There’s no dodging the issue: the COVID-19 pandemic has left many companies in the paddling industry—as with countless other industries, outdoor and not—struggling to stay afloat. From outfitters looking at fewer guests and marquee paddling events cancelling to retailers and cash-strapped consumers curbing their buys and manufacturers sitting on excess inventory, nearly every niche of the industry is holding the short end of the paddle.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. As with the bicycling and camping sectors of the outdoor industry, paddlesports could well emerge as a pastime people actually flock to in this era of self-isolation. It’s just going to take going with the flow to weather the season’s turbulent waters.
Events: Forget About It
With the pandemic hitting in early March, events tumbled like dominos just as the paddling season was beginning to shape up. From the Olympics postponing a year to the GoPro Games rescheduling for August, and marquee paddling events like FIBArk and even the Yukon River Quest cancelling, the paddling event calendar has dried up like the Colorado River in its namesake delta.
Setting the tone for the wave of cancellations was Canoecopia, the first major paddlesports gathering to fall from the outbreak. Organizers cancelled the tradeshow in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 12, just a day before the show was scheduled to start. Held in the 50,000-square-foot Alliance Energy Center and drawing 20,000 attendees, it’s the industry’s largest paddlesports consumer event and includes educational seminars, clinics and presentations.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” says organizer and Rutabaga Paddlesports owner Darren Bush. “Half of our exhibitors were already there and set up. I knew if we closed we’d be saving lives and stopping the spread of COVID-19, so I felt peaceful knowing it was the right thing to do. But it was definitely a significant financial hit and it continues to be painful.”
Manufacturers: Must Move the Inventory
Paddlesports manufacturers have been equally hard hit, with supply chain issues, retailers cancelling orders, PPP loan issues, heavy inventory burdens and more. One of the biggest players in the space, Johnson Outdoors, reported that its Watercraft Recreation sales fell 38 percent due to COVID-19’s impacts on production and demand. The decrease eclipses the losses of its fishing, diving and camping categories.
“As governments open up for business in their jurisdictions, so will we, while strictly adhering to public health guidelines, cleaning protocols and workflow practices limiting employee interaction,” says marketing manager Alex Sherbinow, adding employees working from home will continue to be able to do so. Some locations, he adds, will ramp up before others and some positions may be suspended longer than others. The company resumed production and shipments in its North American operations on April 22, but executives say government mandates overlapped with its primary selling season, with the third quarter expected to be impacted as well. All this comes when the company is rolling out its new seven-boat Sportsman fishing kayak line from Old Town Canoe.
The SUP side of the equation hasn’t fared any better.
“Between the tweaked tariffs, the virus and the closures, we’ve seen a significant amount of our wholesale orders be delayed,” says Peter Hall of Hala Gear. “That’s costly because we’re not turning our inventory into cash as quickly as we need to.”
One thing they are focusing on, he adds, is their affiliate marketing program for their shuttered retailers. “It allows them to refer sales to our web channels and they get a commission on the sale to help them make a bit of revenue,” Hall says. “We’re trying to work with our dealer network to give them the flexibility they need.”
He adds that they’re also focusing on their product and the release it can give their customers. “Thankfully, we offer something that helps people get outside and stay active, helping their mental state, while still abiding by social distancing standards,” he says.
Inflatable kayak maker Advanced Elements has also seen some air let out of its sales this season. Luckily, a recent investment in computer and network technology helped when the pandemic hit. “In hindsight was key to what was to come,” says marketing director Clay Haller. “Being in San Francisco, we were among the first to receive the shelter-at-home mandate and our entire office was up and running remotely overnight. It took some getting used to, but everyone has done an amazing job to keep business going.”
Thankfully, he adds, their fulfillment center in Nevada was deemed essential and has continued shipping and receiving. “There were still major disruptions and hurdles to deal with, including order cancellations and uncertainty, so it hasn’t been easy by any means,” he adds. “But we’re fortunate and thankful, and all signs pointto paddlesports being among the industries to prosper in this new age.”
Retailers: Web Keeps the Ship Afloat
As if increased competition from the Internet, lower margins and rising brick-and-mortar costs weren’t enough, the virus has hit specialty retailers especially hard. Without being able to open their doors, during the peak selling season no less, cash flow dried-up while the rivers surged
But being paddlers, many have also been quick to change course midstream. Venerable retailers like 4 Corners RIversports has hosted innovative online gear swaps and sales, and Downriver Equipment, one of the niche’s largest rafting retailers, and Madison, Wis.’s Rutabaga, launched curbside pick-up programs that boosted sales.
“As far as adapting, we’re offering curb-side pickup, and our web is helping to keep us afloat,” says Rutabaga’s Bush, adding the store sold gift cards for cash flow and a PPP loan helped keep its staff working. “Our customers have been kind, patient and supportive. One even sent a four-figure check thanking us for 20 years of service.”
While he admits it’s difficult to make predictions or projections, they’re doing what it takes to succeed. “Specialty shops should be able to compete against the big guys by being more creative and flexible,” he says. “I recently Facetimed a customer and we just did everything virtually. He ended up with boats, paddles and PFDs for his whole family, as well as a rack system, and we delivered it to his house an hour away. He was blown away — box stores can’t send out their CEOs to deliver boats, but we can.”
The online side of the equation has been hit also, with consumers’ discretionary spending curtailed, but even without Amazon’s scale it’s fared better than brick and mortar.
“We’re glad we have an increasingly diversified online sales platform,” says JR Jennings of Colorado’s biggest paddlesports dealer, CKS Online coloradokayak.com. With sales volume up but warehouse staff down, he notes the pandemic affecting it operations several ways. One, they’ve been selling rafting handwash stations like crazy, he says — way more than a normal year. Manufacturers have also extended MAP break windows, letting retailers like CKS offer discounts early in the season. “And people are buying entry-level gear like SUPs and inflatable kayaks to get out in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
Guides and Outfitters: Wait and See
Due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions, outfitters are being his especially hard. Harder still is estimating what the summer will look like.
“Things are pretty tough…it will be interesting to see how things play out,” says Mike Wallisch, VP of operations for Alaska Travel Adventures, whose rafting and sea kayaking operations rely largely on cruise ship traffic. He says Southeast Alaska was expecting 1.4 million tourists this summer, and so far nearly 1 million of those have cancelled. “It looks like a severely reduced season,” he says, adding they’re expecting even more cancellations. “And we don’t know yet what the travel and social distancing restrictions will look like when we do open.”
All this has made forecasting difficult. To start, they cut their current predictions in half, and then made P&L and staffing models based on 75, 50 and 25 percent of that level. While they employ 50 guides in a normal year, this year he thinks they’ll be down to 10. “We’ll operate, most likely, but it will be with a skeleton crew,” he says. “I’m telling guides who are reaching out to us not to turn down any opportunities in their own state.”
It’s a similar story for outfitters across the country, he says. Those expected to fare the best are the ones near large, in-state population centers, like outfitters on Colorado’s Arkansas River outside of Denver or the Sierras of California. “At least they might see an uptick in their local in-state guests from people who can drive there easily,” he says. “And people will be looking to get active outside. But right now it’s wait and see.”
Lending a Hand
With paddlers always known for helping each other in times of need, its industry is no exception. Case in point: Chaco, which shifted its focus from sandal repairs and product customization to producing face masks and other critical protective equipment needed by healthcare and other first responders working through the pandemic.“We’re doers,” says Lisa Kondrat, director of operations for the ReChaco Factory, which switched gears from footwear to facemasks. “It’s not in our team’s DNA to stand by when we have the opportunity and resources to take action. We want our skills and machinery to be useful in this crisis.” —E.B.
Helping guides come to grip with the season
With many river guides expected to be out of work this summer, they have a friend in The Redside Foundation, created in memory of longtime Idaho guide Telly Evans. Supporting the education, professional development and mental health of the guiding community for over a decade, the Boise, Idaho, nonprofit has launched a new digital platform allowing guides to share their stories to build a collective awareness and support system for guides dealing with issues from the pandemic. It also offers a 24/7, confidential Guide Helpline focused on mental health, as well as professional development grants, scholarships for higher education, financial services, a health hotline, and services for guide-owned small businesses.
So far its new #ThisIsAGuide program is being well-received. “It’s being promoted to create a sense of community in a time when many are so isolated.,” says executive director Shannon Walton. “This is a population composed of natural leaders who aren’t always comfortable being vulnerable or admitting that they need help. We’re here to support guides when they need it most.” Find info at redsidefoundation.org. —E.B.