Like a snake in the grass, Anna Levesque hid behind the brush on the bank of the Ogden River, preparing to strike. Bobbing in her whitewater boat, she heard a Rebel Yell rise in the distance as a dozen kayakers approached, barreling down the rushing water. The first boat reached her trap, and in one swift motion she wheeled around and pounced, paddling hard to broadside her prey.
The blow wasn't enough to capsize Anna's victim -- just offer a friendly smack. "I'm not really trying to take them out, but just slow them down a bit," she said with a grin. A pro paddler sponsored by Dagger, she was playing the role of a spoiler -- or "8 ball" -- in the Wasatch Whitewater Chute Out, and her job was to provide an element of surprise. A new component of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market Open Air Demo, the Chute Out seemed to capture the essence of the Demo -- it's an event that still offers plenty of surprises.
For example, as we gazed at the dozens of folks slipping across the surface of Pineview Reservoir, we noticed that nearly as many people were standing up as sitting down. Apparently, paddleboarding continues to intrigue the outdoor specialty market.
"This is our third year here, and it's really gone big," said Ty Zulim, national sales manager for Surftech, a premier paddleboard manufacturer. While paddleboarding hails from the surf market, Surftech is now placing more emphasis on boards designed for flat water. "That's really where we're seeing the largest growth," said Zulim. "It's guys who have been kayaking, sitting in their butts all day with no visibility, and now you're standing six feet above the water, and it's probably the best whole-body workout you can get other than swimming." Surftech's latest creation is a 14-foot expedition board large enough to hold a cooler and gear for multi-day touring. But don't expect paddleboards to morph into quasi-kayak boats. "We want to keep them looking like surfboards, because that's some of the allure in the outdoor market," said Zulim. "Somebody from Dallas, Texas, can say, 'I have a stand-up kind of surfboard.' They can put wax on it and feel like a surf guy."
Laura Jones, buyer and general manager for River Sports Outfitters in Knoxville, Tenn., said that River Sports would test the waters this year by adding a few paddleboards to its demo line. "We'll have them available for our recreational and social paddling events, and then we'll probably jump into it hard next year," she said. Jones told SNEWS® that the first customers to buy paddleboards will most likely be fit people who want to exercise beyond the gym. "Then, I think other people will see it and get interested," she added.
A tasty mix of goods
A real strength of the Open Air Demo is that it includes an eclectic array of products and supports the notion that outdoor retailers should broaden their product mix and experiment a bit. Offer customers the unexpected and your specialty store becomes that much more special, right? For example, have you considered stocking sardines? Uhh..say what?
Yeah, sardines. Blue Galleon (www.bluegalleon.com) had a booth at the Demo to introduce to the market Bela-Olhao brand sardines, which are canned in Portugal. At first, it might seem odd to market sardines to the outdoor crowd, but all kinds of adventurers, including paddlers and mountaineers, have for a long time carried sardines on their journeys and relied on their high nutritional value. Before you turn your nose up at the idea, consider the fact that these sardines are canned within eight hours of being caught, so they don't give off the fishy odor often associated with sardines. Joshua Scherz, COO of Blue Galleon, said the company also shares the business values of other companies in the outdoor market. "We care about sustainability and pay fair-trade wages," said Scherz, adding that Bela-Olhao sardines are harvested from unpolluted waters and have low levels of mercury.
While the Demo draws newcomers such as Blue Galleon, core outdoor companies continue to see the event as a way to draw attention to new products. Vasque held its first trail run at the Demo, partnering with SkirtSports (www.skirtsports.com) to host the SkirtChaser trail run. About 60 people participated in the event in which women wearing running skirts first hit the trail, followed by men about two minutes later, who were cleverly dubbed "skirtchasers." Aside from giving guys an excuse to chase after women, the run provided a good opportunity to test SkirtSports products, as well as the new Vasque Momenta trail running shoe for women.
Dealer attendance down
Of course, the heart of the Demo remains boat testing, and that seemed plenty popular. Each time we scanned the reservoir, we saw at least 50 boats on the water. However, representatives of several companies noted that dealer attendance seemed down, probably about 15 percent. The shoreline certainly appeared crowded and active, but this was partly due to the fact that the Demo location was moved this year to an area with less shoreline. High water at the previous location made the move necessary, but the new area required manufacturers to be packed in like sardines. (Mmm….sardines.)
Pardon the really bad mixed metaphor, but the elephant in the water at this year's Demo was the question of what will happen next summer when the show falls earlier in the calendar. We witnessed quite a bit of hand wringing over whether certain paddling manufacturers and dealers will make the trip to Salt Lake.
There is also a question of the future of whitewater boats at the Demo. Honestly, pretty much every whitewater boat at Pineview Reservoir remained high and dry, beached on the shore. But show director Kenji Haroutunian is mindful that he needs to make whitewater product a greater part of the event, thus the introduction of the Chute Out, which was open to retailers as well as Ogden's local paddlers. "We're looking for ways to better serve the paddlesports market at the demo, and we don't want whitewater to be missing because it's an exciting part of the industry," Haroutunian told SNEWS.
Outdoor Retailer convinced the city of Ogden to increase the flow of the dam-controlled Ogden River to 500cfs, which created class II to class IV rapids. Ogden resident and paddler Chad Booth said the city typically releases water only once a year. "But Ogden is trying to be more of a recreation town, and doing it in little ways," he said. It will be interesting to see whether Ogden makes a greater effort in the future to draw and support show-related events. While the strong, steady flow made for an entertaining 8-ball competition, there were few eddies, so it was not an ideal environment for retailers, especially beginners, to test boats. Obviously, this creates a challenge in making the event a true demo experience.
Haroutunian also created a climbing component for this year's Demo, providing guided excursions to the crags near the Reservoir. "How could we call something an Open Air Demo and not have rock climbing?" he said. "Logistically, we couldn't make it happen before. And now we have people going up to do a multi-pitch climb on Snowbasin. So, it's a more well-rounded approach to having a true representation of the industry."
Participation in the whitewater and climbing events was light to moderate, and Haroutunian said most people were taking a "wait and see" approach. The whitewater event was being filmed so that it could be marketed in the future.
Doubtless, one difficulty for attendees is transportation. Shuttles to the whitewater event were few and far between, and the Chute Out was a 10-minute drive from the Reservoir. Dealers will have to invest a good chunk of time and plan their schedules carefully to participate in any event held away from Pineview.
At least one satellite event at the Demo has proven its ability to draw the masses. The Camper Dan campout, hosted by Fendler Communications and Camping Life Magazine, drew about 40 people to Anderson Cove Campground on the south shore of Pineview Reservoir. At a pavilion with a beautiful view of the water and distant mountains, retailers and other industry folks feasted on burgers and put away 15 cases of beer and 30 bottles of wine. Later in the evening, the band Cory Mon stirred things up with its rootsy blues music and an especially rousing version of "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw?" And lest you think the outdoor industry has gotten long in the tooth, a 2:30 a.m. chorus of Kumbaya brought the camp host who demanded, "You kids go to bed."
The strangest thing we saw
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird; it's a plane! No, actually it's a $10,000 remote-controlled helicopter from Flying Sensors in Salt Lake City (www.flyingsensors.com). People paddling during the Demo got quite a surprise when they looked up to see a small helicopter whirring overhead and darting about like a giant dragon fly. Flying Sensors is a film production company that uses the helicopter, blimps and other craft for aerial photography. Outdoor Retailer hired Flying Sensors to capture footage of the event to be shown in the Salt Palace.
The Flying Sensors crew told SNEWS that the helicopter can stay aloft about 14 minutes and is powered by a battery that could jump start your car 15 to 20 times. Affixed to the helicopter is a Sony HDV camera, which sends a signal to a remote operator who can see images live on a screen. The rig has been used to shoot commercials and events on ESPN, and according to Flying Sensors, they've never ditched it into the water nor taken anyone's head off with the thing. Which gives us an idea: Next year, in addition to the "8 ball," we equip one of these babies with sardines to drop on the whitewater competitors who have to wolf them down while paddling. Sardines, remote-control helicopters and 8 ball -- now that says the party is on at Open Air to us.