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BY DAN ARMITAGE
After 15 years of exhibiting at, providing programming for, and handling the promotion of sport shows, I recently decided to throw my gimme cap into the producer ring and stage my own event. This was prompted by the realization that for years I have watched a popular — if silent — segment of outdoor enthusiasts get passed over at the annual winter sport/ boat/travel shows that promote everything from camping in self-contained RVs to cruising in pleasure craft while practically ignoring the very pleasures that I find myself pursuing more and more each season: canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, tent camping and fishing from shore, waders and paddle-powered watercraft.
Research showed that I am not alone in my participation in the “quiet” outdoor pursuits. As a full-time freelance outdoor writer and licensed Coast Guard Captain generating more than half my income from writing columns, how-to articles and boat reviews for national boating magazines, I am acutely aware of what segments of boating are stagnating. On the other hand, several discussions with my contacts at the Ohio Division of Watercraft confirmed my speculation about what segments of boating are growing: kayaking and canoeing.
The results of my research into camping trends were in line with what I learned about the types of watercraft that are growing in popularity. While cabins, lodge rooms and full-service RV sites sat vacant, primitive campsites were often booked solid at state parks and private campgrounds. What’s more, as a spokesman for Ohio State Parks pointed out, a recent Memorial Day survey at a popular state park showed that nearly every campsite included bicycles, canoes and/or kayaks as a means to allow occupants to get out and actively enjoy their visit.
I had found my sport show niche, and it picked up an informal “working” name along the way: Paddlepalooza. As with the popular Lollapalooza traveling music festival that promotes a smorgasbord of alternative acts, the expo I Was nurturing was organized to showcase a mix of oftoverlooked outdoor activities that by their very nature (no pun intended) fly under the radar of traditional sport shows and the mass market they target.
Before I knew it, the nickname stuck, and while I was worried that the “paddle” reference might make PaddlePalooza! appear to be weighed toward paddlesports, I went out of my way to emphasize the biking, hiking, and camping features on the web site and in promotional materials to assure that prospective guests and exhibitors realized those activities remained an integral part of the expo. I made sure the event was heavy on the instruction and demonstration side, reserving a 35,000-square-foot venue on the Ohio State Fairgrounds. I designated separate rooms for biking (“Pedal”), kayaking and canoeing (“Paddle”) and hiking and camping (“Pack”) workshops and, as the event’s primary feature, I rented an indoor pool that was 40 feet by 50 feet for in-water demonstrations and instruction.
I also limited exhibitor participation to local, independently-owned businesses. Keeping the “big box” retailers at bay really helped attract small businesses who appreciated the fact that they would not have to compete with deeply discounted, mass-marketed products, allowing the quality of their gear services to be showcased. I extended discounted rates to clubs and non-profit organizations to join in the event, and brought in craftsmen to exhibit their hand-built boats and paddles and Accessories.
To help promote the event, I studied press releases from Outdoor Writers of Ohio and OWAA supporting industry groups. I followed the models of well-written and interesting press releases in my writing and on my radio program and incorporated them into my own press materials.
To make a long story short, the premier PaddlePalooza! last spring was a success, so much so that most exhibitors signed up for the 2011 event before leaving, and guests attending the premier posted their thanks on the event website and used social network sites such as Facebook to urge their outdoor-minded friends to attend the 2011 PaddlePalooza! — even before it was announced there would be a another show.
Once this spring’s show was officially in the works, I jumped into the social networking aspect of event promotion, opening a Facebook page and Twitter account.
To add a new twist to this year’s event, I am inviting folks who have used kayaks, canoes, camping gear, bikes and related accessories to bring them to the event’s free used gear swap. Before doing so, however, I bounced the idea off my core retail exhibitors to get their input, and each one said they organized popular annual used gear sales at their own stores and they loved my idea to do the same.
Applying skills and experience I gained as a freelance communicator to produce and promote my own event has been gut-wrenching yet gratifying. It was sobering to learn that business owners are much more inclined to accept or return calls from Dan, the radio show host or outdoor writer, offering exposure to their products or services than they are to respond to Dan, the sport show producer, peddling booth space and sponsorship packages.
On the other hand, I’ve received enough news releases during my career to know how to pen one that works. And because I’ve been on that side of the fence, I have no angst about working with the media to get word out about the endeavor. Also, when I have an idea, like the used gear swap, it’s exciting to be able to follow through with that idea and see if it works.
The best part, however, comes on show day: Seeing folks lined up to experience what I have created. It’s akin to throwing a party and everybody you invited shows up. At ten bucks a head. ♦
Reprinted with permission of Outdoor Writers of Ohio where it originally appeared in the March 2011 LORE membership newsletter.
–Dan Armitage is a full-time freelance outdoor writer, radio show host and, most recently, consumer show producer. Learn more about PaddlePalooza! at www.paddlepalooza.net and his radio show “Buckeye Sportsman” at www.buckeyesportsman.net.