Many Americans have decided that outdoor activities, including kayaking and canoeing, are essential to getting through the coronavirus pandemic.
And that has helped paddle sports equipment manufacturers from startup Lightning Kayak in Minneapolis to one of the industry leaders, 53-year-old Wenonah Canoe in Winona. After many orders were canceled in the early months after the virus hit the U.S., they started flooding in as the weather warmed.
In June, paddle sports equipment sales rose 56% over the same month the year before, according to research firm NPD Group.
The paddle sports industry was not among essential workers when Minnesota and other states issued stay-at-home orders in March. Lightning, looking at an indefinite shutdown and losing about $1 million in orders, shifted to making face shields to help health care workers.
Owner and CEO Stuart Lee said he and his workers are proud to have played a small part in helping with the personal protective equipment shortages facing businesses as COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. But he said he also pivoted the business to keep his nine full-time workers employed and the lights on for the kayak operation.
And that decision was important as the weather turned warmer and people embraced the outdoors. Orders came flooding back.
“When the whole — no one can congregate indoors — [lockdown] started people found the outdoors again [and] at that point our kayak sales went crazy,” Lee said. Customers who had canceled orders started to resubmit them in May.
From April to June, the number of people using canoes and kayaks increased more than 30% over the previous year, the Outdoor Industry Association told the Washington Post. First-time participants accounted for two-thirds of the increase.
Wenonah Canoe — one of the industry’s largest canoe makers that also makes Current Designs kayaks and C4 Waterman stand-up paddle boards — was closed for weeks.
Since the factory got back up, CEO Mike Cichanowski said sales have been brisk. While not disclosing company revenue, he said Wenonah is likely to meet last year’s sales numbers even after being closed much of the spring.
And like other outdoor equipment makers, Wenonah expects people to maintain an interest past this year.
“I think it is going to sustain itself. Maybe not quite at this fever,” Cichanowski said “The thing is you get kids outside, you kind of plant the seed for when they get older. The best thing in the world is families taking their kids out right now — they’ll remember.”
That is good for businesses like his, since 72% of paddle sports enthusiasts in 2018 owned at least one boat or paddle board, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
The pandemic certainly altered the business calendar for businesses like Wenonah, Cichanowski said.
The largest spring trade shows and expos were canceled, so the company has been playing catch-up since it reopened, he said. The offseason usually starts the last week of July, but this year, the company was busy throughout August making and selling boats.
“One of our trucks just got back from Alaska a few days ago,” Cichanowski said late last month. “We’ve never sent a truck this late in the year to Alaska.”
Wenonah Canoe, which employs 50, also had some issues with key suppliers as it ramped back up, he said.
The supply chain was a bigger issue for Lightning Kayak, Lee said.
As a small manufacturer, Lightning is dependent on suppliers for his kayak parts and those companies are spread across the company. Many of his suppliers are also small businesses, also hard hit economically because of the restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus. Some were in states that had shutdown orders at different times than Lightning.
A supplier for Lee’s kayak seats closed, and when it reopened, half its staff missed time because of COVID-19. Then it had to close again.
“I had a supplier of grips for my SUP paddles not reopen,” Lee said.
That meant Lee had to search for alternatives and new suppliers at a time when he was also looking to produce a second model of his pedal-drive kayak.
The company also has been developing an offshore model for saltwater anglers. Plans for both the models have been pushed back weeks and then months.
“There are just so many things you can’t control,” Lee said.
Lightning is developing a shorter version of its kayak and was looking for a supplier to produce the shells for that model. Lee found a Texas company that could do the work. He then had to wrestle with the dilemma of how to get down there to consult with the firm. “There is only so much you can do on a Zoom call,” Lee said.
The fly or drive decision was also complicated by the fact that his father, Stu, was in the hospital recently with pneumonia. Though recovered and back at the office helping out, Lee still has concerns about possibly jeopardizing his father’s health.
Plus, with the manufacturing increase, Lee worked 90 days straight over the summer and felt guilty about the one day he took off. A drive to Texas would eat up valuable time.
Yet a successful introduction of a second model might give the company more size — and with it more options. The company might be able to expand into a bigger space and start making the shells itself.
Lee has embraced the opportunities — good and bad — thrown his way this year.
“Every day is a unique challenge,” Lee said. “But it has been fun.”
Seeing the response to Lightning’s kayak has helped. Through three quarters, revenue is up 40% from the same period last year. By adding the shorter model this fall and a saltwater model in early 2021 Lee anticipates his kayak revenue could more than double and exceed $1 million next year.
“I think it’s going to be a good year,” Lee said.
Randal Konik, an analyst who covers outdoors companies for equities-research firm Jefferies, believes the increase in outdoor activities could last.
“We see a sustained consumer shift in leisure time and discretionary spending toward outdoor recreation that we believe may extend into the medium to long term,” he wrote in a research note about the recent performance of outdoor company Yeti Holdings.
Other manufacturers of outdoor recreational products are seeing a bump as well. The NPD report showed cycling sales were up 63% in June, while golf, camping and bird-watching sales were also up 51%, 31% and 22% respectively during the month.
Polaris said ATV sales rose. For its quarter ended June 30 the Medina-based company said North America retail sales for its off-road vehicles rose 60% and its motorcycle business more than 20%.
Anoka-based Vista Outdoor through its Outdoor Products segment sells to those cycling, camping, golf and birding markets. In its first quarter ended June 28, Vista reported improving sales as its retail partners gradually opened up their outdoor brands such as Camp Chef outdoor cooking gear; Bell and Giro bicycle helmets; and sporting optics from its Bushnell brand.
“Several groups are driving the surge in outdoor participation: newcomers, reactivated users and longtime enthusiasts,” said Vista spokesman Fred Ferguson. “This growth and expansion plays well into long-term sustainability, but also Vista Outdoor’s mission, ‘Bringing the world outside.’ ”