Lieberman and Idaho group expects increased demand for outfitters, guides after pandemic
Aaron Lieberman is the executive director of Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. The group has been tireless in promoting webinars, calls-to-action for federal assistance, and spearheading letter-writing campaigns to make sure outfitters and guides are represented in Washington, D.C., and Boise. Lieberman’s members have seen the gamut of effects from the pandemic, from some members going out of business to others who have opened their kitchens to help health-care workers. Overall, things are not good for the outfitters and guides of Idaho like anywhere.
“Bottom line is, there are people who have already gone out of business because of the pandemic and, unfortunately, there will be others,” said Lieberman.
But he’s also positive about the long-term. “If we play it right, we can increase the demand and appreciation for what outfitters and guides do every day for society,” he said. We interviewed Lieberman in April 2020.
—John Geiger, The Guidefitter Journal editor.
GUIDEFITTER JOURNAL: What is the foremost concern of your members right now?
AL: Whether or not they’ll be able to operate, and if so, under what constraints. Many are wondering, “Will I survive this season?” As an association and industry, we need to push through legislative solutions that would allow outfitters to continue to produce revenue and operate. We also need authorization for flexibility. This industry is different than most others. Business is outdoors, not as confined as most other businesses and industries might be. We do not want to disregard common-sense guidelines, but we are working to make sure the outfitters have the flexibility to enforce smart recommendations, because outfitters know their business better than anyone.
GFJ: What can an association do that individuals cannot during a time like this pandemic?
AL: Associations can aggregate opinions in an industry in a way that would be extremely difficult for an individual. As a group, we can access legislators and regulators to effectively advocate and lobby for solutions specific to the industry. We are a mechanism for getting together collective resources, like expertise. Associations can provide a framework, a structure to collect the best information and ideas.
GFJ: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
AL: Yes. This will end. There will be outfitting after COVID in Idaho and in this country. The question for us right now is, how effectively can we advocate, push, demand and get loud so that when we come through this, we don’t leave anyone behind.
GFJ: We’ve noticed more people enjoying the outdoors, and more people fishing and spring turkey hunting where we live (while distancing). Will we see a renewed interest in the outdoors when this is all over?
AL: With restrictions, people are appreciating the fundamental things, family, the outdoors. People want to be outside, and this is driving people to the outdoors. I expect to see a huge rebound of people who want to get back to wild places. The task at hand is to stick around, survive and be there for when they can come back to enjoy our services. It’s a real example of where there is an opportunity with this challenge: If we play it right, we can increase the demand and appreciation for what outfitters and guides do every day for society.
GFJ: Are your members finding success applying for federal and state assistance loans and grants? Which programs are most effective for your members?
AL: I’ve heard of several PPP loans approved. I have also heard that not all of them have been. Many are finding out that there is a delay, which is understandable because this is an unprecedented case: the sheer amount of money being distributed from an agency that was not prepared to do this on this scale. Some businesses had sent in a new app and had not heard anything back in several weeks. We’ve also heard about dropped calls, web sites crashing, PPP forms and unemployment apps freezing up as well. These programs were created in a matter of a few weeks, entirely new rules, all this from an infrastructure that is a large bureaucracy.
Another development is that the original $10,000 grants are “up to” $10,000, not a flat $10,000 as people assumed. We’re hearing that there’s a formula that establishes how much a business gets, and it’s about $1,000 for as many as 10 employees. But it’s tough to collect if you have seasonal employees, so we’re working with legislators on that.
(Since this interview, IOGA and other groups have successfully lobbied to get a more favorable loan-application criteria for seasonal employers.)
Every operation is different. PPP does have some real opportunities for stop-gap support of outfitter’s guides. The program is good when the outfitter is trying to figure out if he can pay his guides until their unemployment starts or the business returns. But really, neither PPP or EIDL are ideal for our industry.
Bottom line is, there are people who have already gone out of business because of the pandemic and, unfortunately, there will be others.
GFJ: Any thoughts about other long-term effects of this pandemic on the outdoor world in general or outfitters in particular?
AL: In general, even beyond outfitting, we all need to take the time to appreciate what is most important to us. What gratifies you as a human, motivates you? What is beautiful and inspiring to you? Hopefully, this isolation will remind us how important these things are to us and how we should protect them. I hope the necessity to shelter, this disconnection, reminds that we’d all rather be connected. We’re all being asked to be our best selves right now. And we all have to ask ourselves, are we acting in a way we’ll respect later? Are we aware of our brothers and sisters around us who might have more need than we do?
In terms of outfitters in particular, I expect this will make us better, more creative, resilient, and we’ll come out stronger as an industry. I think due to the cooperation we’ve seen, we will come out of this with better relationships to other people, groups and agencies, like BLM, parks and recs, National Park Service and legislators here and in Washington, D.C. The public is more interested than ever in experiencing the outdoors, and we’ll be an industry ready to provide them access better than ever before.
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