Nearing the Senate Hart building in Washington, D.C., members of the Outdoor Industry Association rode through a maze of ripped-up streets and concrete barriers.
Major construction around the Capitol served as a reminder that this town is bracing to protect itself, as war and homeland security weigh heavily on its mind.
Against this imposing backdrop, the OIA Capitol Summit 2003 pressed ahead, as about 40 industry members lobbied senators and congressional representatives from April 1-3.
Working in small teams, OIA staff and company principles met with key legislators to discuss funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, legislation for association health care and funding for recreation trails.
To be sure, Summit attendees discovered that these are difficult times to lobby for recreation. "The tax cuts have created a significant funding crisis for programs related to the outdoors," OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer told SNEWS at the event. "We have a big challenge ahead of ourselves."
However, Hugelmeyer said the event was very successful, and OIA has made definite strides. "It's only been two years that we've had the Outdoor Industry Association as a brand, and it's clear that brand has arrived. Many of the agencies and policymakers know who we are," he said.
OIA gained more recognition partly because the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association did not participate in this year's lobbying effort. In past years, SGMA would host a trade show-type event, called Taste of the Outdoors, in which attending manufacturers would set up booths. Hugelmeyer said that the Taste was eliminated from the program this year so that attendees could spend more time meeting with policymakers.
"We also went for quality rather than quantity," Hugelmeyer said, explaining that OIA deliberately shaved down the number of attendees. Previously, the goal was to have a flood of attendees meet with as many policymakers as possible. This year, OIA invited a select number of company principles. Rather than blanketing Captiol Hill, these people met with key decision makers involved directly with the appropriation of funds.
Hugelmeyer said that OIA has not only raised its "brand recognition," but also realized "we have champions on both sides of the aisle."
"Republicans realize that we play an important role in the American economy, and they need to work with us," he said.
SNEWS View: The key to lobbying successfully is akin to getting good grades in college -- 90 percent of it is attendance. You simply have to be in the chair, in front of legislators, promoting your agenda on a regular basis. This is what makes an annual program such as the Capitol Summit essential. Only through repetitive contact will legislators become familiar with the human-powered recreation community. Slowly but surely they will begin to recognize our wants and needs.
What we hope will eventually happen is that when members on Capitol Hill think of "recreation," they will think of human-powered activities. Currently, all sorts of other groups fly the "recreation" flag, such as the RV community and even automobile manufacturers. As one attendee put it, any group can throw up a climbing wall on a Washington lawn, and invite members to participate in an event that supports "outdoor recreation."
For a couple of reasons, this is a critical time for our industry to raise its profile. First, military conflicts and a down economy continue to drain funds for everything from public land acquisition to the development of urban parks. We must work that much harder to get a share of a crumbling financial pie.
Second, there is much buzz around Washington concerning efforts to address obesity in the United States. In many meetings SNEWS attended, Capitol Summit teams pointed out to legislators that the promotion of outdoor activities can play an important role in dealing with this epidemic.
Of course, many groups will jockey to be partner organizations in the effort to battle obesity. Fortunately, during the Summit, OIA members attended a Health and Human Services meeting concerning this issue. As a result, they were invited to an April roundtable on a new program called Steps to a Healthier U.S. Registration for the roundtable had been closed, but Hugelmeyer said he received a special invitation. If OIA hadn't been in town, it simply would not have secured a seat at the roundtable.
Like we said, attendance is everything.