Sports Business and Travel & Tourism

Not the usual canoe trip

GR Paddling caters especially to conventioneers and tourists.

April 25, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Rita and Jeff Neumann don’t just rent kayaks and canoes to clients, they come along on the tours as well. Photo by Johnny Quirin

If the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce ran a canoe-and-kayak rental business on the river downtown, it would probably look a lot like what Jeff and Rita Neumann are doing.

As a matter of fact, Jeff Neumann is one of Experience Grand Rapids’ Certified Tourism Ambassadors.

Two years ago, the Neumanns came up with the idea to start a different type of canoe-and-kayak rental business, and then spent the first year planning it and investing in a 12-passenger van and an assortment of canoes and kayaks.

Last year, GR Paddling began operation, and Year Two is scheduled to start May 1 if the weather cooperates.

There were a couple of kayakers in trouble on the Grand River downtown in mid-April, but no, that wasn’t the Neumanns. “I hate to see that. It scares people away,” said Neumann. “Those people shouldn’t have been out there.”

The Neumanns offer custom kayak and canoe trips on Grand Rapids area lakes and rivers. What sets them apart from the usual canoe rental service is that they pick up their customers at area hotels where they are staying, or at their homes, or even at their workplace. The Neumanns stay with the group the entire time, either paddling along with them or waiting for them nearby at a predetermined location. When the leisurely trip is done, they take the customers back to their hotel or home.

Unlike many river trips in rented canoes and kayaks, alcohol is not allowed, noted Neumann. “We don’t need to be drunk to have a good time,” he said, although he noted that he is not a teetotaler.

There are 20 river segments for customers to choose from, ranging from 3 to 10 miles in length, on the Grand, Rogue, Flat and Thornapple rivers. The Neumanns also take groups to any of five nearby lakes: Reeds, Green, Gun, Wabasis and Duncan near Middleville.

They also offer a Paddle & Dine river trip in which the paddlers stop halfway for lunch at a restaurant in Rockford, Middleville, Saranac or Lowell. There also is a Paddle & Art option: The first part of the day is paddling, followed by a visit to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Jeff, 54, is a retired professor who taught electronics at Grand Rapids Community College. Rita is a physical therapist and also works in quality improvement. Both are longtime outdoor enthusiasts, she as a cycler and equestrian, and he as a river paddler, certified as an instructor by the American Canoe Association.

With no other company in the Grand Rapids region offering a guided paddling service, the Neumanns decided to take the plunge, so to speak.

“We didn’t just buy some boats and throw them on the water and call it a business,” he said. “We spent a year planning it because we’re not business people.

“To start a business certainly is more of a challenge than I thought it would be,” he added.

They had to do a lot of learning, he said, and found there is “a lot of free assistance out there” from organizations such as SCORE and the Michigan Small Business Development Center.

They had to buy liability insurance, of course, and they hired a lawyer, and they also had to get commercial business permits from the DNR.

“We just love doing this,” said Jeff. “The business part of it is probably the least fun.”

Rita had just completed their taxes when Jeff spoke to the Business Journal and he said they were “a nightmare.”

Last year they planned on 45 trips and ended up doing 42, “so I think we did good,” Jeff said.

The trips start in May and end in late October. Prices start at $30 to $40 per person.

One part of the business that’s a drag for Neumann is when it’s a beautiful day and they wait, hoping somebody calls and books a trip. He would rather be on the water “because I enjoy it as much as anybody,” he said.

Then there are the times when they’ve got a party booked and another calls wanting to book the same day. But no, unfortunately — just one group per day. They don’t want their guests to feel rushed and the couple doesn’t want to be knocking themselves out. The canoes and kayaks have to be cleaned out back at their west side home, and there’s the driving involved.

“I don’t need to do this,” he said, adding that it is actually “more of a hobby.”

The Neumanns are proud of Grand Rapids and enjoy showing off the region to tourists and convention goers. Their service is promoted by hotels, including the Amway Grand Plaza, and by Experience Grand Rapids, which is in contact with all the convention groups in town.

Part of the reason the Neumanns don’t allow alcohol on their trips is that they are all about safety, and part of it is they don’t want to allow anything to happen that could reflect poorly on the natural beauty of the region. They also don’t let their groups go completely unescorted because, being mainly visitors from out of town, they would tend to worry the paddlers might miss the pickup spot downstream.

The Neumanns provide binoculars for the bird watchers, and snacks and beverages when the trips are done. They take photos and then mail them to their customers. “Everything they need” is provided, he said.

Downtown Grand Rapids, with its series of low dams that tamed the rapids, doesn’t really look like an idyllic spot to float down the mighty Grand, but just a couple of miles downstream past the urban area it is idyllic. Below Grand Rapids, there are no rapids or obstructions, and the wide river is thickly forested along much of its banks. Clients have spotted bald eagles.

Neumann noted one thing many of the paddlers comment on at the end of the trips is why there aren’t other people out on the water. Good question — but that’s obviously part of the attraction, too, and rather startling when considering how many people there really are on the other side of the tree lines along the Grand River.

“We love showing it off,” said Neumann. “It’s right there at our backdoor.”

“I’m not against going up north” to float down the Pine or Pere Marquette rivers, he said, “but that’s more than an hour or two north. Why?”

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