Recreational boating industry powers through pandemic

Michigan has almost 775,000 pleasure boat registrations and numbers continue to grow.

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) While cruise ship industry profits and stock values sank faster than a rock in water during the pandemic, Michigan’s recreational boating industry not only remained afloat, but thrived with near-record sales.

Tiffany Graham represents inventory showcased by SkipperBud’s at the 2022 Grand Rapids Boat Show. Photo by Don VanderVeen

In Michigan, there are close to 775,000 recreational boat registrations, and those numbers continue to grow.

Social restrictions and precautions helped contribute to the boom for boat dealers and manufacturers. According to 2020 statistics, the recreational boat industry hit a 13-year high in sales.

Sales of wake boats, ski boats, fishing boats, pontoon boats, luxury cruisers and sailboats increased over 6% during the 2020 season. In 2021, those sales numbers increased again, and industry experts expect those numbers to continue to rise through 2022 and beyond.

The strong boating industry sales were buoyed by pandemic-related issues and the necessity for recreational activities that incorporate social distancing.

Tiffany Graham of SkipperBud’s noted that pontoon boat sales — as well as wake boats, ski boats and personal watercraft — all have improved significantly over the past two years.

“Boating is naturally a social distancing activity,” Graham said during ShowSpan’s 2022 Grand Rapids Boat Show. “It’s a family-and-friends activity. With the state of affairs over the past couple of years, people have grown to value their time and how they spend time with others.

“Also, there are restrictions on travel. With boating, you are able to do it as a leisure activity and go almost wherever you want with whoever you want.”

Dealers and vendors touted the industry’s success while showing off their latest and, in some cases, limited inventory at the Grand Rapids Boat Show. Models appeared to be sleeker, faster and available in more options than previous years.

While boat sales have remained brisk over the past couple years, there also have been challenges. Disruptions to supply chains, lack of parts and manufacturers not being able to keep up with production demands have made it difficult for dealers and vendors to meet sales expectations.

For consumers, the supply and demand has resulted in higher pricing for most brands. But those higher prices have not deterred customers looking to hit the open water in their own vessels, according to Dan Kimball of Walstrom Marine.

Located in Bay Harbor, Walstrom Marine deals in luxury cabin cruisers built by Tiara and Chris Craft, along with pontoon boats manufactured by Crest and Qwest.

“It is getting tougher to get inventory,” Kimball said. “Getting inventory and supply is tough, whether it’s for parts, generators, or air conditioners or for the finished product. It’s a challenge for everything.”

Kimball said the price of new boats sold by Walstrom Marine ranges from just over $40,000 to well over $1 million.

“There are buyers for almost everything,” Kimball said. “It was a great year for us in 2021, and we are sold out of a lot of inventory through 2022.

“We’re looking toward the future and encouraging customers to custom build their boats from a list of options and have it ready for them in a year.”

One of the hottest segments of the market is the pontoon boat industry. When it comes to pontoons, mid-Michigan is the home for several manufacturing plants.

Crest pontoons are manufactured in Owosso, while Manitou pontoons are built in Lansing and Qwest and Tahoe boats have operations in the St. Louis and Alma areas, respectively.

“I like to refer to myself as ‘The Pontoon Queen,’ and pontoon boat sales are really good right now,” said Graham, of SkipperBud’s. “With pontoon boats, it’s a more relaxing experience. Everyone can enjoy them, from grandparents to grandchildren.

“Pontoon boating is a family activity. With today’s pontoon boats, you can do it all, from a slow cruise, to skiing and tubing and even wake boarding. But people are also buying wake boats and ski boats. It is a very good time for the boating industry overall.”

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