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Whitewater Economy

Idaho's rafting industry has taken a hit, but it's still afloat

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The whitewater industry has been cultivated for decades in Idaho. From outfitters who take tourists for brief jaunts into the world of fast water to the hard-core river rat who makes a pilgrimage to the Gem State's renowned wild rivers: big water means big money.

Idaho is one of the anchor states for the industry, with two whitewater raft and inflatable kayak manufacturers headquartered in the Boise area and a third, Northwest River Sports, in Moscow. The West has one of the largest concentrations of the whitewater industry in the world simply because it's home to some of the biggest and longest whitewater rivers around.

And while Boise-based companies Maravia and Aire both have strong international reputations, what happens when the economy falters and a new $4,000 raft just isn't in the budget?

"This year is difficult," said Chris Callanan, sales and marketing representative for Aire, based in Meridian. "Business certainly took a downturn."

Callanan said the first quarter of the business year was the slowest, as retailers and outfitters (professional guides) alike waited to make any orders, but he added the company has seen a marked improvement since then.

It's roughly the same story at Maravia, which was founded in California in 1972, then moved to Idaho in 1985.

"The recession has definitely affected our business, primarily on the outfitter side," wrote Maravia CEO Doug Tims from his summer outpost in the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return. "Outfitted trips nationwide are down, so they have deferred capital purchases--just like they did after 9/11."

According to the most recent Outdoor Industry Association Outdoor Topline Report, which looks at industry-wide sales and trends, the entire paddle-sports business has taken a hit.

According to the report, sales dropped roughly 8 percent in the first half of 2009 compared to the same period of 2008.

"The picture can best be described as mixed," said Ed Councill, CEO of the Paddlesports Industry Association, based in Kentucky.

Councill said the industry in some parts of the county was hit harder than in others, with the biggest decline seen in areas with the largest unemployment and home foreclosure rates. But in well-established whitewater areas with destination rivers, the situation isn't as bad, he said.

"Good is the new great," Callanan said of the atmosphere at the recent Outdoor Retailers trade show in Salt Lake City.

Both Aire and Maravia said sales to individual rafters have been stronger than to outfitters, many of whom are choosing to make do with the boats they have rather than invest in new equipment.

To date, Aire has been able to avoid laying off any of its 34 full-time employees, but Maravia has had to make cuts, laying off seven workers, leaving 18 full-time employees.

But for both companies, preparation and diversification have kept them afloat.

Aire has broken into three distinct divisions: Aire, which designs and manufactures whitewater rafts, catarafts and inflatable kayaks; Outcast, which specializes in fishing gear; and Aire Industrial, a relatively new venture that manufactures products for industrial spill containment. For Aire, which was founded 20 years ago, the diversification has led to a year-round business in a seasonal industry.

Aire also manufactures some private-label products for outdoors giant Cabela's, as well as Sportsman's Warehouse and Bass Pro Shops.

In recent years, Aire has outsourced some of its manufacturing overseas, and now 70 percent of its whitewater products, 10 percent of its fishing and 100 percent of the industrial products are manufactured in Aire's 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Meridian.

As he walked past massive tables on which machines automatically cut giant rolls of brightly colored PVC fabric into the patterns of various products, Callanan said the company turns out roughly 7,000 units each year, including rafts, kayaks and assorted offerings.

Diversification came in the form of a retail store for Maravia. After buying the rafting business and relocating the company to Boise, Tims and his wife, Loretta, purchased Cascade Outfitters in 1995 and brought the Eugene, Ore.-based outdoors retail store to Idaho to complement the rafting company.

With a retail location in the front portion of the Maravia manufacturing facility--which lies next to the Boise River in Garden City--Cascade Outfitters sells outdoors, rafting and camping equipment on site, via catalog and on the Internet.

Tims said sales of camping and clothing lines are still doing well, and Internet sales have been a strong point. Cascade has even partnered with online retail giant Amazon to reach new markets.

Tims said the company has been more aggressive in terms of sale pricing this year than in the past in an effort to lure rafters into checking out the new products.

Maravia is also able to appeal to outfitters and private boaters who want customized logos, names and even images on their boats. Touring the facility where numerous rafts in various stages of construction rest stacked against each other, Loretta Tims described how Maravia boats are painted with a colored urethane coating in booths resembling those in an autobody shop. The painting process allows for the customization of both color and graphic designs.

Doug Tims said the company turns out roughly 600 inflatable units (rafts, kayaks and catarafts) each year, all of which are manufactured entirely in Idaho.

And while it would seem that Aire and Maravia would be bitter rivals, duking it out for a share of a limited market, Cascade Outfitters is actually an authorized Aire dealer, and several models of the competitor's boats fill the Cascade showroom.

Both Boise companies said while the economic downturn has been hard, it's not the first time the industry has been challenged like this.

"It is not our first rodeo," Tims wrote.

Tims, Callanan and Councill all agree that the industry will undergo some contraction after this year, with less stable companies falling by the wayside. Councill said the real test is fast approaching, when retailers and outfitters begin to place pre-season orders and industry representatives gather for several upcoming trade shows and conferences.

"[It will] give us a pretty good clue on the strength of the retail market," Councill said.

But both Aire and Maravia are planning for the future, with long-range plans to attract more business.

Callanan said Aire will be introducing a scaled-down inflatable kayak in 2010, appealing to physically smaller boaters. Tims said Maravia is now offering a 10-year warranty for private boaters, and the company is working with Grand Canyon Outfitters to create an alternative-fuel-powered motored boat for use in the Grand Canyon.

Both companies also have no plans to leave Idaho or the Boise area, pointing to the quality of life as a major draw.

"If you like river running, why be anywhere else?" Tims wrote.

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