By Natalie Warren
Bill Kueper was in Asia last November when he received an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night. Sutton Bacon, board member and former CEO of Nantahala Outdoor Center, was on the line bursting with ideas for a new trade show solely focused on paddlesports. It was a literal wake-up call for Kueper, vice president at Wenonah Canoe, and an overdue impetus for the paddlesports industry to come together.
"Of course I was on board, but I thought he meant we should launch the trade show in 2018," Kueper says. "I read the press release in the morning and thought, holy cow, he meant 2017."
In just eight months, a team of dedicated players in the paddlesports industry has pulled together the very first Paddlesports Retailer show, which takes place Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in Madison, Wis. The event boasts the largest attendance and confirmed floor space of any paddlesports trade show this year, organizers say.
"We've completely sold out the floor—100 percent," says PSR show manager Marcus Shoffner. "For our first year, we hoped to sell around 30,000 sq ft. We had to expand to 41,000 sq ft. to meet the demand."
The event is not just a success for the organizers, says MTI Adventurewear Co-Founder Lili Colby; it already feels like a success for her company as well. "We're going into the Retailer with several confirmed appointments," she says. "We know we are going to connect with our key accounts."
Colby says that building relationships at Outdoor Retailer (OR) has become increasingly difficult in recent years. She says that vendors and retailers tend to be overbooked with appointments at the larger show, and are often stressed as a result. Colby expects a more intimate experience at PSR.
Paddlesport Retailer also addresses two longstanding beefs that the paddling industry has had with Outdoor Retailer, which has been the leading outdoor industry trade show in North America for 35 years.
First is the timing of the OR show. Paddlesports retailers and outfitters have griped for years about having to leave their businesses to attend OR, which has traditionally been held in August during the tail end of paddling season in most of North America. At the same time, the soft goods side of the outdoor industry has been pressing hard to move OR into early summer. Paddlesports is the smaller segment, and it lost the tug-of-war.
In November 2016, OR announced that the 2017 show would move into July, and the 2018 show all the way to mid-June. If August is hard for paddling retailers and outfitters, June— peak season for almost everyone in the paddling game—is almost impossible. Knowing the new dates were untenable for paddlesports, OR promoter Emerald Expositions lobbied paddling companies to exhibit at Emerald's Surf Expo, a "watersports and beach lifestyle show" in Orlando Sept. 7-9.
Paddlesports Retailer co-founders Bacon and Darren Bush, owner and 'Chief Paddling Evangelist' at Madison paddlesports retailer Rutabaga, had another idea. They decided it was time to organize a paddlesports-focused trade show to meet the needs of retailers and buyers, which start with a show date later in the year.
"The June date just isn't feasible for us. Our staff can't take time out of the store without losing business because of it. We have a short season and staffing gets tough," says Jack Stone, owner of Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, Minn. This sentiment rings true for many companies in the industry. Paddlesports Retailer takes place at the end of the paddling season and will better meet the needs of many trade show participants in the paddlesports industry. "At PSR we can concentrate on paddlesports. For a small retailer like us, it's perfect," Stone says.
The second factor PSR addresses is cost. Organizers say the cost of exhibiting at PSR will be less than half what it costs to show at OR. Attending trade shows is a big investment, and PSR organizers have pulled out all the stops in this debut year to reduce the cost of attending, particularly for retailers.
"Getting the retailers there is the most important part of the show. We're providing free hotel rooms to retailers as a part of the package this year," explains Shoffner.
The PSR planning team has worked hard to eliminate logistical and financial barriers for retailers and to make the show affordable and accessible to anyone in the industry. That starts with three free hotel nights for retailers that register for three days. The subsidy comes through an industry coalition funded by PSR, without any assistance from local government or the Chamber of Commerce. Vendors decided how best to attract buyers, including the hotel subsidies as well as free breakfasts, presentations and a film by Boundary Waters activists Dave and Amy Freeman. Organizers even printed T-shirts.
PSR will have more than 200 unique exhibitors, ranging from large companies like Confluence to more recent start-ups like Oru Kayak. The new tradeshow is built on the chassis of the popular Canoecopia consumer show held each March in Madison. Bush has organized that show for 22 years, and many paddling companies are familiar with Madison, the exhibition hall and local infrastructure. Still, while enthusiasm for PSR is widespread in the paddling industry, many companies are taking a wait-and-see position.
Organizers are billing PSR as a show 'for paddlers and by paddlers.' They see it as more than a trade show; it is a gathering meant to deepen roots and expand relationships in hopes that the paddlesports industry becomes more of a paddlesports family. Complete with demos, speakers, and film screenings, the event is set up for retailers and buyers to connect with each other in a sincere, intimate way that has been lacking at larger trade shows.
The Paddlesports Trade Association, a recently formed group consisting of key stakeholders in the paddlesports industry, has played a big role listening to retailers and making sure their needs are met at the event. While the association is currently focused on the promotion and execution of PSR, it has plans to expand its reach.
"Once PSR is in motion, the Paddlesports Trade Association will define our mission and goals," says Kueper a member of the Paddlesports Trade Association. Its members hope to become an influential source of support for the entire paddlesports community.
— Follow C&K on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing coverage, on site at the show this week.