More than 100 of the top instructors, club leaders, retailers, manufacturers, kayak schools, and paddlesport organizations gathered at the Glenwood Canyon Resort in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for three days of seminars, panel discussions and on-water clinics.
The key take-away from the event is that whitewater is at a potential crossroads. While whitewater paddling has experienced growth among some market segments through the popularity of freestyle and publicity of extreme paddling, the paddlesports industry has not paid enough attention to promoting whitewater paddling as an accessible lifetime outdoor activity. To maintain the sport’s health and renew its growth, the industry must broaden the base of participants through a renewed focus on families, kids and lapsed middle-aged paddlers.
One symposium attendee said “We should promote the river experience, and the mode of travel should be less of an issue. Imagine if ski areas had focused all of their attention on snowboarding, and neglected alpine skiing. We have neglected entire areas of the kayaking experience, allowing the entire sport to be labeled as extreme.”
In one panel session on the media and whitewater, a quick poll of 50 veteran paddlers in the audience indicated that most had spent “significant time” learning on Class I-II rivers, an aspect of whitewater that is frequently overlooked in presenting the sport to the public. “Clearly, all of us should target our marketing toward these groups by emphasizing the scenic and social aspects of river running and re-emphasizing the attainable side of whitewater boating,” said event organizer Kent Ford. “We need to make it OK again to paddle Class II and III as a destination in itself rather than as a step toward more difficult whitewater.”
The highlight of the symposium was keynote speaker John Norton. A 20-year veteran of the ski industry, and former COO of Aspen Ski Corp and Crested Butte Ski Area, Norton woke up the audience with a critical look at how poorly the industry follows-up with prospective paddlers to keep them in the sport. A passionate paddler, Norton’s lifetime purchases include 11 boats, eight paddles, and “a ton of gear.” His first professional contact with the industry, however, was the phone call asking him to speak at the symposium.
In contrast, he pointed out what happens when someone plans a ski vacation: “They get a money back guarantee on lessons, ambassadors to help, follow-up emails, direct mail, an invitation to return, a solicitation of feedback, and a follow-up with discount packages to return,” he said. “Without the muscle of resorts bringing people into kayaking, the sport’s system of stores, schools and clubs needs to re-double its efforts at keeping potential paddlers engaged.”
“We can all do a better job of helping new paddlers start off right so they stay with the sport,” added Ford. “These new paddlers represent a resource too valuable for us to squander.”
The next Whitewater Symposium will be held in early October 2006 in Lotus/Coloma, California. For more information visit www.wwsymposium.com.