Not every paddling retailer has a love-hate relationship with demo days. For some, it’s all hate.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic burst onto the scene last spring, closing stores and dropping a cloud of uncertainty over every aspect of the paddlesports business, there was a silver lining of sorts. Nobody had to run a demo all season.

Later, as an unexpected Covid boom improved bottom lines and retailers experimented with smaller-scale alternatives, some began to wonder whether full-blown demos will become a thing of the past. Others have no doubt.

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“We’re done with big demos,” said Dave Slover, owner of Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe in Portland, Ore. Even before the pandemic struck last spring, Alder Creek had decided to cancel its 2020 Spring Paddle Festival, which was still popular with paddlers but wasn’t generating the sales boost it had in years past. Such events come with plenty of overhead for retailers and participating manufacturers, all to sell boats at a discount. “A two-day demo costs $20,000 or $30,000,” Slover said. “Until you put a hundred thousand bucks in the bank, that event isn’t paying for itself.”

A demo is essentially a sale, used not only to show new paddlers the ropes but also to move product, usually at a discount. That doesn’t pencil out in the current environment, with retailers selling everything they can get their hands on at full price and full volume. Next year looks like more of the same, with retailers across North America desperate to restock and vendors limiting orders for 2021, even as their factories run full-tilt.

“Our inventory is about 70 percent of where it should be going into spring and we are pre-selling all sorts of items,” Slover said. A sale of any kind doesn’t make sense in such times, especially one that costs money to put on and leaves staff sweaty and grumbling.

“For every show we rent two 40-foot Penske trucks and load them with 50 or 60 kayaks every morning,” said Juan Carlos Andreu, general manager at Austin Canoe Kayak. “It’s just a lot of sweat and tears to put these shows together.”

In exchange for that investment in money and hard labor, retailers gain the chance to cultivate relationships that just don’t grow under fluorescent shop lights. Demos set specialty shops apart from the box stores, bring new blood into the sport and foster a kind of customer interaction you can’t get anywhere but on the water.

“There’s no comparison because when I’m on demos, I’m educating people on paddling.”

“There’s no comparison because when I’m on demos, I’m educating people on paddling,” said Steve Cheers, owner of Mountain Sports Ltd., in Bristol, Va. “It makes you look like the expert. You get a connection you don’t normally get in the store, and there are people I’ve met at demos who continue to this day to be friends.”

Mountain Sports is an outdoor-sports institution in southern Virginia, a family-owned operation celebrating 40 years in business. As recently as a decade ago, it hosted six demos per season at a city park in Bristol, but as the municipal red tape mounted Cheers transitioned to less-frequent demos at a lake 40 minutes out of town. Last season he scheduled two, both canceled due to COVID-19.

Cheers says that about 20 percent of his paddlesports sales come from demos in normal times, and he expects to resume them eventually. How soon depends on the pandemic and his suppliers. “As soon as we can get some boats, we’ll probably do something for ’21,” he said.

Austin Canoe and Kayak, a powerhouse retailer with five locations in central and east Texas, also has taken a wait-and-see approach to demos, Andreu said. In recent years, ACK has hosted four demo weekends, one each spring and fall in both the Austin-San Antonio and Houston areas. The events have been a key part of the retailer’s customer outreach efforts, and Andreu is eager to return to them. Just not quite yet.

With no excess inventory and almost everything he can get into the shop flying straight off the shelves, there’s no immediate need for full-scale demos. Instead, ACK has focused on more targeted outreach. Last summer, the retailer offered reservation-only on-water tests of its 10 most popular fishing kayaks, in what Andreu calls a boutique experience for customers considering boats that retail from $1,500 to more than $3,000. “It was one-on-one, and we were able to keep it safe,” he said, adding that a $100 refundable deposit ensured participating customers were serious.

The approach is a far cry from the festival vibe of ACK’s regular demos, which feature live music and draw hundreds of people, from kitted-out enthusiasts to folks who just happen by. Still, the scaled-down demo served one of the most important functions of a paddling demo—building community around the sport, and helping customers find the boat that’s right for them.

Slover believes smaller-scale demo opportunities may be the wave of the future. While Alder Creek may never throw another weekend-long Paddle Festival with SUP yoga classes, kayak fishing clinics and dozens of brands, Slover is pursuing opportunities for small demos keyed to individual brands.

Rather than putting on a big show at great cost to the retailer—and inviting brands to send reps at great cost to them—Slover envisions more personal events coinciding with brand reps’ regular rounds.

“If they can double up on their tour, it makes sense for them to promote their products to not only the retailer but also to the consumer,” he said. “Come spend an evening with the rep. I think that’s the target.”


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