Gary Hanna powered a 23-foot Cobia out of the Quincy, Mass., Freedom Boat Club section of the Waterclub Marina Bay on a sunny weekday in late August. He’d originally planned to take out one of the two new 27-foot Key Wests, but an employee at the dock informed him that both had been damaged and were out for repair.
Several other boats had been reserved by fellow club members, and with a spike in usage — particularly in and around Boston’s channels and islands — boats were more likely to require maintenance. “Normally on a Tuesday, you’d have your pick of any boat here,” says Hanna, who has belonged to Freedom for three years.
The lack of inventory that he faced was yet another result of the rush to boating that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. New- and used-boat demand has been off the charts almost since the onset of the health crisis, and the spike in boat sales is being mirrored at companies that offer other ways to get on the water, such as boat clubs, rentals, charters and peer-to-peer bookings.
“You can’t find a boat [to buy], so people are obviously turning to alternatives,” says Matt Carrick, co-owner of several Freedom Boat Club franchises near Boston that saw reservations rise 50 percent this June over 2019’s numbers. “In my eyes, that really did show that we were really experiencing an unprecedented demand on boats due to Covid.”
The huge amount of interest is even being seen at companies that didn’t exist a few years ago. Natural Nine Cruises and Fishing in Warwick, R.I., has doubled its business in its second year of operations, says fishing charter Capt. Daniel Smith. “Last year we did 23 trips total, and this year we’re poised to finish the year at 50,” Smith says. “That’s huge for a charter company in its second year. Usually it would take a few years to get that many bookings in a season.”
A Longer Season
On a Tuesday in late summer — after most college students had returned to campus but before high schoolers and younger kids had reconvened in Massachusetts — dozens of boats filled with families joined the typical ferries and commercial fishing boats in and around Boston Harbor. Many charter and rental operators say they expect the scene to continue into fall if the weather holds. “It’s like every day’s a Saturday,” Carrick says.
Sales have been so strong, he says, that his franchises stopped offering discounts on new memberships, so manufacturers could catch up and deliver boats that already had been ordered. The original order was for 80 boats, but after the gangbusters May, Carrick and co-owner Matt O’Connor ordered another 47 boats.
Peer-to-peer boat rental company GetMyBoat also is reporting “crazy demand” across the United States and globally as more destinations are starting to open up, says company marketing manager Val Streif. “Normally we slow down after Labor Day, but I think people will probably rent boats into September, and in warmer places, into October as well,” Streif says.
The shift to virtual schooling in many areas, along with more people permanently working from home, are expected to keep demand strong. “I think we’re going to see a much busier September in terms of usage than we’re used to seeing,” Carrick says. “In late August, we were still putting boats in.”
Spikes in Interest, Shortage of Boats
Discover Boating’s second most popular Web page this summer is a guide to boat rentals and ways to get on the water without owning a boat. Clubs and rental operations have expanded where possible, but scarce inventory from manufacturers has limited their growth because they maintain a strict member-to-boat ratio.
The Freedom franchises were scrambling to add boats so they could reduce a 10- to 14-day lead time on reservations; after adding boats and slowing membership sales, that time frame dropped to less than a week in most spots.
“We called every manufacturer that we could get a phone number for,” Carrick says. “We even went to manufacturers that we’ve never carried. We [also] increased our Sea Ray order, and we were able to get additional Scouts and Cobias, as well as Benningtons, which we hadn’t ordered in seven years. We ordered 12.”
The same crush of demand has also led Maine’s Port Harbor Marine to order more boats for use as rentals at four of its five facilities. “We’ve had to add to the number of boats where we can,” says Port Harbor president Rob Soucy. “Just the number of calls every day, it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. My brother Mike heads up our rental program, and it’s like a full-time job for him, and he has an assistant that also fields the calls.”
Port Harbor capped its number of boat club members, but as demand continued to surge, the company added two boats for a total of 20, and accepted a few more members before capping membership again. “These are all really good challenges to have. I’m certainly not complaining,” Soucy says. “Just, with our inventory situation — at one point we had more boats in the boat club and rental program than in our [sales] inventory spread across five locations.”
Joe Lewis, general manager of Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina in Mount Dora, Fla., expanded his rental program from four to five boats this year after seeing demand spike, but the company still can’t keep up because of a staff shortage and the marina’s logistics, he says.
“Five boats is probably the max we can do, given we’re sending them all out at the same time and they’re coming back at the same time,” Lewis says. “If you combine that with our boaters, it gets busy.”
As soon as he can reconfigure the marina to separate the rental slips from the owners’ slips, Lewis says, he’ll grow the fleet.
Freedom Boat Club on New York’s Lake George — which saw fuel sales surpass the 2019 total for the year by July 25, and total boat trips exceed the year prior by Aug. 4 — also has space challenges, says owner Matt O’Hara. “Through Aug. 25, each boat had gone out 30 percent more times than the same period last year,” O’Hara says. “We keep the same member-to-boat ratio, so theoretically, on a per-boat basis, we went from 96 trips to 133.”
May and June were that location’s two biggest lead months in history, in conjunction with its lowest-ever ad spend. “Every metric we could possibly look at is showing that boating just took off this year.” O’Hara says. “We stopped selling memberships for this year in June, and solely because, if we could’ve just added boats, we would’ve kept adding boats.”
Memberships for 2020 sold out by June. Despite a net increase of four boats, 2021 memberships were nearly sold out in late August. “Most of the rentals stopped taking advanced reservations; it’s first come, first served,” O’Hara says. “I hear stories of people lining up at 3 or 4 a.m. and sitting in their lawn chairs just so they can get a boat.”
The lake is so busy, O’Hara says, he loses track of the days of the week. “It didn’t matter if it was Tuesday or Saturday,” he says. “Every boat was out every day.”
The surge in consumer demand is giving the recreation exposure to new boaters. GetMyBoat, for instance, saw a 3,900 percent increase when compared to a strong 2019, and some regions have seen 5,000 percent growth in usage.
“Our sales team has been working really hard to onboard new owners,” particularly in high-demand areas such as Lake Norman in North Carolina; Minnesota; Chicago; Florida; Charleston, S.C.; and Lake Travis in Texas, Streif says.
Mount Dora is also seeing more first-time, demographically diverse boaters than ever, Lewis says.
“We’re seeing a lot of families, all different cultures and different ethnicities, but the primary driver seems to be family units,” Lewis says, adding that the Discover Boating campaign has been working to feature such families in its marketing assets. “It’s critically important that people can see themselves in the marketing, and we’ve been doing this with Discover Boating for the last eight years.”
GetMyBoat is also seeing more women as clients.
“We have a way for people to add reviews and photos to our app, and it’s cool … it’s been a very diverse range of people using our platform,” Streif says. “The app makes it more accessible. Some people want to rent a boat and don’t know how; we’ve seen this huge range of people because of the price transparency we offer and ease of the platform.”
Repeat Customers and Sales
Some dealers are reporting sales of boats to customers who have never even been on a boat. When some customers couldn’t find the boat they wanted, they’d ask about the boat club as an alternative, Soucy says. When others asked about the boat club but couldn’t get a spot, they often inquired about buying a boat. A record half-dozen club members at his business defected to ownership to avoid sharing.
The boats aren’t just going out more often, either. They’re carrying more people, and many of those people are coming back for more. “Something very different this year is, we’re seeing a lot of repeat customers, people that it’s their second or third time renting,” Streif says. “It feels more like we’re building a community of users, not just one-time renters.”
Rental surveys at Mount Dora show renters are “elated,” and Lewis says the industry should come up with more ways for non-owners to enjoy the water. A pilot leasing program got put on hold because the boats wound up getting sold, but Lewis reserved two more and thinks the idea has potential.
“I have yet to see a survey come back saying a renter had a bad time,” Lewis says. “Even when they’ve gotten rained on, they’ve had a blast. The fact that they’re having a good time means they will be back. We’ve got to be very creative about how we can get more people on the water short of the ownership experience.”
Clamoring for Content
The Great Recession hit the marine industry hard, and memories of that time came back for many builders, dealers and others at the outset of the pandemic. But then, something surprising happened. People ran toward, instead of away from, boating.
MarineMax, for example, started seeing huge spikes in Web traffic. A typical good day would bring about 100 qualified leads, but a couple weeks after the first Covid-19 lockdowns, MarineMax chief revenue officer Chuck Cashman noticed the leads had doubled.
“We were seeing and continue to see very targeted, specific, next-step type inquiries on the Web,” Cashman says. “We’re getting more intelligent questions that are very specific to products. We’re getting more of their time because there are less distractions. The things that we always battle against, there’s fewer of those things.”
The demand for fishing and boating content seems to have spiked, along with the demand for new and used boats, tackle, rentals and anything that can get cooped-up people out on the water. Everyone from fishing tackle and boat manufacturers to associations such as the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation and Discover Boating — the industry-wide campaign to recruit new boaters — have seen huge leaps in traffic.
“The traffic we’re seeing [at Discover Boating] is through the roof,” says Ellen Bradley, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “It’s a testament, I think, to how we’ve come together as an industry working to not just bring customers into the market, but keep them.”
In July, organic Web traffic on Discover Boating was up 215 percent over the same period last year, with organic referrals spiking 146 percent compared to July 2019. The site also saw a huge increase in younger visitors, with a 117 percent increase in users between 18 and 24 years old. The most-visited pages were about how to go boating today, a guide to rentals, costs of boat ownership, a public water access guide, and the 23 most affordable entry-level boats.
“It’s not just putting boating and fishing on people’s radar, but making sure as they enter the boating and fishing experience, making sure they have tools and information they need to have a great time on the water,” Hopkins says, adding that the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas has been “an excellent partner in helping package that content to dealers.”
The NMMA is seeing new and aspiring boaters from all walks of life, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that more diverse populations are hitting the water than in the past. “We’ve seen triple-digit increases in the number of women coming to discoverboating.com,” Bradley says. “And younger people. That has been one of the most exciting nuggets — it’s truly new audiences coming into boating. We’re targeting them, but they’re listening, and they’re interested.”
TakeMeFishing.org has seen similar increases, says Stephanie Vatalaro, marketing and communications senior vice president at RBFF. Five months into the association’s fiscal year, nearly 37 million consumers have visited TakeMeFishing.org, a 158 percent increase over the 14 million visits it saw during the same time period last year.
Organic traffic across RBFF’s digital platforms is up nearly 300 percent, according to the nonprofit. A month after launching a national “Get On Board” campaign with the NMMA, campaign videos had been viewed more than 15 million times, Vatalaro says. And Web visits are converting to more anglers on the water.
“Our referrals to state fish and wildlife fishing license purchase pages are up 85.5 percent to nearly 400,000,” Vatalaro says. “On the boating side, more than 54,000 have landed on state agency boat registration pages, marking a 385 percent increase over July 2019 numbers.”
Shimano began offering free fishing webinars soon after the Covid-19 crisis took hold, says marketing manager Blaine Anderson. The first one ran April 1, and the company has seen a steady increase in views since. In total, Shimano has reached 16.5 million viewers, he says.
“That’s huge,” Anderson says. “If we hadn’t been doing this all along, with the state of consumer shows going forward, we wouldn’t have reached those millions of people. This kind of gives us an idea of how things work and how we should structure things, and how we can better engage moving forward if shows don’t happen anymore because of Covid.”
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.