Marine Retailers Prep for a Busy Summer
Courtesy of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas

Marine Retailers Prep for a Busy Summer

With a green light from the governor, boat dealers prepare for an influx of summer customers.

As the last bit of snow melts and Minnesotans shove their winter coats to the back of the closet, more and more people are getting outside. On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz lifted some restrictions on outdoor recreation, allowing people to golf and boat.

While things like walking, biking, running, fishing, and hiking were already permitted outdoor recreation, Executive Order 20-38 allowed for the addition of outdoor activities like boating and golfing with proper social distancing practices.

This exemption comes as boat dealers prep for their busiest time of year, said Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and a member of the Department of Natural Resources’ Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Task Force.

“Not only is it our highest revenue generating time of the year, but we’re also sitting on the highest amount of inventory that we have in our dealerships at any given point during the year,” he said. “The cash flow equation becomes incredibly challenging for us. So, the timing of deeming retailers and marinas as essential was critical.”

Based on what he’s heard from members so far, this season is already shaping up to be much busier than usual.

“If you take a look at Lake Minnetonka, it’s way busier out there than it has been historically in the middle of April, of all things,” Gruhn said. “We have a dealer, for example, in Florida, who had broken all-time records two weekends in a row for the amount of fuel that he sold at his marina and for the amount of boats that he launched in a single day.”

The governor, the DNR, and the MRAA are still urging boaters to stick close to home; they’re discouraged from going to the cabin, too. The DNR has issued updated outdoor recreation guidelines, including how to get on the water while remaining socially distant.

“The big thing for us is ensuring that our members know how to communicate how to do this safely right now, because it’s not just normal anymore when you’re going out to the boat ramp,” said MRAA government relations manager Adam Fortier-Brown.

Safety is a prime concern for Your Boat Club co-owner Michael Jellish, whose company sells annual memberships for boat rentals.

“People need to do it responsibly,” he said. “We have a complete plan in place to make sure that we’re controlling traffic on and off the docks and at our lots.”

Beyond managing traffic to ensure proper social distancing between households at the marina, Jellish said the company has developed sterilization methods and a contingency plan to do things in a safe way.

“At the same time, we need our customers’ help, too; they have to do their job. I can’t follow them around on the lake. They need to take this seriously and do it correctly, but they need to be able to go out there and have some fun with their family,” Jellish said.

The last round of closures has been tough on the boating industry––Your Boat Club would typically see its highest numbers for membership sign ups in March and April.

And as boating stores reopen, owners need to adjust their usual workflow. For instance, customers are permitted to visit boating retailers by appointment only, per the terms of the executive order. How the recession plays out for the boating industry remains to be seen, but there’s cautious optimism among some marine retailers.

“In most recessions, most economic downturns boating tends to lag a little bit in terms of how quickly it returns to growth. I think this one is different,” Gruhn said. “People are going to want to be on a boat, and people are gonna want to be on the water, and participating in that type of outdoor recreation because it’s invigorating. It’s relaxing. It’s something that the entire family can enjoy together.”

Gruhn thinks the boating industry is in a good position to weather the recession.

“I think we could lead the resurgence. I think we could lead the recovery that we’re expecting,” he said. “The average household income of a boating family is around $90,000. You don’t have to spend a fortune to go boating.”

For some families, boating may be an appealing summer activity as scores of other events are cancelled.

“I think boating is one of the safest ways to do something as a family under the current circumstances,” Jellish said. “I’m very hopeful that people will be respectful while they’re on the lake to maintain proper social distance and do this in a responsible way where they’re not impacting somebody else’s ability to have fun.”