BREVARD — The darkest cloud of Covid-19 has passed and so has what Tom Dempsey calls its “silver lining” — the pandemic-propelled boom in the outdoor recreation industry.
The nationwide economic impact of the sector flattened after reaching a record $682 billion in 2021. Business in bicycles, boats, and recreational vehicles trended downward in 2022. Outdoor retailers in Transylvania County reported an only so-so Christmas shopping season.
But Dempsey’s company, SylvanSport? It’s doing better than ever.
Thanks to robust demand for its flagship GO camper trailer and a growing line of sleeping bags, packs and other gear, company sales climbed about 50 percent in 2022 compared to the year before, said Dempsey, SylvanSport’s founder and CEO.
It’s finalizing plans to ramp up production of its VAST travel trailer, expected to be its most lucrative product yet. To reach this goal, the company is eyeing the upcoming second phase of the county’s Sylvan Valley Industrial Center, potentially more than doubling its manufacturing space.
SylvanSport has done all this by creating award-winning designs that anticipate the habits of shoppers — and with sophisticated online marketing that leaves the internet feeds of even casual visitors to the company website peppered with ads for its wheeled and green-shaded products.
The presence of an outdoor gear maker with a national reputation for innovation is a big deal for Transylvania. But could it lead to something bigger?
Up to now, the local outdoor recreation industry has been dominated by businesses serving tourists and offering mostly low-wage jobs. Could the county be transformed into a hub for manufacturers like SylvanSport, which pays an average annual salary of about $58,000?
That’s the goal, said Burton Hodges, executive director of the Transylvania Economic Alliance.
Business clusters, once established, have a way of building momentum, said Hodges and representatives of the gear industry, which already has a significant presence in and near Asheville.
Working together, outdoor equipment makers can share knowledge and supply lines and build a pool of skilled workers.
Tourism helps too, drawing not only a steady stream of customers but — because the people who make equipment for outdoor adventures are often adventurers themselves — entrepreneurs.
“We have obvious competitiveness in the outdoor industry,” Hodges said, and “the design and manufacture of outdoor gear is absolutely a target for the Alliance.”
The “Ludicrous” Inspiration
A GO pop-up camper set up outside the SylvanSport factory
But few potential start-ups will likely have as much going for it as SylvanSport did.
Dempsey, 58, earned a degree from the well-regarded school of industrial design at Auburn University, he said during a Monday interview at his factory on Ecusta Road. He built a personal bankroll from co-founding and then selling an Alabama medical technology company. He developed a long list of contacts and potential investors in the gear world from his previous ownership of Liquidlogic Kayaks in Henderson County.
When he founded SylvanSport in 2004, it was just him and his idea for the GO, partly inspired by a stint at Coleman Inc., where he worked on what he considered an archaic product, the company’s since discontinued pop-up camper — a fold-out tent on wheels that served as the go-to, entry-level rig for a previous generation of adventurous families.
“I thought, this is a product I would never use and my friends would never use,” he said. “I thought it was ludicrous to haul your living room recreated with cheap materials out into the forest.”
But on further thought, he realized “that market still exists,” he said.
It needed quality materials and a modern design, starting with the capacity to carry more stuff.
“In today’s world, the people who use that product are using it to enable a kayaking trip or a mountain biking trip or some other sort of outdoor activity,” he said.
He was also determined to avoid the pop up’s tendency, when not on the road, to serve as an unwanted lawn ornament.
“We don’t want something that’s going to sit in your yard for 11½ months a year,” he said. “Multi-functionality is very important to us.”
On the company’s factory floor, he demonstrated how the removal of the GO’s plastic rooftop pod exposes a solid, corrugated aluminum cargo deck, which, he said, can not only carry kayaks and mountain bikes but a load of plywood or a washing machine from Lowe’s.
According to customer surveys, it’s employed for such purposes about seven times as often as it is for outdoor excursions, Dempsey said.
“They buy it for camping and they use it for everything else.”
Brandon Miller, SylvanSport’s director of engineering, displays plans for a part on the VAST travel trailer.
Even with the company’s advantages, the GO traveled a rough road to its place in the market, Dempsey explained in his low-key but articulate manner.
He is tall, slim, bespectacled and high-minded about the field of industrial design.
“If we’re going to create an artifact out of natural resources, we have a calling to make that artifact the best possible use of those resources,” he said.
That was a core principle of the founders of his department at Auburn, and when repeating it Dempsey sounded like an academic himself.
But he also talks like what he says he is, an “entrepreneur at heart.”
He described the lightweight GO’s versatility, for example, in ready-made ad copy. “It can turn a Prius into a pickup truck,” he said.
He also freely touts his own and his company’s accomplishments.
“I jokingly say we do the thinking for the RV industry. Not to overstate this and sound too bold, but so much of our stuff is copied,” he said.
That includes the GO, introduced at a 2007 trade show to “rave reviews,” Dempsey said of the updated pop up, which went on to win an International Design Excellence Award and to be called the “Coolest. Camper. Ever.” by National Geographic Adventure.
It’s main problem? It was too innovative, Dempsey said, “too advanced.”
“People would say, ‘What is that thing?’ and we had to spend an hour explaining what it was and what it did,” he said.
Along with the GO’s high price — it now lists for more than $14,000 — the lack of an established market made it a nonstarter for the retailers he had counted on for distribution.
“There was no way they were going to take it on,” he said.
That it was launched near the onset of the Great Recession didn’t help, he said. Neither did the withdrawal of one of his early investors.
But those setbacks led him to turn to the then-new concept of direct online marketing that the company has relied upon ever since.
There was also some “really incredible, miraculous good luck,” he said.
An early customer was so impressed with the product that, along with a check for the price of a new GO, he sent an extra $1,000 just to help out. And Dempsey was so strapped for cash at the time, he needed this money to cover the cost of traveling to Niagara Falls as part of an early promotion.
“That $1,000 allowed us to make the trip and fulfill our obligation,” he said.
In 2010, another investor stepped in, enabling the company to move from its original, small location in Cedar Mountain to a larger site near Brevard’s Lumberyard District.
As the market caught on, SylvanSport increased production and, in 2018, relocated to its current 30,000-square-foot space in the first phase of the county’s Sylvan Valley center.
The number of employees has climbed from two in 2011 to its current 30, including engineers and other professionals sitting behind television-sized computer monitors in carpeted offices. These spaces line two sides of the brightly lit concrete factory floor, where workers produced about 800 trailers last year compared to about 600 in 2021, Dempsey said.
One corner nook displays the company’s line of lower-priced equipment ranging from an outdoor kitchen to an illuminated hiking pole — all designed to help SylvanSport weather the troughs in the volatile market for RVs.
Such “high-dollar, discretionary purchases,” he said, are among the first to be cut when money gets tight.
The $72,000 VAST, on the other hand, is designed to capture a much larger share of this market. It will do so, like the GO, by responding to the changing demands of customers, Dempsey said.
Owners of travel trailers don’t want to be anchored to the electrical connections at traditional, increasingly crowded full-service campgrounds, he said. They want to be able to camp in all seasons, on remote patches of wilderness, on the growing number of private sites advertised on platforms such as Hipcamp, which Dempsey compared to Airbnb for campgrounds.
Though the VAST was introduced in 2019 and won a national industry group’s award as RV of the year, he said, SylvanSport hasn’t aggressively advertising the product because of the company’s limited capacity to manufacture a hard-sided trailer more than 21 feet long.
But, once production grows, he said, so will sales to buyers attracted by features packed into that space — a full kitchen, dining table, beds, storage compartments and a rooftop solar array capable of powering mobile heaters or air conditioning units.
“Just as the GO is a reinvention of the pop-up camper,” he said, “the VAST is a reinvention of the travel trailer.”
Spreading the Wealth?
Dempsey also has ideas about promoting the industry and has been working at it for more than a decade.
He was instrumental, he said, in encouraging North Carolina to become the first state in the East to form an agency to promote its now $28-billion outdoor recreation industry.
He serves on the board of the North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Coalition, an industry group that, since its founding in 2017, has successfully lobbied lawmakers to greatly increase funding for acquiring natural land and/or developing parks.
In 2013, he also helped form the Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, which now counts a membership of about 90 companies, about half of which are manufacturers.
“Tom is a visionary and a leader not only in his own company but in our collaborative outdoor space,” said Matt Godfrey, the group’s executive director.
“He sees that growing the industry and getting extra attention and focus on the industry in the area is going to attract more support for his business . . . kind of ‘a rising tide raises all ships’ mentality.”
But the cluster of gear makers Godfrey represents, including Astral shoes and ENO hammocks, is mostly concentrated in Buncombe County. How can it spark the growth of such enterprise in Transylvania?
For starters, the companies can share information, Godfrey said. For example, he said, Gear Builders is a partner in the Mountain BizWorks’ Waypoint Accelerator program, which allows established companies to advise newer ones on how to achieve their next goals.
Manufacturers can also bolster one another’s supply chains.
Dempsey, for example, says he sources most of his parts from the Southeast, including plastic pods molded at Liquidlogic. And when supplies were tight during the Covid-19 pandemic, Godfrey said, some Gear Builder members struggled to find the elastic needed to pivot to the making of personal protective equipment.
“SylvanSport had a connection in its supply chain and helped those other companies out,” Godfrey said.
The availability of jobs in the industry draws experienced workers to the region and encourages schools such as Blue Ridge Community College and Western Carolina University to offer programs that prepare new employees.
Those workers represent a pool of potential future entrepreneurs, Godfrey said, as do tourists. Outdoor enthusiasts scouting the region for opportunity, Dempsey said, are bound to find Transylvania and bound to be impressed.
“Brevard fulfills the promise of Asheville better than Asheville does,” Dempsey said, referring to the bigger city’s reputation as a vibrant urban gateway to natural lands.
“When visitors come to Asheville they say, ‘Gee this a place has become kind of trafficy and busy,’ and then they come to Brevard and they say, ‘This is what I thought I was getting.’ ”
Down the Road
Among other obstacles to economic development in Transylvania is its well-known shortage of developable land.
Hodges said he has “a few” real estate options available for the gear builders that regularly reach out to his office. But Dempsey, true to his reputation for “always thinking ahead,” as Godfrey said, is looking at bigger possibilities farther down the road.
Sitting in an office at his plant, he pointed through a window and across the street to the 525-acre former site of the Ecusta Mill paper plant long stalled by a history of contamination.
It represents a chance for Transylvania to not just connect to the equipment industry in North Carolina, but to become its hub, “the RTP of outdoor gear,” he said, referring to the famous Research Triangle Park near Raleigh. “To me there’s no better parcel in the eastern United States than that land there.”
But he also warned that careful planning would be required to ensure this growth doesn’t destroy the qualities of Transylvania that can attract future business leaders.
He’s an outdoor enthusiast himself, who first came to the county as a college student to climb Looking Glass Rock. He remembers how charmed he was with Brevard and the coexistence of spectacular mountains with bustling enterprises such as Ecusta.
The possibility of re-creating that vitality “is so exciting to me but also so daunting,” he said. “As a resident of the county, I appreciate what we have here and I don’t want us to be overwhelmed.”
It’s part of a broader perspective — thinking about what will happen if Transylvania’s now-small outdoor gear industry someday gets big.