Canoecopia is about selling time on the water

Canoecopia, organized by Madison, Wis.-based, retailer Rutabaga boasted yet another packed event March 12-14 at the Alliant Energy Center. Darren Bush, co-owner of Rutabaga, told SNEWS® that attendance was up over last year (approximately 23,000 by our estimates) with shoppers coming from all over to look at new boats and assorted gear, see about buying a used boat, or sit in on any one of six packed seminars being held hourly throughout each day, as well as visit with new and old friends. Sales increased too, up 14.5 percent over the year before.
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Canoecopia, organized by Madison, Wis.-based, retailer Rutabaga boasted yet another packed event March 12-14 at the Alliant Energy Center. Darren Bush, co-owner of Rutabaga, told SNEWS® that attendance was up over last year (approximately 23,000 by our estimates) with shoppers coming from all over to look at new boats and assorted gear, see about buying a used boat, or sit in on any one of six packed seminars being held hourly throughout each day, as well as visit with new and old friends. Sales increased too, up 14.5 percent over the year before.

Each of the 250 or so exhibitors (including vendors, non-profits and associations) came from all over the country too, partly to make sales, partly to get a feel for what other vendors are seeing and anticipating for the coming season, and partly to have face time with consumers.

Where else can you see industry paddlesport veterans like Joe Pulliam get all giddy over selling a boat to someone, or watch WaterMark CEO Jim Clark working the Yakima sales counter, or see an executive vice president from Johnson Outdoors on hands and knees helping a customer rig a kayak? Nearly every major paddlesport company was fully represented with the executive teams from each rolling up sleeves and wading among the throngs and loving every minute of it.

It is the energy of the event, and not the revenues (which you can imagine are significant if you consider beyond product sales, admission is $5 for a one-day pass and $10 for a multiple-day pass), that makes Rutabaga co-owner Jeff Weidman smile broadly. And the seminars play a huge part in generating the positive energy, Weidman believes.

"We used to say 'Paddling Evangelist' on our business cards, and although our cards are more traditional now, the inspiration behind the tagline is not gone. This event is more about education than selling, and our speaker schedule drives the other end of our business, and not the other way around, and that's cool," Weidman said.

"If all you do is sell something, you have no relationship and no loyalty," Bush added. "But if you teach someone something and establish a relationship, then more often than not, they will turn around and also buy something from you, and that is better for this industry and us in the long term. Really, we're just selling time on the water."

Bush points to the fact that all seminars were standing room only, with the smallest room able to seat 200 and the largest theater seating 500.

Cooperation appeared to be a strong theme playing out at Canoecopia this year as well, and not just because representatives from the three major paddlesport associations, TAPS, PPA and ACA, sat down in the same room voluntarily to discuss how this industry can better work together.

"Perhaps, it is because we wanted it this way and mandated cooperation among all our exhibitors, or perhaps it is simply because the event inspires cooperation, but we all noticed that the competitive veil was very thin this year with folks sending customers to other booths to find product if needed," Weidman said.

Adds Bush, "I think everyone is finally realizing that this is a small industry and that we really do need to speak with one voice."

What makes Canoecopia such a phenomenal success? Sure, there are the admission fees, which get plowed entirely back into the speaker program to pay speaker fees, provide accommodations and sometimes transportation, ensuring Rutabaga has a speaker lineup that is top-of-the-line.

And yes, there are killer deals on boats and accessories, with markdowns that Canoecopia shares with participating vendors who are more than willing to take a margin hit too since the event is so successful.

But more than anything, Bush believes the event is successful because everyone has such a great time.

The atmosphere remains laid-back, easy-going, supporting, inspiring and, in a way, kind of folksy. For an event that began over 23 years ago with the idea customers would like to "meet the folks who build the boats," Canoecopia hasn't changed much other than in size. You still get to meet the company designers and execs, and those we spoke with told us Canoecopia remains a highlight of the year for them, for that reason alone -- they get to hang out with real people who want to paddle the stuff they design and peddle.

And for all the event's success, Weidman and Bush tell us they are working harder than ever to ensure that as Canoecopia grows, so does the store during the rest of the year.

"We want to be sure Canoecopia is less important as a percentage of our overall business revenue because we don't want Rutabaga to be dependent on one event to survive," Bush said.

As for how much growth is possible for Canoecopia, Bush has this to say, "We really don't work to make it big, we work to make it perfect."

From vendor reports filtering into SNEWS after this year's Canoecopia, it appears as if Bush and Weidman are, with a very few exceptions, meeting the expectation of an event that really can't be improved upon very much.

Quite a few vendors also told us that each year, they use Canoecopia as a sort of measuring stick, to gauge how the consumer market will react to boating each year. While not everyone, including Weidman and Bush think that Canoecopia is really a bellwether of anything, short of the local economic climate, we'd be remiss if we didn't sum up a few notable trends observed from the Canoecopia sales floor.

  • The company selling the most gear was Yakima (gee, apparently Jim Clark can sell) with Werner Paddles garnering the number two spot. In fact, this year, accessory sales, as well as apparel sales (apparel was offered for the first time at Canoecopia) are what drove the sales increase.
  • For the first time, Rutabaga did not use "Lowest Possible Prices of the Season" as an advertising hook. Weidman told us this is because they have learned that as long as the price is fair, and there is value in the event beyond simply product for sale, customers are willing to pay prices that might not be rock bottom.
  • Canoecopia offered a child-care room for the first time this year, with 40 children constantly being cared for in two-hour shifts. Bush told us, "If you want to do business with families, you have to make it easy for them to shop and go to seminars." Bush noted that this year, there were many more families in attendance as a result.
  • Higher-end product was what was selling on the boating side. Plastic and Royalex boats were not moving as they have in the past. Everyone wanted to buy laminates -- Wenonah Canoe even ran out of Kestral boats. Carbon-fiber products were hot -- leaving Werner Paddles smiling. Lotus realized the jump in price-point this year too with folks more interested in the higher-priced PFDs with more features.
  • While whitewater boats were still selling we were told, the amount being sold at Canoecopia and in retail in general does not match up with the amount of advertising being focused on the category. Still, in the whitewater category, Prijon, Pyranha and Liquid Logic all enjoyed strong sales, according to Bush.
  • More new faces attended Canoecopia this year than ever before, leading several vendors to observe that perhaps paddlesports has not flattened out after all and that the industry simply needs more events like Canoecopia to attract new customers.

If you have never attended a Canoecopia, the SNEWS team can tell you from personal experience, there simply isn't another event quite like it. Mark your calendars for next year -- March 11-13, once again at the Alliant Energy Center.

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