How technology is helping to reshape fitness and outdoor recreation

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people increasingly have turned to exercise as a way to relax and recharge—often in droves. Yellowstone National Park, one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service, recorded its second busiest August ever as nearly 900,000 visitors passed through its gates.

But as with most everything in the COVID era, the usual rules don’t apply when it comes to staying active, whether hiking to Old Faithful or just working up a sweat at home. At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by Booz Allen Hamilton explored how digital innovations are helping to reshape recreation today, and in the years to come. Here are five key takeaways from the event:

1. Trip-planning goes digital

Forget poring over guidebooks and asking friends for their favorite hiking trails. Julie McPherson, executive vice president of digital solutions at Booz Allen Hamilton, says planning an outdoor adventure often starts with pulling out a smartphone. Booz Allen serves as innovative partner and main contractor to the federal government’s service, which helps people find outdoor activities ranging from backcountry camping to ranger-led tours. The site’s mobile app was downloaded nearly 500,000 times during a three-month span this spring—more than the total downloads in all of 2019. “We’re all used to doing mobile,” McPherson said, “but we’re seeing so much more volume…whether it’s actually making reservations or just getting access to information.”

2. Slowing down, tuning in

As COVID-19 ground regular routines to a near-halt, many people found themselves with much more free time. Kristen Holmes, vice president of performance at WHOOP, which makes a wearable device that tracks fitness, sleep, and other physiological data, decided to embrace it. She has spent more time with family and has a renewed focus on her physical health. “I’ve just been trying to be more aware of the signals that my body is giving me,” Holmes said. “I want to make sure I create space for that during the day.”

Holmes is not alone. While the consensus assumed that COVID lockdowns would lead to less-than-savory habits, WHOOP collected data that showed the opposite: users were sleeping better, exercising more, and improving their cardiovascular fitness. “These are really crazy times,” she said. “We actually saw our cohort get healthier during this time of uncertainty and unrest.”

3. Outdoor retailers have had to adapt

These days, many people are embracing outdoor activities for the first time. Doing that is a process—from looking for inspiration and planning trips to getting kitted out with the necessary gear. Outdoor retailer REI has worked to make the purchasing process easier and safer for customers, from contactless pick-up at stores to more bespoke offerings, such as virtual outfitting and scheduled consultations with gear experts. “They can get the time they need with an expert to talk them through [the process],” said Christine Putur, REI’s executive vice president of technology and operations. “We’re very obsessed about removing friction from that cycle.”

4. Tech tools will help improve the great outdoors

With a spike of interest in outdoor activities, McPherson said that responded by designing new ways to get visitors into outdoor areas more safely and efficiently. That included the creation of a timed-entry service to help set the number of vehicles and people who enter a recreation area at intervals throughout the day, as well as innovative ways to provide contact-free transactions, such as cashless entry and same-day campsite reservations.

McPherson noted that these innovations may have a long-lasting impact beyond COVID: By minimizing person-to-person interactions for such actions as paying entrance fees and checking-in visitors, for example, rangers may be able to focus on more important tasks. “We’re fundamentally trying to take as many of the administrative responsibilities off of them and automate that through technology,” she said.

Following the panel discussion, Janelle Smith, a spokesperson, added, “We are hearing from many of our local recreation managers that converting their sites or activities as reservable on has dramatically reduced their workload, allowing them to focus on other visitor services.”

5. Balancing the work-life pendulum

So, what does the post-pandemic future hold for companies and organizations involved in the recreation industry? Like those in other industries, they’ll need to remain flexible, according to Holmes. That means giving employees more latitude to determine what works best for their personal situation, whether it’s coming into the office or managing a more hybrid work-from-home schedule. “Being able to have those conversations and come to a conclusion together is going to be really important,” Holmes said. “Because generally speaking, what’s best for the individual is going to be best for the corporation, right?”

McPherson noted that digital technologies such as videoconference apps have made that transition easier, and have helped companies and employees figure out how to find balance between their work and their personal lives. “It really is about striking a balance,” she said. “We used to fight crazy traffic and go to the office every day no matter what. There’s never going to be a pendulum swinging back to where we were. I think that’s good.”

Click here to watch this panel from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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