About a decade ago the Michigan Boating Industries Association helped enact legislation that made Michigan the 11th state with schools that cannot open until after Labor Day.
Economic studies done after the policy was implemented revealed millions of dollars in increased boating and tourism spending — and tax revenue for the state — as families no longer saw the summer cut short.
“I recently testified again to keep the post-Labor Day school start in place,” Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan trade group, told Trade Only Today blogger Norm Schultz in April. “It is a very heated battle, but we are determined to ensure this important law stays in place and also close the loophole which allows high schools connected with junior college to apply for waivers.”
The MBIA is also fighting to defeat a bill that would take away daylight saving time.
“DST is important to our industry, as boaters and anglers need daylight hours in the evenings to enjoy their boats and fish during the summer months,” Polan told Schultz. “But there are many other important benefits to DST — social and economic benefits.”
The group is also working with the state to roll back bottomland lease rates from 10 percent to 5 percent for privately owned commercial marinas.
We talked with Polan to ask more about her, the industry in Michigan and the overall industry, and to discuss the MBIA’s legislative efforts.
Q Where did you grow up? Was being on and around the water always part of your life?
Growing up in Michigan, it is hard not to grow up around water. Our family, like many, spent weekends driving to the beach, or to someone’s lake cottage, what seemed like nearly every weekend of the summer. These weekends would be filled with swimming, and sometimes tubing, water skiing and jet skiing on the ones where you had to stand. We would camp at state parks along the shores of the Great Lakes and see the cruisers and sailboats travel by, and rush to watch the charter boats come in with amazing amounts of fish.
With two brothers, it didn’t take long for fishing to take center stage, and the six cane poles that always stuck out the back of the station wagon were traded in for better gear. Many future family trips focused on lots of Great Lakes fishing trips. Then, one summer, when I was at camp, my parents bought a house on an inland lake in Oakland County, and they still live there today.
After finishing my undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, I lived in Chicago and a few other Michigan cities, but once I finished my master’s degree, tapped out on travel, got married and started to talk about kids, it was an easy decision to move back to the lakes region to be close to family.
Today the boating and fishing opportunities continue. My oldest son is into wakesurfing and wakeboarding with his friends, and my youngest is a fishing fanatic. We visit my parents’ lake often to enjoy their pontoon boat. My husband’s family has a lake cottage in Coldwater, Mich.; this is where we keep our deck boat and a small aluminum fishing boat.
To round out the armada, this summer we bought a 2007 Boston Whaler Montauk 15, which we keep in our garage and trailer to Lake St. Clair and many of the inland lakes around our home. We also own two kayaks and my old windsurfer that the boys use as a makeshift standup paddleboard. Our goal is to again, someday, live on the water.
Q How did you join the boating industry, and when did you get your current job?
The Detroit Boat Show is celebrating its 60th year in 2018. I can remember going to this event as a child, and it is amazing how many people you meet who will tell you the same thing, even if they are not currently boaters. When I was hired in 1988 by Ray Underwood as the communications coordinator for the Michigan Boating Industries Association, I had no idea I would still be working for this fine organization nearly 30 years later.
People often ask me how could I stay at one place so long, and for me the answer is easy. In a nutshell, I find this industry to be filled with amazing people who are selling amazing products and services and are extremely passionate about what they do. I share this same passion for boating, the water and our industry, and together we live and breathe it every day. As a bonus, there is never a dull moment.
As a good friend and exhibitor recently pointed out, “You are amazing — yesterday I saw you loading a U-Haul during boat show move-out, and today you are meeting with a congressman.” The shows, association work, conferences, media events and meetings create a very exciting, diverse and ever-changing work experience. I’ve learned how to lobby and how to tap a keg and everything in between.
I am also very fortunate to have had incredible support from members, fellow MBIA employees, industry colleagues and MBIA board directors over the past 29 years. Our MBIA past president, Van Snider, was a great mentor while I served as MBIA director of communications for 20 years. I also can’t say enough about the National Marine Trades Council, a group of marine trade professionals from across the country, which has been meeting for nearly 50 years. I have learned so much from colleagues in other states as we share experiences, good and bad, over the years. And finally, my current appointment as a Michigan State Waterways commissioner has provided with me with a new perspective on how public and private entities can work together to grow an industry.
Especially important is the support I have received over the past five years while serving as MBIA president and executive director. We have a great team at the MBIA, extremely loyal and involved members, and an incredible board, who all work well together to ensure we stay focused on what is important to our membership and to the growth of our industry. I feel we have made tremendous accomplishments with only five people on staff, but the pace over the past five years has been rigorous, so I am grateful for the addition of a new membership engagement specialist who will help us ensure we do nothing short of delight our most important people: our members.
Q Out here on the East Coast, we can get caught up in how we boat, but Michigan is a huge boating state. What are its unique qualities?
More than anything I love to brag about the strength of Michigan’s boating industry. Many don’t realize Michigan is the third-largest marine market in the country when it comes to new boats, motors, trailer and accessory sales. We are into our eighth consecutive growth year, outpacing the national average each year. Michigan has nearly 1 million registered boats on file, which, if we conservatively estimate four people might enjoy each boat, then nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s population enjoys boating each year. Boating and fishing have a $7.4 billion economic impact on our state’s economy each year.
These are impressive if you consider we are a four-season state. Obviously, people in Michigan are very passionate about boating and the water. These numbers are not surprising when you consider our water resources: more than 11,000 inland lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, and more coastline than any state other than Alaska. Michigan also has more than 154 species of fish and boasts some of the best fishing in the world.
In Michigan, for both boating and fishing, variety is the spice of life. You can choose quiet inland lakes loaded with pan fish, crystal-clear rushing river water or big-water game fishing. Same for boating, whether you are looking for a social raft-off opportunity, a rendezvous destination, a catch-and-cook excursion, a quiet sunset cruise or family fun. Michigan has it all, and accessibility is not an issue. Stand anywhere in Michigan and you are never more than 6 miles from water or 85 miles from a Great Lake, and [it’s] important to note, with more than 1,200 boating access sites in Michigan, you don’t need to live on the water to get on the water.
Q Michigan is the largest pontoon-boat state, and that segment is outpacing growth in every other segment. What are you seeing in terms of trends?
Most boat segments are recovering well here in Michigan, but the strongest surge does seem to be in the pontoon boat segment. As we all know, pontoon boats have come a long way from their beginning and now offer amazing comfort and performance features. This combination is pretty irresistible. Also contributing to this surge is the large number of inland lakes in this state and the ability of pontoon boats to handle bigger waters. Some like to claim an aging demographic fuels this segment’s growth, but without looking at statistics, just looking at boating activity in our area, it seems to me that today’s pontoon boats are appealing to all age demographics.
Although we are seeing reservations are up for transient slip rental at the public marinas around the Great Lakes, which signifies cruising activity continues to pick up, the trend toward day boating continues. Boaters are cruising again, but not cruising as far or as long. They are definitely interested in getting out on the water often, and with friends and family.
Q What’s your sense of how the boating season played out in Michigan?
Our dealers were very pleased with this past boating season. Sales were very strong across all segments. It was great to see that strong sales went beyond boats. Marinas, if not completely full, are nearly full to capacity. Upholstery, canvas and electronics sales are equally strong, with many businesses booked out almost a full year. Fuel sales were up, and overnight reservations for transient slips at the state’s public and municipal marinas were also reported as up.
Q Were sales strong at shows? You put on a few, right?
MBIA produces three boat shows: the Detroit Boat Show, held in Detroit in February; the Novi Boat Show, held in March; and the Metro Boat Show, an in-water boat show held at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township. Due to limited space availability with 325,000 square feet, the Novi Boat Show has been sold out for many years with a waiting list.
The other two shows have grown each year for the past eight years as our industry and the economy recovered and are now nearly as big as in pre-recession times. The Detroit Boat Show is nearing 500,000 square feet, with boats of all types up to 50 feet in length. It is a critical sales opportunity for the industry and a pivotal event for boaters to rendezvous and start their next summer’s planning.
Our September in-water Metro Boat Show nearly filled both the north and south marinas this year, with more boats in the water and 30 percent more land space sold over the prior year. We find that as dealers sell more product they take more space, so we know boat sales have increased year after year. We have been told by exhibitors that sales and leads generated at our shows can make up more than 50 percent of a dealer’s annual sales each year. Attendance growth has also been steady, but as all of us in the industry have experienced, winter shows and outdoor shows can be affected by the weather.
Q What issues are affecting the Great Lakes, and how are you working to address them legislatively?
MBIA retains a full-time lobbying firm in Lansing to monitor 24/7 legislation that is being proposed to ensure no negative impact on our industry. There can be thousands of introductions each year that need to be considered. Some examples of current legislation MBIA is opposing would be increased dealer plate fees, increased MIOSHA fines, attempts to stop daylight saving time and post-Labor Day school start. MBIA is supporting the attorney general’s opposition to federal legislation that would weaken federal and state ballast water laws protecting the nation’s waters from aquatic invasive species, to name a few.
MBIA also has a long list of legislative victories achieved on behalf of our members over the past 60 years, including sales tax on the difference, abandoned boat legislation and the elimination of marina operator permits, to name a few. We add new projects each year, and currently we are working with the state to renegotiate bottomland lease rates.
At the federal level, our list is equally long and we are active participants in the American Boating Congress each year in May. Some of our interests lie in ensuring ethanol-free fuel for our boaters, protecting the Great Lakes from Asian carp and other invasive species, and stopping algae blooms and the Ontario Power Generation attempts to build a nuclear waste depository along the shores of Lake Huron.
We are keeping up the pressure at both the state and federal levels to monitor and ensure the safety of all oil pipelines flowing under and near our waterways in Michigan. We are concerned with tax reform efforts and how they may impact the second-home interest deduction for boats. We support [the Water Resources Reform and Development Act], as this funding is critical for dredging and infrastructure maintenance. In Michigan we have many areas where boating activity supports entire communities.
We supplement ABC efforts with a biannual legislative e-newsletter letting our senators and reps know the positive economic impact boating and fishing have in their districts, and what issues are important to our industry and their constituents. We are grateful for the statistics the NMMA provides us each year to be able to do this.
We also meet with U.S. reps here in our home state and participate in the Michigan Boating Caucus meetings when they’re held. We invite our legislators to attend our MBIA annual meeting and educational conference, our three regional meetings and our boat shows, and encourage our members to invite them locally to their place of business to hear firsthand about the issues that are important to boating in Michigan.
Q What do dealers in the region tell you is their biggest challenge?
Getting new boaters into the market is a challenge in all regions. Personally, I think the travel-sports craze is hurting us more than anything. Families are focused too heavily on sports, and with summer leagues, year-round play and travel teams, they have no time to spend together. Often on weekends parents are headed to different cities, or even if it is local, to different games — splitting the family.
A whole weekend can go by without an opportunity to spend time together. How is that healthy? It will be a tough turn to make, but we need to continue to reinforce how important family time is and that boating offers this. I’m excited to use a new slogan coming from our current board chairman, Tom Haag: “Disconnect to Reconnect,” emphasizing that boating offers quality face-to-face family time, no screens, no phones, just connecting the way families should and making memories that will last a lifetime.
Recently this challenge has been compounded by efforts to change a law we have in Michigan that says schools must not start before Labor Day. MBIA helped pass post-Labor Day school start in 2005. It is an important piece of legislation, which was created because we already have a short summer season in Michigan. Once school starts and fall sports start, families put their boats away, and this directly impacts our members’ revenue. In northern Michigan it is even more important, as their season is even shorter.
We also share the challenge of finding qualified employees, something MBIA is working on with contacts from the auto industry, mimicking a successful program they have with high schools and community colleges. The goal is to create a certified training program for marine technicians here in Michigan.
This year’s Detroit Boat Show will host an inaugural Jump into Boating Fun and Careers Day. The new program should bring hundreds of students and their families to the Detroit Boat Show to learn more about boating fun and about the amazing career paths our industry supports. Millennials’ reluctance to own and an aging demographic are also top of mind, and because of this the MBIA has always supported the efforts of the Discover Boating program. We utilize the tools Discover Boating has made available, promote the website and supplement DB’s efforts at our boat shows with our social media efforts and all our e-communications and public relations efforts.
Although not widespread, we are monitoring attempts to limit wakeboat use in this state. MBIA is encouraging open and often communication with wake sports enthusiasts to remain courteous to riparian owners and other boaters. Our Watch Your Wake, Share the Lake PR effort focuses on key communication points and best practices.
Q Do you think consumers in Michigan have changed since the Great Recession?
I don’t think anyone will forget the impacts of the Great Recession, but I also feel that here in Michigan, many people have worked to ensure they are not going to be caught off-guard should something similar happen again. With that confidence, we are seeing record-setting boat sales and RV sales, so it didn’t take long for boating consumers to right their ships and take back the helms that drive their passion.
As far as what the average consumer is looking for, that can vary greatly. For those who are looking for value and for ideas on how to spend their discretionary dollars wisely, we share the messages developed through the Discover Boating program that serve to break down barriers to entry. Value is an important one. We stress that boating is not expensive if you look at the value of what it brings to you. Boaters in Michigan truly see this value and work to ensure they can keep boating as a part of their lifestyle.
Q Where do you think the industry overall is today, and where do you think things are heading?
Our industry is united, organized, continues to deliver innovation, works well together at all levels, uses relevant data and strives to create results. If we keep this up we will continue to head in the right direction.
In reference to getting more people into boating, I see a lot of good things happening, starting with manufacturers recognizing the need for entry-level boats at a more reachable price point. But we need to do more. We find most people still do not know that boats can be financed much longer than cars and that many people keep their boats a lot longer than their cars. Also, many don’t know boats can qualify for a second-home interest deduction. These are very important things to know when deciding to purchase, and we should make it a priority to get the word out to the public to support our affordability conversations.
Additionally, although many of us were skeptical at first, I do think the boat club model is a good way to get people on the water, hooked and ultimately into their own boat, which they won’t need to share. It is also great to see dealers and others recognize the need to include diversity in advertising and programs that introduce new groups to the sport, starting from step one. This effort must continue.
Q What special events do you do in Michigan?
Besides our three boat shows, MBIA produces an educational conference for our members. It is called RBEC, or the Recreational Boating Educational Conference. We produce this event as a member benefit, so it brings a lot of value for a very small investment to attend. This year it will be held Dec. 6-7 at the Lansing Radisson, and the MBIA board approved us to bring the Disney Institute to our members for a low, low price of $129 ($1,400 value). This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we expect it to fill up fast. The event also includes a small trade show and our MBIA Awards Lunch. This conference brings about 160 of our members together each year to learn, network and have fun.
MBIA also participates in many consumer events that revolve around Michigan Boating Week, Celebrate the Lake in St. Clair, National Marina Days, Michigan Clean Marina certification ceremonies and many more. At these events we work to educate and engage boaters and consumers to grow our industry and further strengthen our united voice in Michigan.
Q Is there anything you’d like to add?
As we come up on our 60-year anniversary as an association, I look back at the handful of dealers who started this organization in 1958 and I think they would be proud of their MBIA today. Our mission has not changed: It is to advance, promote and protect boating in Michigan. Today we are 350 members, 11 board members and six staff members strong — and strategically focused on our future. I am both proud and humbled to be the torchbearer for this great organization and our Great Lakes state, which is home to the greatest freshwater resources in the world.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.