Urban Kayaks goes with flow on late-season start for Chicago River tours

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Entrepreneurs hope starting Chicago Riverwalk venture now will lay foundation for next year.

By Wangui Maina, Tribune reporter

The young entrepreneurs know it might seem foolish to start their seasonal business along the Chicago River with Labor Day a week away. And they know their spot on the Chicago Riverwalk isn't exactly a prime one.

Despite these obstacles, which include a year and a half of filing paperwork to get permits to open Urban Kayaks, they decided to take the plunge. On Monday, they set up shop, having moved their 50 neon-painted kayaks behind a fenced area.

"We got the permit a month ago," said Asher Gershenzon, 23. "We know it is late in the season, but we want to establish ourselves for the next season."

Gershenzon, his brother, Aaron Gershenzon, 25, and their friend James Morro, 26, had hoped to open in April but had to wait for permits.

Their plan is to spend spring and summer months on their kayak business, which includes giving Chicago architecture tours as well as evening river views of Navy Pier fireworks. During colder months the trio plans to go to Colorado, where they'll be ski instructors.

The partners have invested about $80,000 in the business. They raised the capital from savings, friends and family, Asher Gershenzon said. They also took on some debt to finance equipment purchases. They come to the business with experience. The partners, accredited by the American Canoe Association, previously worked for Wateriders, a kayak tours and rentals company, on the north side of the river.

Gershenzon said that there is more traffic on the south side of the Chicago Riverwalk, and that the proximity to Navy Pier gives them an advantage. (Their business cards say 150 E. Riverwalk, South Wacker and Columbus, take the stairs down to the river.) Being close to another activities-based firm, Bike and Roll Chicago, also is expected to increase traffic to their business, the partners say.

Bike and Roll Chicago, which rents bikes and Segways and added a skyscraper Segway tour along the riverwalk, has been open about three years.

Owner Josh Squire said a new business would generate more traffic for everyone.

"A new vendor is a good addition for us," Squire said.

Before opening Urban Kayaks, the partners spent weeks passing out fliers across the city and at festivals to create awareness for their business.

They also made a bold move: On their first day of business, Urban Kayaks offered a 51 percent discount through Groupon on their most expensive rentals. At least 1,600 people bought the deal, which included savings on a single Navy Pier fireworks paddle, valued at $35, and a single sunset paddle, valued at $60. Single kayak rentals go for $10 for a half hour and the tandem for $15; they also offer a one-and-a half to two-hour historic Chicago tour for $50 per single and $90 per tandem kayak.

"Since the Groupon deal, our phone has not stopped ringing with people arranging, booking their tours from the trip," Gershenzon said. "For the next couple of weeks we are pretty much booked."

Proceeds will be used to pay down debt.

"We hope to break even this season," Marrow said. "But it depends on how business is the next couple of weeks."

On Wednesday, Erik Widman, 29, from Chicago, and his friend Daniel Galfvensjo, from Stockholm, took advantage of the Groupon deal to take a two-hour Urban Kayaks tour.

"I thought it would be fun when I saw the deal, and it was," Widman said. "I would highly recommend it to anyone."

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