Economy has impact on the business of camping, canoeing

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The economic currents have flowed down to the business of recreation, causing Southeast Missouri river outfitters to search out new ways of attracting customers.

"The year before last, we were at full capacity," says Sharon Sellinger, co-owner of Driftwood RV Park in Van Buren, Mo. "Last year, we had half as many. It did affect us."

Nestled near the banks of the Current River, Driftwood has been a popular spot for camping, tubing, swimming and canoeing since it opened five years ago. Sellinger, who co-owns the business with her husband Larry, says that a couple years ago, it was not unusual for the park to have a waiting list. Most visitors come from the Missouri Bootheel, from Dexter down to Steele, Mo., and many are families who stay for the weekend. Some stay all summer, become friends, and host community barbecue dinners.

After last year's slow season, however, Sellinger is already thinking about this year. To boost business, Sellinger says she will begin advertising — something she's never had to do before.

"It really surprised me last year," she says.

About 45 minutes to the northwest, Windy's Canoe and Tube Rental has managed to hold steady despite the economic downturn.

"Last year was a good year, considering that gas was so high," says Robin Brewer, co-owner of the Eminence, Mo.-based business. "Things look good for this year; the reservations are coming in. The economy doesn't appear to be deterring anyone."

The main attractions at Windy's are the Current River and the Jacks Fork River, where guests enjoy canoeing, kayaking, rafting and tubing. Brewer says canoeing is the most popular activity, but there has been more interest lately in rafting, perhaps because they are less likely to tip over. Windy's has purchased more rafts to keep up with the demand, but Brewer says she hasn't had to do anything else to attract business. She expects business to be much the same this year, picking up in April, peaking around Memorial Day weekend, and remaining steady through Labor Day. While most visitors are families from Missouri and Illinois, Brewer does see people from Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

At nearby Eminence Canoes, Cottages & Camp, co-owners Dick and Cami Gilman are also riding out the tough economy. The couple has only owned the business for three years and Dick Gilman says it's difficult to see exactly how the economy has affected business — but there was definitely a downward shift last summer.

"2007 was a great year, but 2008 was an odd year," says Gilman. He believes this was partly due to the economy and high fuel prices last summer, but a bigger problem may have been the "tremendous flooding" in northern Missouri. He thinks many people incorrectly assumed that the area was flooded. From April through June, Gilman says there was "significantly less" business than in previous years.

Reservations for this summer are about on par with last year, says Gilman — a good sign that, at the very least, business will not be worse than last year. Located between the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, Eminence Canoes is a hot spot for kayaking, tubing and canoeing, and Gilman hopes that will continue to draw tourists to the area. Still, he is experimenting with new ways to reach customers, including a website and online reservations, additional online and print advertising, and a brand-new log cabin open for rentals.

"We're still new, so we're continually making improvements to attract more people," says Gilman. "From a marketing point of view, we're cutting back as much as we can without hurting ourselves. We don't know what to expect."

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