Paddle Sports in the COVID-19 Era Pt. 1
I have been curious how COVID-19 has impacted the paddle sports world. While it has closed some doors, some areas seems to be thriving. My buddy Jake over at Immersion Research happily gave me his insight to how 2020 went, how 2021 is looking, and what the roller coaster of the last 12-months has been.
Tell us a little about yourself and your current job at Immersion Research.
My name is Jake Bouchelle, I am 31 years old, and I live in White Salmon, Washington. I started whitewater kayaking about eight-nine years ago. Since that point, boating has guided my life decisions and locations. Kayaking is what pushed me to the northwest in the first place (though I always knew I wanted to be here.) I have been employed in the paddling industry for the past five years. Prior I was a raft guide in West Virginia's panhandle on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Before moving to White Salmon, I was a dog musher in northern New Hampshire at Mount Washington's base, but that was just a brief stint away from the water to play in the snow.
Five years ago, I began working as a green retail store hand at a local kayak shop in Hood River, Oregon, where I learned the industry's ins and outs. But, mostly they wanted me for my body, aka boat mover extraordinaire. After the Kayak Shed burned to a crisp (RIP) in 2018, I was graciously provided a position at Immersion Research as the Web Director and EU & Norwegian Sales Manager. I have been employed at IR ever since. I am currently our Marketing Director, and I handle all of the daily marketing duties at IR, which can be a broad array of responsibilities due to our company size. My position entails everything from content creation, marketing inactivates, social media guidance, collab projects, apparel design, photography work, video creation, etc. It is a labor of love that I do genuinely enjoy. I am pretty fortunate to have such a rad opportunity and to use a word like 'rad' in emails and have nobody frown upon me.
We are coming up on a year of COVID. What did things look right before the first round lock downs started?
Oh man, it was indeed a whirlwind. I feel like IR had been making leaps and bounds over the past couple of years. Our dry wear and spray skirts were better than ever. People liked what we were doing. 2020 was teeming to be a terrific year for IR. Then March hit and then the lock-downs.
Between the toilet paper shortage and my job's unknown, I was seriously worried about my job. IR as a company was no different. We were all in this weird holding pattern, waiting to see how things would pan out. We weren't sure what was going to happen. We all hit it double-time trying to keep money coming in to stay afloat in hopes of not losing our jobs.
Was there a point when you realized things were going to be fine? Was there a point when you were like "Yeah we got this but now we can't keep up with demand?"
I would say early-mid summer is when we were finally able to take a breath of fresh air. A company such as IR does not survive for 25 years without finding out how to make it through those difficult times, and 2020 and the pandemic was no different. We fully re-aligned our efforts to creating PPE for local medical facilities. Which didn't only provide a vital service but also provided us with income. At the same time, Kara and John Weld had to balance running a sewing factory full-time and meeting the increased sale and customer service demands at IR. All IR employees were pulling double time. Fortunately, we had inventory to sell, which could have made our year disastrous as many sewing factories worldwide were being shut down due to COVID. Keeping up with demand has become more challenging as inventory has widdled down and production timelines have slowed. However, we can still provide most customers with what they need within a reasonable amount of time.
Is the outdoor industry growing? Is this a good thing? Bad thing? What are your thoughts.
Most certainly, the outdoor industry is growing. Over the past year, every outdoor manufacture (that made it through the initial scare) has had one of the best, if not the best, sales year ever. Now, that is likely a very different story from in-store retailers due to lock-downs and restrictions. It has been tremendous from a manufacturing business perspective, and the demand has not skipped a beat. As every outdoor manufacturer is going through ebbs and flows regarding inventory, outdoor sales' trajectory is unheard of and something we hope continues. *Fingers crossed*
On a personal level, I will say that I have had to become more creative in my outdoor activity spots. River put-ins, trailheads, and campgrounds have been more crowded than ever. It took a little bit of creativity to get the river or trail to yourself. But, in many ways, it has pushed me to explore areas and rivers that I would never have considered going before and have turned out to be extraordinary.
What is making it hard to get products to people?
Getting products to customers, in the beginning, was easy. We had the inventory to sell. We saw increased shipping delays because of freight demands. However, as this massive upswell in sales traffic continues, we find it more challenging to meet customer demands as inventory becomes more scarce, production timelines slow, and our dealers request more inventory. That said, it is a great problem to have. Well, 50% awesome.
What do things look like for IR right now and into the rest of 2021?
2021 will be one of the best sales years Immersion Research has ever had if all goes according to plan. Which, as 2020 showed us isn't always the case. At IR, we observed the whirlwind that went down in 2020, and we tried our best to ready for the onslaught in 2021. Making kayak gear is tough and timelines for production are long. For instance, when we create a product such as a dry suit and find that something isn't quite working and we decide to change it. Realistically, customers won't see those changes for 24-36 months. It is a tough spot to be in, but the whitewater gear business is challenging in itself. We have high hopes for 2021, but only time will tell.
What are some good things to be coming out of this pandemic? Any new gear? Upgrades to gear?
Man, this is oddly a tough one. I think remaining positive can go a long way. 2020 could have been a total and complete disaster for IR. However, it did a full 360 and ended up being our best year ever.
Coming into 2021 will be much of the same catalog as 2020, with a few new products and changes. We have some awesome small new pieces of gear coming later in the year. Keep your eyes peeled for our Hot Head Balaclava and the Shittens...yes, you read that right, the 'Shittens.' They are basically the most innovative piece of gear since the iPod, just cooler. We also have some really neat microbrew pieces coming into the works. Watch out for our 'Hot Lap Hoodie' (or Bear Fur Hoodie as we like to call it in-house), which is sure to be a total game-changer when it comes to lifestyle threads. Well, if you are awesome, that is.
Yeah I agree, the Shittens are going to change the world of cold weather paddling
Overall, we are just looking forward to 2021 and seeing what is to come. We know that the demand for gear will continue and that the outdoor industry as a whole will continue to thrive. We are thrilled that people have rediscovered how awesome the outdoors are because they do rock. We hope the rush of folks happens responsibly, and we can keep our watersheds safe, clean, and available for all to enjoy.
Cheers, homie. *double rock hands*
Thanks Jake for that look into what is going on in the outdoor paddle sports world. Best of luck to you and all the folks at Immersion Research! See you on the river!