Canoecopia: Proof of the power of connections

Our reporter prowled the show along with 20,000 other paddlers to hear what’s hot now and in the year ahead and forge bonds with like-minded enthusiasts.
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Last weekend, more than 20,000 paddling enthusiasts attended Canoecopia in Madison, Wisconsin. Hosted by Rutabaga Paddlesports, Canoecopia is called the “World’s Largest Paddlesports Expo.

Canoecopia attendees talk with Delta Kayaks about seating configurations.

Canoecopia attendees talk with Delta Kayaks about seating configurations.

Canoecopia is all about personal connections, between people and people and people and products. Today’s connected consumers have plentiful resources at their disposal. Brand websites include comprehensive product information. Video product tours explain features and benefits in visual detail. Independent product reviews on YouTube add more insights and opinions.

The show has such a strong reputation; attendees pay an entrance fee ($15 for a single day; $25 for all three). “They’re not paying to buy something, they're paying to be part of the community. We have 150 speaker sessions talking about paddling locations, skills, and how-to tips. This is an educational event, but there is a sales component to it,” said Darren Bush, owner, Rutabaga Paddlesports.

For more than 25 years, Canoecopia has brought together paddlesports brands, experienced paddlers and a steady stream of newcomers anxious to learn more about canoes, kayaks, paddles, racks, and accessories. Buyers at both ends of the spectrum make purchasing decisions after long conversations with brand representatives.

Krystal Westfahl of Minocqua, Wisconsin, already owns a small fleet of boats. Looking for a solo canoe, she researched options online and came to Canoecopia prepared to buy. “I honestly feel a little overwhelmed when I'm looking online and reading all of the facts. I came to Canoecopia to physical touch products people are talking about. I really felt on the expertise of the people here,” said Westfahl.

After hearing about Canoecopia from friends, Nikki Davidson of Rushville, Indiana, drove six hours to shop for her family’s first boat. “I wanted to see a lot of different kinds of boats that I could actually sit in and touch,” said Davidson.

Initially planning on purchasing a standup paddleboard, helpful conversations with several brands convinced her to move in a different direction. “I came with questions. How many kids can I fit on here? Is it good for my dog? Is it stable for my kids? Is it practical for my family? There are so many options and I wanted to make sure that I was making the best choice for my family. Canoecopia was the best way to get that accomplished,” she said. Davidson purchased a Perception sit-on-top and plans to return next year and attend more of the educational sessions with her family.

An experienced paddle debates details of a Northstar Canoe solo model at Canoecopia.

An experienced paddle debates details of a Northstar Canoe solo model at Canoecopia.

“You can't replace being able to actually touch and feel the inside of a boat. Canoecopia allows the consumer to experience the product and purchase the product in person,” said Ryan Lilly, brand manager, Johnson Outdoors. “They're looking for affirmation with someone to help them make their decision. Canoecopia is definitely the place to do that.”

People fill the aisles, meandering from one corner of the exhibit hall to the other, fulfilling their personal missions to gather information. Frequently, conversations take place sitting on the floor with a customer in a boat’s seat and a brand representative close by answering questions.

“We're sharing the personal experiences we have in the product. We are to be able to say, I use this model for this particular type of water, or type of fishing or just type of paddling in general. We can share what works for us, Jameson Redding, director of media, Jackson Kayaks, “They're looking they know that they're going to make that decision, and they're just trying to narrow that down.”

In the Midwest, Canoecopia marks the start of the paddling season, even if there’s still two feet of snow on the ground and lakes are frozen. “The consumers have been thinking about paddling all winter. They’ve received their tax return money and are ready to make a purchase. People use Canoecopia to get product knowledge directly from the brand’s representatives. They are ready to buy,” says Lilly. 

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