Todd Cook of Eagan bought a $45,000 luxury pontoon a few years ago — no trivial expense for Minnesota’s short boating season.
“Boating in Minnesota doesn’t last long and is not a cheap endeavor,” said the 45-year-old software engineer. “It’s fun, but it’s expensive. There are costs.”
To offset his slip fees at a St. Croix River marina and other expenses, Cook enrolled his pontoon in a free-to-join boat rental marketplace called Boatbound. Started in 2013 in San Francisco, the company uses its website to connect boat owners like Cook to qualified and preapproved renters, who may want to fish or just cruise. The company has roughly 10,000 boat listings (for fishing, sailing and more) in all 50 states.
“So far it’s worked out well — I had one booking last year and a few inquiries this year,” said Cook, who charges $399 for a full day and pays a service fee to Boatbound. He will even captain his pontoon for you or your group. “One inquiry was for a bachelorette party and the other was a guy who wanted to propose to his fiancée. As it turns out, people are looking to rent for special occasions.”
Whether Cook realizes it or not, he is part of the so-called sharing economy, popularized in recent years by multibillion-dollar juggernauts Uber and Airbnb. The concept appears to be spreading rapidly into another marketplace: outdoor recreation. If you want to travel across the country in a recreational vehicle, there’s RVShare (rvshare.com). If you want to rent outdoor gear or find a place to camp (on public or private ground), there’s GearCommons (gearcommons.com) and Hipcamp (hipcamp.com), respectively. If you want to rent personal watercraft or a snowmobile, there’s Outdoor Toy Share (outdoortoyshare.com).
“My view is that the phenomenon is definitely growing,” said Ravi Bapna, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who studies the sharing economy, particularly its growth. “The model provides more flexibility and reduces upfront capital for those, for example, who are looking to rent a boat rather than buy. It’s changing how we do business.”
Bapna said outdoor recreation-based companies, like other sectors of the sharing economy, may find it difficult to become the next Uber. “I don’t buy the notion that if you build it, they will come,” Bapna said. “It’s not as straightforward as that. You need the right strategy, and that can be costly. Trust needs to be built into the system, and that takes time.”
What’s indisputable is this: The Internet is the engine driving the sharing economy, connecting people at unprecedented levels and enabling peer-to-peer transactions.
“This network has empowered the sharing economy because communities can now easily discover who needs which resources, who already owns them, and how to connect those dots in a mutually beneficial transaction,” said Alyssa Ravasio, founder of Hipcamp, a site whose aim is to connect people to public and private camping opportunities. “Before the Internet, it would have been difficult to know that your neighbor down the road owned a car or a tent that she’d be happy for you to use. Today it’s pretty simple.”
Mike Brown, co-founder of GearCommons, a site that rents nonmotorized outdoor equipment, said his target consumer is “urban millennials who have a day job and want to get outside during the weekends.” The online company, based in Boston, offers everything from tents to surfboards.
“We cater to them,” said Brown of its target group. “They may not want or don’t have the means to buy, or they just don’t have the space for outdoor equipment. Our goal is to provide the right equipment to reduce barriers to the outdoors locally. Millennials are very much in tune with the sharing economy because they’ve grown up with it. If you have a smartphone, you have access to pretty much anything without buying it. That includes renting outdoor gear.”
GearCommons has outdoor gear in all 50 states, with roughly $1 million worth in Boston alone. The most popular rental item: tents for camping, Brown said. Paddleboards also are extremely popular, which isn’t a surprise, he said, given that “it’s the fastest-growing activity in the outdoor industry.”
“For camping, it’s an activity that most people do only once or twice a year and thus isn’t worth the $300-$400 investment when you can rent it (a tent) for $15 to $20 a day on GearCommons,” Brown said.
Joel Clark, co-founder of RVShare, said his goal is to help RV owners turn what he termed a “tidy” expense into a revenue generator by renting their vehicles. “We estimate that the average family’s recreational vehicle sits unused for roughly 90 percent of the year, and that’s a lot of down time,” said Clark, whose company launched in 2014. “The RV rental industry was screaming for an overhaul, for something to bring it into the modern Internet age. That’s what we’re doing.”
Clark said RVshare’s business model is focused on customer hospitality. “Renting an RV can be daunting, and it’s very comforting to know that the person renting your family the RV and instructing you on how to use it is someone who takes the exact same types of trips with their family in the exact same RV,” he said. “RVshare travelers appreciate being taken care of by people who are just like them.”
The sharing economy’s expansion into the outdoor sector also may be spurring innovations in environmental conservation. For example, Ravasio of Hipcamp has begun enlisting private landowners to rent their lands for camping and other outdoor recreation. “By connecting landowners who want to keep their land undeveloped with responsible, ecologically minded campers, we can use recreation to fund the conservation of this land,” she said. “It gives landowners additional revenue and an incentive not to develop their property. That’s good for them, campers and our environment.”
As for boat owner Cook, he is hoping to rent his pontoon once or twice a month this summer and fall to defray costs and to get people on the water.
“I like the idea that I can share my love of the water with others,” he said. “And it’s a pretty good deal for a group of five or six. It’s certainly cheaper than buying.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.