Rutabaga generates firestorm over announcement to launch show in Seattle

Madison-based paddlesports specialty retailer Rutabaga, announced plans earlier this month to launch a Canoecopia-style paddling event in Seattle, Wash. Hoping to help the industry stimulate what the retailer dubbed "lagging sales of recreational kayaks, supplies and accessories in the Northwest," Rutabaga had planned to export its successful consumer event in a first attempt at duplication outside of Wisconsin. Now, it appears as if all is on hold due to a response that bordered on vitriolic.
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Madison-based paddlesports specialty retailer Rutabaga, announced plans earlier this month to launch a Canoecopia-style paddling event in Seattle, Wash. Hoping to help the industry stimulate what the retailer dubbed "lagging sales of recreational kayaks, supplies and accessories in the Northwest," Rutabaga had planned to export its successful consumer event in a first attempt at duplication outside of Wisconsin. Now, it appears as if all is on hold due to a response that bordered on vitriolic.
 
In mid-August, co-owners Darren Bush and Jeff Weidman along with special events coordinator Ken Barmore took the Canoecopia concept to Outdoor Retailer Summer Market at the request of several manufacturers. Rutabaga presented to paddlesports equipment suppliers and Seattle-based retailers an event they call Kayakopia.

"We're an events-driven company," said Weidman. "We have a formula that can help other dealers. We're selling a lifestyle that we like to call 'time on the water.'"

The company "sells" this lifestyle by creating events that they say raise enthusiasm for paddling and generate interest in the sport, which in turn successfully drives the sale of product while bringing new participants to the sport.

Since 1981, Rutabaga has hosted Canoecopia, arguably the largest consumer-based paddlesports industry event in the country. The 2004 event featured over 300 exhibitors and attracted more than 23,000 consumers who received expert advice, saw the latest products, and communed with paddling enthusiasts from across the country and around the world. They also bought a lot of boats.

Weidman and Barmore told us they have plans to give a lagging Seattle kayak market the shot in the arm they believe it needs by establishing a similar program: "We don't sell boats. We sell an experience…."

Weidman said that the difficulties that Seattle retailers appear to have is in selling only product, adding that what is missing is an emotional element: "They haven't sold the dream." The Rutabaga principals said they believe they can help Seattle-based retailers reinvigorate their market by helping to sell the dream.

Local area manufacturers and retailers who talked to SNEWS® -- and man oh man were the phone lines and email burning up this week -- take exception to the implication by the Rutabaga folks that business is in the toilet in Seattle. They point out that there are 20 smaller specialty paddlesport retailers currently doing a very good business in and around the Puget Sound area.

Bush and Weidman told SNEWS® they have received start-up commitments to the Kayakopia event from paddling equipment manufacturers -- if they could find a retailer or retailers in the area willing to sign on. To make it a "no-brainer" deal for a Seattle-based retailer to sign up, Rutabaga has already covered the expenses that would be incurred by arranging a financing package. In addition, Bush told us he negotiated with manufacturers that indicated their desire to be involved to ensure manufacturer reps would be paid their full commissions on sales through the event, to ensure rep support as well.

Rutabaga has also assembled a five-year plan of relinquishing control and share of event profits to a local retailer. According to Bush, the first year of the event, Rutabaga would take all the profits. In year two, one-fifth of the profits would go to the retail partner. In years three, four and five, the retailer's share of profits would increase by one-fifth, with Rutabaga completely out by year six.

"Rutabaga will have 100 percent of the profits in the least profitable year," Weidman told us. "Our projections are that the first year this event is run it would generate $350,000 in sales and expenses will be considerable."

With strong local retail support, Weidman estimates that the event could easily generate $500,000 in sales the second year and continue growing every year thereafter.

Despite Rutabaga's stated intentions to partner with a local retailer ensuring that retailer would be the primary beneficiary of the event after year two, and full owner of the event after year five, reps, retailers and even now some paddlesport manufacturers are questioning Rutabaga's motives. Still, according to Rutabaga, the only retailer to have actually called the Madison paddlesports specialist to date is REI.

"They (retailers, reps and manufacturers) don't appear to understand what we're trying to do," said Weidman. Rutabaga management said it believes that by raising awareness and building enthusiasm in larger markets with an event similar to Canoecopia, the retailer can re-energize the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, he said, the misinformation that is being spread and the commentary the retailer is being emailed and hearing, some of which borders on the hateful, has become very discouraging personally to Weidman.

"We're not interested in becoming a competitor to local Seattle retailers," Weidman said. "I'm only interested in growing our brand and helping the Seattle market become stronger through offering our event expertise. Now, because of all the negative energy, I just don't know."

Chris Mitchell, executive director of the Seattle-based Trade Association of Paddlesports, told us that TAPS has nothing against the idea or the event if it is going to benefit the industry as Rutabaga insists is the plan.

"If Rutabaga is going to do something really good for paddlesports, I'd love to help them," said Mitchell. However, he also pointed out that since Rutabaga is not a member of TAPS, there is little he can currently do short of talking with the retailer, which he has.

SNEWS® View: The success that Rutabaga has enjoyed in Wisconsin with Canoecopia is without question. However, the reaction the Rutabaga team received with its Kayakopia concept is, well, to us very indicative of some of the paddlesport market's challenges and difficulties in general. Instead of trying to find the good in an idea and engage in an open discussion about it, the idea gets trashed, bashed and beaten up just as those those presenting it do -- sort of like killing the messenger. As a result, the idea dies on the vine never to bear fruit.

OK, so we would agree that the Rutabaga team went about this the wrong way, with the implication that that Seattle market was not a healthy one -- which is out of left field. No one person who spoke with us -- including reps, manufacturers and retailers -- didn't agree that the Seattle paddlesports market could sell more boats. But heck, which market couldn't say that, with the possible exception of Madison, Wis.

We do know the seed for the idea came from several manufacturers that are not selling as many boats in the greater Seattle market as they might like, but frankly they know, and we know and Seattle retailers know, that it is more a problem with the relationship the manufacturers themselves have established with the local retail market, and not a problem with the market itself.

All that said, we do believe that Kayakopia is a good idea that needs the input of the local market if it is to move forward at all. No one knows the Seattle market and the needs of that market better than those who sell there currently, and the good folks at Rutabaga need to acknowledge and understand that. We would also humbly suggest that Rutabaga needs to become a member of TAPS, but perhaps that is a secondary issue.

Either way, the reaction to the Kayakopia concept has not been kind or open and everyone deserves better. All the way round, open and honest communication is the key. And hindsight is always 20/20, isn't it? 

Finally, we do believe Rutabaga's heart remains in the right place here. While there is certainly a lot the venerable Midwest retailer can learn from the good folks in Seattle, there is a lot Seattle could learn from the 'Baga team to enhance an already successful market and grow participation. After all, despite a few arguments we hear to the contrary, growing the paddlesport industry is about growing demand, not just finding a way to sell more product. Lord knows we have more than enough supply -- it is the users we're a little short on.

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