MaiTai highlights Gorge as sports, tech hotspot

Kite-based event combines business with pleasure

Kiteboarding isn’t just for beach bums and boardheads anymore. To be fair, it never really was; but in the sport’s early days gear was more physically demanding and much less safe, so participants were of the young, athletic, risk-taking type almost by default.

As the sport exploded into the mainstream and equipment improved drastically over the last decade, demographics evolved along with it. These days, according to a survey by Kiteboarding Magazine, the average kiter is in the 40-year-old range, has a college education and an upper-middle-class household income.

“Kiteboarding is like the new golf for a lot of professionals,” said Aaron Sales, former editor of the magazine. “A lot of business conversations happen on the beach instead of the fairway these days.”

With that concept in mind, Sales and fellow Gorge resident Matt Sweeting have been busy for the last several months planning for The Gorge MaiTai, which will run from Aug. 9-12 based mainly at the Hood River Event Site (the event moves to Stevenson on the final day). The exclusive, invite-only business, networking and kiteboarding hybrid event was founded by Susi Mai (professional kiteboarder) and Bill Tai (venture capitalist), hence the name MaiTai.

The two joined efforts several years ago to organize Silicon Valley business professionals on the shores of Maui for networking and fun in the sun. Since then the event has grown to 150 people and has a waiting list of several hundred more.

“I attended a couple MaiTai events representing Kiteboarding Magazine,” said Sales, who was editor of the magazine for six years before it was discontinued by parent company Bonnier Corporation. “I saw the potential the event had for the Gorge and Matt and I presented the idea of bringing it here. Bill and Susi were a hundred percent supportive of the idea.”

What exactly is the MaiTai? In short, it’s a mix of business and pleasure centered on the common thread of kiteboarding. Participants range from multi-millionaire CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to pitch new concepts. Although most are coming from California, a handful of Gorge-area tech and industry insiders are also on the invite list.

“When we first starting planning for this, we had very little idea how big technology really is in the Gorge,” Sales said. “This event is a great way to highlight the area as a recreation destination, as well as a place alive with technology and industry.”

The group will stay in about 10 vacation homes rented for the event and will spend its time alternating between playing on the water and participating in a series of presentations, parties and networking events.

“Most, but not everyone, will know how to kiteboard,” Sales said. “For those who don’t, we’ve hired a local kite school to give lessons. For those who do, we’re going to have pro kiters to showcase the sport and one of the biggest equipment demos in the nation on hand. The idea behind the demo is for people to try gear that is sold around here and then have them go to local shops to buy it.”

Sales said the event will be about a 60:40 ratio of fun vs. business and will include mountain bike and ski outings, a trip to Stevenson and a trip to the eastern Gorge for those who want to explore the area further. A variety of presentations and idea-pitching sessions under a large tent at the Event Site will give participants a break from the action and a chance to pitch and explore new business opportunities.

“If we get wind for even one day, there’s no doubt that people are going to want to come back to the Gorge; hopefully for business and pleasure,” Sales said.

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As an exclusive event, the Hood River Event Site will be closed to the public from Aug. 8-12, with the exception of a pump-and-dry area at the east end of the lawn for kiteboarders accessing the sandbar. Open-to-the-public gatherings are planned for Friday, starting at 8:30 p.m. at Springhouse Cellar and 10 p.m. Saturday at The Pint Shack. Friday’s event will include an auction and will serve as fundraiser for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.

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