cheap tourism – including camping – in Northern Arizona has benefited during the economic recession.
“While hotel occupancy rates in Phoenix and Tucson tanked – down 20 percent or more during 2008-09 – Grand Canyon visitation stayed steady throughout the recession, suggesting people were taking camping-type trips rather than going to resorts,” Cothran said.
Cothran said tourists who camp have a much less pronounced impact on Flagstaff’s economy than their peers who stay in hotels.
“The economic impact of campers is logically less because the cost of campground accommodations are much less,” Cothran said. “Many campers prepare their own food or buy groceries instead of eating out. Also, camping is a seasonal activity, not year-round.”