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Editor's note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle's Momentum '21 special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan's economic engine, click here to read Momentum in its entirety online.TRAVERSE CITY — So you’ve decided to take the plunge into the world of recreation as a way to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.Whether in a RV or on a boat, it’s a great way to get outdoors and remain socially distanced.
Hitting the trails on a bicycle or paddling in a kayak adds exercise to the mix, bringing additional benefits. Then there’s the boost of emotional and mental health.Customers looking to buy a new bicycle or a powerboat might be in for a bit of a shock. Placing an order today for a new piece of equipment may mean it will be ready to use by 2022.“If I order a bike today (late March), delivery is mid-July of next year,” Brick Wheels owner Tim Brick said.“If someone wants to order a boat this year, we can’t get it for you this season,” said Logan Haughn, sales and brokerage specialist at the Traverse City location of Irish Boat Shop. “We’re being pushed out to 2022 by the manufacturers.”Haughn said there are stock boats for sale in each of the three Irish Boat Shop locations: Harbor Springs, Charlevoix and TC. But custom comes at a cost, and it’s time.In late March, the three locations had a total of nine boats in showrooms. Normally there are 30, Haughn said.“We do have some stock boats coming in,” he said. “But if you want to customize it and make it your own, it’s going to be next year. It’s been really unique and quite interesting, to be honest.”Local businesses that sell recreational vehicles and campers tell a similar story.TCRV normally starts its season with 170 units on its lot. General manager Jackie Amenson said the season opened with 26 on the lot.Armenson said there were 140 units on order, putting a damper on what would have been a record 2020.“(The) 2020 (sales year) was great until August,” Armenson said. “That’s when we ran out of inventory. Factories were shut down and we couldn’t get any.”And it didn’t need to have wheels or a motor to be in dem- and. Sailsport Marine on East Traverse Highway in Leelanau County reported the law of supply and demand was definitely tilted one way.“Everything from sailboats, paddleboards, kayaks,” Sailsport Marine owner Scott Wilson said. “Demand is huge and supply is slim. Supply is the biggest problem.“What I haven’t ordered right now I won’t get, at least by the summer. What I ordered in March last year I got in August. In January I had to order for July.”Even something as simple as a new outboard motor is proving to be problematic. Haughn said a customer recently order a 40-horse Mercury boat motor and was told it would receive it in 35 weeks.Sales SoaringRecreation retailers reported a wide range of results in 2020. But while the pandemic left many businesses in the red — particularly retail and restaurants — recreation was very much in the black.Boating many have seen one of the biggest bumps. The National Marine Manufacturers Association reported new powerboat sales increased by more than 300,000 in 2020, levels the industry hadn’t posted since 2008, according to a release.Michigan is the third largest marine market in the U.S. and has seen 12 consecutive years of growth in sales of new boats, motors, trailers and accessories, the release stated.The top sellers included personal watercraft, wake boats, freshwater fishing and pontoon boats.Haughn said Irish Boat Shop sales were up about 40 percent in 2020 over the year before. Irish Boat Shop doesn’t sell pontoons either, which are particularly popular with families.The family dynamic may be the reason behind the increased interest in boating. Haughn said there were a lot of first-time boaters in 2020, while others returned to boating after a break, putting unused vacation money into something closer to home.“There’s a couple of factors that led to the increased sales,” Haughn said.“One, refunded travel. They wanted something they can still do as a family. Two, you can be outside, social distance and still have fun. It was something everyone could do as a family safely, and they latched on to it. I think it’s the same thing this year.”Kayaks in demandSailsport Marine and Brick Wheels both saw slightly smaller increases, but the significance was huge. Wilson said kayaks were the biggest item in demand.“We had a record year in terms of sales,” Wilson said. “It was up probably 20 percent from the year before.”For Brick Wheels, the increase in sales came despite being closed because the store was not deemed essential. Brick said Michigan was the only state in the country that categorized bicycle stores in this manner.Brick also lost some employees after the lockdown, which forced the business to close one day week.“We were up 20 percent,” Brick said. “That’s just huge for us; we do some pretty big numbers. We were up 20 percent and we couldn’t open for a month and a half. Then we couldn’t open on Sunday because we were short-staffed.”
TCRV said it was cruising toward a record season in 2020 before the lack of inventory hit hard in the summer. Amenson said TCRV sold 250 units in 2017 and 249 in 2018 before jumping to 281 in 2019. TCRV was on pace to sell 300 in 2020, but had to settle at 205.Kyle Orr, co-owner of Riverside Canoes in Honor with his wife, Kelly, said the business in 2020 nearly matched the year before. Kyle Orr chalked that up as a victory because Riverside wasn’t able to open until mid-May and the Platte River Campground in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore didn’t until the end of June,“We lost our June business and we finished close to even,” he said, adding school business from field trips was also non-existent. “I was thrilled with how we ended up last year.”Run on repairsWhen Brick Wheels opened after the shutdown, it seemed like everyone dusted off their old rides and dropped them off. Brick said some people were investing $300-400 in 30-year-old two-wheelers that cost $150 when new.“It’s been absolutely crazy here,” he said. “We of course were shut down the middle of March and all of April. When we finally were able to reopen with curb-side only service, we were inundated with hundreds of bicycles going in for service.“A lot of them were 30-year-old vintage bicycles that we sold to them when we first opened.”Brick, who has been in the business for 47 years, said he continued to show up to work during this time. He spent time organizing, but also stockpiling supplies like cleaning supplies, masks and sanitizer. But he didn’t get his hands on something that would prove to be in big demand.“There was a shortage of repair parts,” Brick said. “That was one of the burs in our side last year, getting repair parts. Some of these bicycles sat outside for months waiting for basic repair parts.”Parts continue to be a problem for bicycle stores. Brick said suppliers like Trek and Cannondale increased production by 30 percent. But Shimano, which produces a lot of the key parts — cranks, derailleurs, brakes, steering bearings, and are sticking to their 10-year plan. Add the demand for electric bikes and the situation gets worse.“Just because the suppliers order more, it doesn’t mean they’ll get 30 percent more,” Brick said. “Shimano is holding the stick. There’s a worldwide shortage and electric bikes sort of exacerbate the problem. That brings in a whole new group of people who aren’t traditional bike customers.”In late March, Brick Wheels started closing its store on Tuesday. Brick said that’s partially because of continued staffing issues, but said it also gives his repair staff a day to work uninterrupted.Haughn said Irish Boat Shop has the same issues as Brick Wheels when it comes to manufacturers struggling to secure parts from suppliers to make new boats. Repair work also keeps everyone jumping.“Right now we’re busier than we can imagine with the repair and service departments,” he said. “Our service side is running nonstop right now.”Amenson said repair parts are a struggle for recreational vehicles as well. She cautions people to not break the toilet in their camper — because replacements will be difficult to acquire.Looking aheadThe recreation industry enjoyed a hot 2020, and many industry experts don’t see it cooling off in 2021.Amenson said northern Michigan saw a brief downturn in RV sales in 2008-09 during the economic downturn, but said “it’s gone right back up.” She said northern Michigan was also immune to fall-offs in the market elsewhere in the country.She said weariness with the pandemic will still make campers a sought-after item. Amenson said the rental business at TCRV was strong in 2020, especially after campgrounds opened back up. She said a lot of rental deliveries were made to residences in 2020 as a separate space for out-of-town guests.“It’s going to be a lot like it was after 9/11,” Amenson said. “People were afraid to get on planes. Camping you can take your whole family. You don’t have to talk to anyone. You can do your own thing.”Orr said in many ways 2020 felt like other seasons at Riverside Canoes, which dates back to 1964. The weather had a lot to do with it as well.“Once the campground opened up and we got into our normal summer season, we had great weather and the people were here,” said Orr, who bought the business in 2011. “It was a normal summer outside of the COVID protocols we had to do. The feel was normal for visitation. It was a lot less (impacted) than we thought it would be.“We go by the sun and we had great weather.”Supply and demandThe weather isn’t the only thing the recreation industry can’t control. The success of 2021 and beyond may rely on having enough supply to meet demand.Amenson said RV manufacturers may take a while to catch up.“It will take a couple of years until we get back to normal,” she said.The same is also true for those looking to get on the water.“It seems like supply is going to be more of an issue this year in terms of last year,” Wilson said. “The supply chain on manufacturing is broken. And it’s world-wide.”Many retailers are betting on the trends experienced in 2020 to continue for years to come. Brick said the 20 percent uptick in business during the summer months continued into the winter season as snowshoes and cross country skis sales increased by the same percentage.“You get out on the trails and people are discovering the trails, which is good,” Brick said. “The trails are packed — and it’s carried right over for winter.”So even with staffing shortages, Brick said he ordered three ‘containers’ capable of holding 350 bicycles. He ordered one in October of 2020, one in January of 2021 and another in March — and they should arrive a year later.“It’s a gamble; I’m sticking my neck out,” Brick said. “But I don’t see this letting up.”
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