By: Scott Way
It would be frustratingly easy to write off 2020 as a disappointing year in the marine business and hope for better things in 2021. Frankly, a lot of industries across the globe carry that mindset, and not without justification. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global economy in staggering ways, forcing employees and businesses to scramble while wading cautiously into a new reality.
But while there have been difficult economic losses in the marine industry due to COVID-19, the gradual rollback of economic sanctions has kickstarted a remarkable surge in sales that would have been deemed impossible just weeks ago. In early March, marinas and retailers were trapped in the unkown, with no foreseeable end-date to business closures and no certainty about the conditions under which they could operate once the industry re-opened. But through patience and perseverance, marine manufacturers and retailers have begun reopening under new protocols at the behest of provincial and federal governments, and the results are creating a shockingly positive outlook for summer 2020 that's seemingly growing each day.
Sean Horsfall, General Manager and third generation owner of Len's Cove Marina in Portland, ON, one of the biggest marinas on Ontario's historic Rideau Canal, has seen a staggering turnaround in just 6 weeks:
"When COVID started, we thought we'd only have to be closed for a week or so, and that turned into almost 6 weeks of delay in our busiest season. We often joke in our industry that in May we "drink from a fire hose," and the new norm was drinking from Niagara Falls! We feel very grateful that all of our boat deals held through the worst of the crisis and we have seen demand increase. We are currently 70% ahead on retail boat sales year over year. Len's Cove has this amazing location with 40+ acres on the Big Rideau and 15 rental cottages, so we were able to spread out our employees so they all felt safe returning to work. The only downside currently is the lack of US traffic for rentals and the seasonal cottagers who own property here. We miss having our bar and restaurant open as well. Overall though, we are in a really good place right now."
The prospect of a 70% increase in retail boat sales during a global pandemic wasn't realistic in early 2020, let alone a possibility, but similar figures have been confirmed by marine manufacturers who were affected at their core by manufacturing shutdowns. According to Jesse Davis, Director of National Sales at Legend Boats:
"To say the outlook 4-6 weeks ago was a little bleak might have been an understatement. We were sitting on pretty high inventory levels and with the shutdowns and layoffs taking place we began to see our wholesale orders being cancelled. We also started to experience cancelled retail boat sales at our factory stores that took place during the show season. Our dealer network remained positive and committed during the face of this adversity but I don’t think anyone predicted what we have seen over the past few weeks.
Now, things have absolutely been on fire! We have seen our dealer network not only take and receive all previous orders but have been stepping up with re-orders to meet their customers needs. We have experienced the majority of retail customers who were looking to back away previously, begin to resurface and hope we can honour their previous boat sale agreements.
We find ourselves virtually sold out of all 2020 reorder model year availability and have rapidly begun to plan for 2021 production. We are seeing our retail registrations coming in significantly higher than 2019 and we are on par with the fantastic 2018 year results we had.
The nice weather, combined with the pent up demand and the amazing opportunity our sport has to offer a fantastic 'staycation' is ultimately leading to better than forecasted results. I only hope we can continue to ride this wave and our industry has a great opportunity to move the existing pipeline inventory."
The marine business is notably geographical as styles and trends are very much affected by individual location and water type. But across Canada this resurgence has been consistent, as confirmed by Esther Reich, Marketing Manager at M&P Mercury Sales in Nanaimo, BC, one of Canada's biggest boat dealers:
"In our 60+ years in the industry, 2020 definitely stands out for M&P! With summer on the horizon, we have seen a remarkable increase in interest and intent to purchase across all boat segments. Our staff in all departments have reported countless conversations with customers who are extremely interested in boat ownership, and the uncertainty surrounding other means of travel has been – for many – that final push they needed to realize that the best place to be for summer 2020 is on the water. Throughout May, we observed an increase in recreational boating activity, and we anticipate record high levels of boat use throughout the summer months in BC.”
While there is no denying that 2020 has been a troublesome year, not just in the marine industry but across the world, positive news for a beloved Canadian pastime is a welcome sight. Both provincial and federal governments are doing their part to encourage boating under safe protocols, as seen with Transport Canada's release of their 2020 Guidelines for the boating industry, and Safe Boating Awareness Week spearheaded by the Canadian Safe Boating Council has great tips and suggestions for boaters looking to get out and explore Canada's waterways this summer.