A caravan of boat trailers has been winding its way down the freeways of the West throughout September. Manufacturers and dealers were mingling with hundreds of consumers at the Trade Association of Paddlesports' West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium in Port Townsend, Wash., the Bay Area Paddlefest in San Mateo, Calif., and the newly launched Southwest Kayak Symposium in San Diego, Calif.
For event organizers, the impetus for the events is to get new users into the sport and stimulate its growth. With attendance varying from 1,600 at TAPS to 800 at Paddlefest to 200 in San Diego, it bodes the question: Are these events having an influence on the number of people coming into the sport?
Looking at the 2001 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report from the Outdoor Industry Association, the answer could be yes. Kayaking and canoeing have been on the rise among casual participants and core enthusiasts for the last four years.
Kayaking participation grew from 4.2 million in 1998 to 8.8 million in 2001, while enthusiasts went from 400,000 in 1998 to 2.2 million in 2001. Canoeing's activity has surged, as well. More than one in 10 Americans 16 and older went canoeing at least one time in 2001. Canoeing participants numbered 18.1 million in 1998 and grew to 24.1 million in 2001. Enthusiasts made up 2.9 million in 1998 and grew to 4.5 million in 2001.
Various symposium participants are optimistic that their events have contributed to the participation increase and are worthwhile to the industry.
Mojo Rogers, sales and marketing director for Lotus Designs and president of TAPS, told SNEWS® there were at least 1,600 consumers at the West Coast Symposium, the highest attendance in 19 years of the event. More importantly, though, were the estimated 17,000 people at Fort Worden State Park, the location of the symposium, during the three-day weekend, Rogers said.
"Seventeen thousand potential consumers were exposed to the sport in three days. Proper branding and imaging of our sport is incredibly important. The symposium is an educational event and 17,000 people saw the proper imaging of paddling. Safe, fun, easy and rewarding. This is why these types of events are so important," Rogers said.
Greg Knight, co-owner of Aqua Adventures retail store, which spearheaded the San Diego symposium, said these events are not as much about growing the market as keeping it healthy. "These types of events have a huge effect on the sport. It gets people excited about paddling again. The majority of them have paddled all around Mission Bay. After awhile, it loses some spark, but seeing something like this happen in their own backyard builds up interest again."
The main emphasis at the symposiums is drawing in qualified entry-level customers -- not on selling products at the event, but educating consumers on the sport, its products and generating enthusiasm.
"As a retailer, the Paddlefest does help us grow our market. Since it's more educational, I think we're not going to burn out. I think we're going to keep building our market…and progress over the years," said Margaret Aron, manager of Western Mountaineering. "You have to stop thinking of your little square of the bay and realize that we need to build the market as a whole. You can't do it alone. You may want to, but you can't."
Most industry attendees want the symposiums to maintain their educational nature and not succumb to the pressure of selling goods on the beach.
"As an informational event, we can all work together and promote people being out on the water -- which is really what we all want to do. And, we've realized that's what we need to do. We need to work with each other, work with our local outfitters and just educate the folks," said Aron.
Glenn Lush, U.S. sales manager of Seaward Kayak, said that these events are good exposure, but some events are tough because of their non-selling policy. "We have customers coming from as far as Texas expecting to be able to buy boats and can't. The events are very educational and that's great for a shop, but it's not reality. These are expensive events to come to and there has to be cost recovery for manufacturers."
Lush said he sees a day when he'll stop hauling quarter of a million dollars worth of boats from event to event, unless he can sell boats at them.
Joe Dryden, general manager of Eddyline, said he fears if the symposiums become primarily selling events, they'll have the "flea market" look of the early days -- companies blowing out product and ultimately eroding the image of paddlesports.
"The phenomena you see over and over is the retailer primarily and the manufacturer to some extent want immediate returns. They don’t see that it is in their long-term interest to not devalue product in front of the consumer. Particularly, a consumer who's just coming into the marketplace," Dryden said.
"It's a matter of convincing people that you have to look at it as a sacrifice, a collective sacrifice, that you make financially to grow the sport," he added.
Beth Rundquist of Rivers and Mountains and a Paddlefest organizer agrees. "We're ambassadors for the sport. The fact that it is a non-selling event is a big part of that. We're focused on the experience and not whether it’s the best price or who has the best deal."
TAPS reports that the paddlesports industry generated $315 million last year. The effect symposiums have on the national growth and dollars of paddlesports may not be totally quantifiable, but at the local level they can influence sales. Within the first week of Paddlefest, Kayak Connection said it sold six boats and Western Mountaineering 10 with a "couple more sales" expected.
"From a business standpoint, it comes straight down to the bottom line. We definitely are getting all the return on the investment of time and energy we put into this event," said Mark Pastick, owner of Kayak Connection.
Retailers like Pastick take advantage of the enthusiasm and interest built by the symposiums and coordinate their fall sales to follow in the weeks after the events. A wise move as the events this year, which normally draw the same people, saw a sea of new faces, both retailers and manufacturers told SNEWS®.
Cathy Weil, a rep for Confluence and head of the speaker committee for Paddlefest, said, "The nice thing, particularly, about [the first day] was we saw so many new faces. The majority of people there were new paddlers. The caliber of participants was excellent. They were very interested. They were well educated. They were a good demographic. They were definitely boat buyers, and for most of them, this is going to be there first boat purchase."
Whether they affect participation or sales, Eddyline's Dryden says the regional shows at the very least are role models for the industry with their emphasis on education and safety. "They are very important because they create models for the retailers and everyone else in the sport when they're done right. They do have an affect but it's not an enormous effect, because they're only pooling in a small section of the public," he said.
SNEWS® View: Even though the Outdoor Industry Association reports rises in kayak and canoe participation for 2001, numerous industry insiders in the market have been telling us that paddlesports has been losing its momentum among consumers. September's events provided a satisfying jolt to the community, but 2,400 attendees in major metropolitan areas does not an industry make. Many of those interviewed said the symposiums allow the industry to come together to promote the sport, and it's not uncommon for a dealer to refer potential customers to a competitor's store. However, when the banners have been pulled down and the boats are back on the trucks, we're told the same players begin staring at the competitors' consumers once again, dreaming of ways to get them to switch product loyalty. The goodwill and optimism generated by recent events should be a call to action for the industry to exert even more effort toward working together and promote the sport to generate new customers. That approach will prove far more successful in the long run and is a much better one than the current ridiculous back and forth tugging for the attentions of a finite number of consumers already in existence.