Following a pandemic-stricken 2020, visits to U.S. National Parks have been on the upswing the past two years. According to the U.S. National Park Service, there were 312M recreational visits to National Parks in 2022, representing a +5% increase over 2021. Visits have not quite recovered to pre-pandemic levels (318M and 327M visits in 2018 and 2019 respectively), but we believe National Park visits from 2021 and 2022 had a positive impact on sporting goods and outdoor recreation retailers the past few years.
Similar to the trends we’ve seen across the sporting goods retail category–something we examined when we looked at how Dick’s Sporting Goods’ visitor acquisition activities were driving market share gains–we’ve started to see visitation trends to National Parks tail off so far in 2023. We’ve grouped the Top 10 most-visited National Parks in the U.S. together and examined year-over-year visitation trends. Due to broader inflationary headwinds and other macro pressures as well as unseasonable weather in March, visits for these parks have generally been down in the low-double-digit range for the year (we note that visit declines for the Top 10 parks has likely been more severe than the impact to U.S. National Parks overall due disproportionately unseasonable weather in those states during the spring).
We also wanted to examine the impact on visitation trends to the most visited sporting goods retail stores for U.S. National Park guests. To do this, we built a custom chain of 35 of the most frequented sporting goods stores in the U.S. with national park cross visitation trends. Intuitively, we expected the visitation trends for these locations to underperform our index of all sporting goods and outdoor recreation goods stores in the U.S. (which covers almost 4,000 locations in the U.S.). Interestingly, we found that the sporting goods stores most visited by National Park guests have slightly outperformed our sporting goods retail index for most of the year, with particularly sharp outperformance in June (ahead of peak National Park visit season).
What might explain this disconnect? We see two possible explanations. First, nearly 40% of the stores in our custom chain are Dick’s Sporting Goods or Nike stores. We’ve already explained several reasons why Dick’s is outperforming the broader sporting goods category (more affluent customer base, innovation customer acquisition strategies, loyalty program enhancements, and elevated/differentiated merchandising strategies). Second, many of the markets that the sporting goods stores near national parks have seen significant migration growth the past two years. In our migration whitepaper last year, we discussed permanent population growth in smaller markets and how it is reshaping the unit economics and growth plans for many retailers across the U.S. Looking at the trade areas for the sporting goods stores also visited by National Park guests, we see a material increase in the trade area size (compared to pre-pandemic levels) in most cases, suggesting that these stores could also be beneficiaries of migration trends as well.