On Friday, March 2nd, a late winter storm dumped more than a foot of snow across much of the Midwest. Seven days later, on the first day of Rutabaga’s 26th annual Canoecopia show in Madison, WI, the temperatures reached 50 degrees. Even Mother Nature cooperates with paddlers.

Launched in 1981 and now called, “the world’s paddlesports expo,” the three-day event featured almost 200 boat companies, accessory brands, outfitters, tourism promoters and non-profit organizations. Teko, Sierra Club National Outings, Sierra Club River Touring and Sierra Magazine sponsored the 2007 event. By 9:15 am on Saturday, the convention center’s main parking lot was filled and parking attendees were directing a steady stream of cars to two overflow lots.

A majority of the exhibitors have appeared for a number of years. Midwestern companies like Bending Branches, Cooke Custom Sewing, and Bell Canoes are joined by manufacturers as far away as Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. Consumers can climb into demo boats from a variety of major brands and consider boats ranging from the $5,000 folding kayaks from TRAK Kayaks to build your own wood kayak kits from Chesapeake Light Craft. With exhibit space already filled with long-term partners, Rutabaga is challenged to find room for more. Approximately 20 companies made their first appearance at Canoecopia in 2007.

Jacque Chasse, president of Esquif said that the show exceeded his expectations and that instead of competing against each other, the vendors are all working in the same direction serving an interested consumer. “It was a great show. The organizers were very proficient in planning the operations and logistics,” he said. “The people here are in the process of buying. It’s rare for a show to offer consumers discounts before the season begins. The people coming to the show are well-informed and ready to finalize their quest. The water is frozen, but people are dreaming of the next season.”

Scott Lynch, marketing manager for Madison, WI based Lendal Paddles has attended the show for the past five years. Many exhibitors bring product designers and factory personnel to the show to meet paddling participants face to face.

“The attendance was very good. There was a big rush of sales on Friday night,” he said. “It’ an opportunity for the staff to meet directly with consumers without the information being filtered through a marketing person. We’ve received great feedback on our product designs.”

More than 50 speakers attracted standing room only crowds to six conference rooms. Topics ranged from skills presentations to tales of personal adventures and destination profiles. For the second year, the pool in the adjacent Clarion Suites hotel was used to present skills training clinics and product demonstrations. Over three days, the 99-person capacity of the pool area was reached in most sessions.

Consumers pay $15 for a three-day show pass and $4.75 for daily parking. Darren Bush, Rutabaga’s co-owner hasn’t received any resistance to the fees. “It’s a good value,” he said. “You just can’t touch the quantity and quality of the speakers we bring in.”

Consumers pay $15 for a three-day pass to explore the 100,000 square foot Alliant Energy center convention hall. Bush reports, “Sales were up over last year. Not huge, but up. Attendance was up more than sales. A lot of new faces and names added at the registers. The percentage of sales to people who were not on our mailing list was up and we found some new customers.”

For the first time, attendees were introduced to carbon offsets. Entering the main show door, a large poster from Teko invited them to learn how to be carbon neutral traveler. Bush reports, “I received good feedback from vendors, but there is little consumer understanding about the concept.”

One of Bush’s objectives with Canoecopia is to get more people on the water. This year, Bush hosted an adaptive paddling panel to discuss challenges disabled people face when considering kayaking or canoeing. Bush explains, “We want everyone to paddle. We’ve been working with our outdoor education programs for years with adaptive paddling and training our staff how to do it. Bush has worked with professors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Northland College in Ashland, WI on program support and product design.

Bush offers, “The people who have these disabilities didn’t get that way watching television, they got that way from mountain biking, skiing or doing something hairy. Their bodies may have disabilities, but their brains are still Type A. Sitting in a chair for the rest of their lives isn’t going to do it. Paddling provides a way to do that. Once you are in the boat you are no longer disabled.”

Bush also organized a well-attended women’s paddling panel to share experiences and encourage women to experience the sport. “We had all these incredible women in one spot, let’s get them together to talk,” said Bush.

As the show winds down Sunday afternoon, consumers and vendors alike are already making plans for Canoecopia 2008. Planning for the 2008 event starts almost immediately. A staff meeting on Thursday after the show identified specific areas of improvement. “Overall, the adjustments are minor. I’ve been talking to vendors for the last three days asking what worked and what didn’t. The feedback I’ve gotten so far is everyone was happy with the way the show went,” says Bush.

Editor’s note: For more information about creating and managing events like Canoecopia, see the this month’s issue of Outdoor Business…