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Canoecopia signals better days ahead for paddlesports market

Higher attendance and strong sales at this year’s Canoecopia expo suggest that the paddlesports market may be on the upswing after a tough 2009. SNEWS has the inside scoop on the Paddle Advisory Council meeting from the show as well.

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While the paddlesports market drifted in the doldrums last year, this year’s Canoecopia expo, held March 12-14 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., signaled that conditions might be improving.

“Canoecopia is usually a pretty good indicator of how the season is going to go, not just for us but for everybody. There seems to be a return of customers to paddlesports after a nervous year,” said Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports (, an outdoor specialty store in Monona, Wis., that has presented Canoecopia since 1976.

This year’s Canoecopia not only saw increases in attendance and sales, but the outdoor industry Paddle Advisory Council presented new ideas on how to grow participation in paddling, and also reported plans to further improve conditions for paddlesports companies at the 2010 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show.

With more than 250 exhibitors, Canoecopia is one of the largest paddling expos in the world. Bush said that this year it drew 24,000 attendees, a 15-percent increase from the previous year. He added that Rutabaga’s product sales at the show increased by double digits.

“The economy has turned a small corner,” said Bush. “People are more positive and optimistic, and people are looking for a better value for a vacation.”

While consumers are looking for more affordable ways to entertain the family, they aren’t shy about investing in high-end products, said Bush.

“High-end kayaks actually did quite well,” he said. “And we sold a lot more Kevlar canoes than Royalex. When people decide to do something, they’re willing to make an investment.”

In addition to gear sales and the usual lineup of seminars and film presentations, Canoecopia added a new event this year, the Paddling Club Rendezvous, held March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Clarion Hotel next to the Alliant Energy Center. During the Rendezvous, members of various Midwest paddling clubs gave presentations on their organizations, and had the chance to simply meet each other and develop partnerships.

“It went really well, and it was pretty crowded,” said Bush. “People were able to talk about working together on local issues and having a single voice. We figured why don’t we just give them a chance to get together and chill out.”

There was also healthy attendance at a meeting of the Paddle Advisory Council, held March 12 at the Alliant Center. Outdoor Retailer show director Kenji Haroutunian and OIA Executive Director Frank Hugelmeyer joined about 60 paddle industry leaders to hear the Council’s report on how it has worked to improve the paddle market’s presence at the upcoming 2010 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show.

Click here to read the Oct. 9, 2009, SNEWS story, “Outdoor Retailer Summer Market moves back to August, includes changes to benefit paddlesports companies.” 

“It was a sales pitch on what the Paddle Council has done in leveraging for better pricing, and leveraging the show dates,” Ed Vater, president of Bending Branches, told SNEWS®. “It was a good meeting. Sutton Bacon (CEO of Nantahala Outdoor Center) did a good PowerPoint presentation that was polished and professional, and there was open discussion about what’s going on.”

Bush said that the Council’s next goal is to survey the outdoor industry on how to further improve the show for paddlesports companies.

“We need to collect feedback from the industry at large,” said Bush. “For example, we need to find out if the paddle tank is needed at the show.”

Bush said the Council will work with OIA to send out a survey in the next few weeks concerning the paddle tank and other issues, and he said some decisions, such as the fate of the tank, need to be made by May.

The Council also reported on a new partnership with the Outdoor Nation program (, which empowers youth to lead efforts to grow participation in outdoor recreation.

“We want to increase participation, and one thing we’ve done as an industry is try to do too much ourselves,” said Bush. “The goal is to provide a framework for kids to lead. We want to figure out a way to give kids a toolbox to do their own events in their regions. The Millennials are totally capable of running this stuff.”

He said that OIA has given the Council $30,000 to support the Outdoor Nation program, and matching funds will eventually bring the total to $50,000.

Bush said pretty much everyone attending the meeting thought the Outdoor Nation partnership was a good, or very good, idea.

Vater of Bending Branches said he appreciated the discussion of growing participation, but he’s not sure how effective Outdoor Nation will be. “I’m not sure how much it will deliver,” he said.

But Vater’s sure of one thing: The paddlesports market seems to be moving in a better direction than it was a year ago, and he points to Canoecopia as a clear indicator.

“I thought it was the best show in several years, and clearly better than last year in terms of the number of people there and how much they bought. I left Canoecopia feeling nothing but positive.”

–Marcus Woolf