A feast of fried gator and a paddle down the exotic Hillsborough River were just two highlights during an outing hosted by Bell Canoe Works. From Jan. 15-19, about 40 members of the canoeing community gathered near Tampa, Fla., to get face time with Bell employees and try a few boats on local rivers. The crowd included retailers, reps, manufacturers, media and the good folks from Canoe Escape, a local retailer who helped host the event. Following are a few field notes ripped from SNEWS reporter Marcus Woolf's notebook:
Bell borrows a page from Marmot game plan
It's no accident that the Bell Experience, a relatively new event, had the laid-back feel of Marmot's well-known dealer outings. Ted Bell, owner of Bell Canoe Works, used to guide Boundary Waters trips for Marmot, and found those events to be an effective way to build relationships between a manufacturer and its customers.
Bell set an informal atmosphere by hosting the get-together on a private campground near a natural spring that feeds the Hillsborough River. On a wide stretch of ground, attendees slept in tents pitched beneath cypress and palm trees. Other than meals, each day featured one structured event -- a four-hour day paddle on a local river. No big product pitch, no speeches about the company. Nights were spent over beers around a large fire, discussing paddlesports issues, boat design and whether or not we might ever get through more than one verse of Me and Bobby McGee without forgetting the lyrics. You know, important stuff like that.
"I actually had a better experience than I thought I would, and really liked the laid-back nature of it," said John Burt , who works in the hunting and fishing departments of Scheel's in Fargo, N.D. Burt, a novice paddler, said he attended the event because the store wants him to become more involved in selling canoeing products. "It was a good chance to get some hands-on experience and to try out some models of canoes that we either don't have or haven't tried yet."
Burt said he also especially found valuable his chats with Bell boat designer David Yost. "He did a good job of really breaking down some things and explaining the designs. I found that there were a lot of (Bell employees) willing to do that," Burt said.
While the gathering allowed folks to gain insight into Bell products, they also enjoyed putting faces with names. Mary Liskow, manager of Blue Mountain Outfitters -- a paddlesports specialty store in Marysville, Penn. -- said she enjoyed getting to know more of the Bell employees personally because that type of interaction is disappearing from the paddlesports market. "It's becoming very corporate, and it's getting harder and harder to talk with people and get honest answers," she said.
Conversations with several attendees revealed that this type of relationship-building event is indeed rare in the paddlesports market, and practically nonexistent for canoeing. In fact, the entire canoe scene has drifted along quietly since kayaks stole the spotlight a few years ago.
But the event had a definite effect on Phil Huck, who's in charge of canoes at the Fargo Scheel's store. "It opened my eyes that maybe we should be putting certain customers in canoes instead of kayaks," Huck said. "A canoe can be much more comfortable and convenient for certain people, like when we're outfitting a family."
Ten minutes with Ted Bell
On two gray plastic folding chairs, Ted Bell and I sit in the morning sun watching smoke rise from the last embers of the campfire. The Bell Experience is in its final hours, and Ted seems pleased.
He's pleased not only that the event went well, but that his company -- launched in 1988 in Zimmerman, Minn. -- seems to be hitting its stride. Even though canoeing is not necessarily a growing sport, Bell has expanded greatly. Known as a high-end brand, Bell introduced canoes made of Royalex last year, which opened a lot of retail doors. Royalex -- a foam core sandwiched between vinyl outer layers -- allowed Bell to offer a durable, more affordable, high-end entry-level boat. "We're in our third year in Royalex," Bell said, noting that after these boats were introduced, "it tripled our business in one year. We had 40 dealers about six years ago, and now we have 200."
Despite the growth, Bell has not strayed from its focus on canoes. "We've debated about getting into kayaks, but stayed true to our core," he said. (Later, Mary Liskow, manager of Blue Mountain Outfitters, tells me she respects the Bell company so much more because it did not abandon canoes as other companies did when kayaks took off.)
Ted said he would like Bell to be known primarily as a canoe company, adding that he has certain advantages as a small, privately owned company. For one, he said he's willing to experiment more on canoe designs than larger companies. "We have several models where we build 100 units a year," he said. "Bigger companies would mothball something that only sold 100 units."
Now, he's focused on developing niche markets, such as whitewater canoeing. "Nobody's doing much with whitewater boats right now, so we're developing that a bit," he said. Also, he's taking a look at breaking into the hunting and fishing markets. "We haven't broken in yet, but we have identified the potential market."
All week around the campfire, I heard concerns that few young people are getting involved in canoeing. Ted said he shared that concern, adding that many kids don't have quality canoeing experiences because liveries put them in bad boats. As a first step, Bell is designing Royalex boats for young people and plans to provide these to youth camps.
Clearly, Ted has many plans and plenty on his mind. But for now, he's leaning back -- hands laced behind his shaved head -- smiling, with the sun on his face.
I'll let you in on two of Florida's best-known secrets -- the Hillsborough River and Jean Faulk's hushpuppies. I was introduced to both during the Bell Experience, thanks to Canoe Escape, a paddling guide and retail operation in Thonotosassa, Fla., near Tampa.
Canoe Escapes owners -- Jean, her husband Joe, and their son Brian -- served as hosts for the Bell Experience, guiding us on paddle trips, and treating us to marvelous dinners, like Sicilian-style crab and the best hushpuppies I've ever tasted.
Canoe Escape began as a rental operation in 1991, as the Faulks guided people on the Hillsborough River, which twists through a 16,000-acre wilderness preserve. Providing Tampa with 70 percent of its drinking water, the river offers one of the state's greatest concentrations of viewable wildlife, as exotic birds and gators roam cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. While this wild river has gained attention over the years, most people still associate Florida with Disney or the Everglades, so the river remains relatively unknown.
Still, locals and a growing number of visitors from out of state provide a good customer base for the Faulks, and Brian successfully launched a Canoe Escape retail operation five years ago. Now named Nessmuck's Trading Post, the store carries about 300 canoes and kayaks, including six brands. "Our approach is we're a retail shop, but we're fanatics about service," said Brian, noting that the store specializes in custom boat outfitting and rigging. He said they'll soon break ground on a new building, which will provide more space and allow him to bring in selected lines of camping equipment. When asked about retail competition, Bell said there isn't another full-scale specialty store within an hour's drive.
Beyond the Hillsborough River, Canoe Escape now operates trips all over Florida, serving a paddling club with 350 members. "We have 18 trips planned this year," he said. "We do day trips for paddle fishermen. We do overnights with hotels, without hotels. We even did six rivers in six days in the panhandle, and that drew 21 people."
As another arm of their business, the Faulk's have established a separate company, Kayak Tampa Bay, which will run kayak trips from the Marriott Waterside Hotel, near the Tampa Convention Center.
And amidst all this, they still find time to stay involved in the industry, partnering with Bell to host the dealer outing. This SNEWS reporter came away impressed with Canoe Escape's involvement in the canoe and kayak markets. Of course, I ate Jean's hushpuppies, so I'm a little biased.
For information, contact Canoe Escape at 813-986-2067; www.canoeescape.com.