News & Features

A Staycation on the Water

As the pandemic canceled vacations across the world, the Flathead's boat industry is surging in sales as people recreate at home

In Randell Seyfert’s 40 years of experience in the boat business, he has never seen lower inventory levels at his dealership in Kalispell.

At Captain’s Marine, which sells sport boats, fishing boats and pontoons, Seyfert had only 20 boats left by July 4 when he usually has nearly 60, many of which he normally sells in the heat of summer.

“I’ve been in the boat business my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this ever,” he said. “And I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.”

While Seyfert is surprised his business is booming amid an economic downturn, he says many people have canceled their vacation plans that were made before the pandemic and are choosing to stay close to home — on the water.

“I think it’s a logical although surprising reaction to COVID because it gives you an opportunity to have fun outside,” Seyfert said. “I think it turned out to be a bigger response than anybody anticipated.”

While he’s noticed the highest demand in sport boats, he says it’s across the board, ranging from low- to high-end boats. With sales up 150% and a shrinking inventory at Captain’s Marine, Seyfert says he probably won’t have any more boats rolling into his lot any time soon.

This spring, a closed economy and stay-at-home orders meant many boat manufacturers shut down, disrupting the boat supply chain. MasterCraft, a sport boat manufacturer based in Tennessee, announced on March 26 that it would suspend manufacturing operations in response to COVID-19. Crestliner, a fishing and pontoon boat manufacturer based in Minnesota, also announced a manufacturing suspension in March.

At Mountain Auto and Marine in Kalispell, store manager Derek Drish says he’s running into similar inventory issues. With only 27 boats left on his lot as of July 8, Drish typically would have 70 by this time of year.

“Once things opened up, the money was there,” Drish said. “The jobs were coming back, and even though people can’t go where they wanted to go (on vacation), they’ve got the money and they’re just staying close to home.”

Since boat factories shut down in March, Drish says many are just now starting back up again and working to catch up on manufacturing. He’s seeing the highest demand in Crestliner fishing boats and pontoons, he says.

Since Drish has been involved with Mountain Auto and Marine, he says he hasn’t seen such a high demand since right before the Great Recession in 2008.

At North Flathead Yacht Club in Somers, secretary Gayle Graf has noticed more inquiry than usual from potential members, and says she has a short waiting list.

“I think a lot of people are wanting to get out and recreate and sail,” she said. “It’s a good thing, but I’m not sure if it has to do with the pandemic or anything else, but we are sure doing well.”

At Northern Lights Trading, a raft, kayak and water sports gear shop with locations in Kalispell and Bozeman, owner Mike Garcia says demand is higher than available inventory for the first time in years.

“It’s people looking to get out,” Garcia said. “They’re not going to New York or Miami or Disney; they’re staying home and playing where it’s safer … It’s a little easier to social distance here.”

With kayaks as the top seller, he says raft sales are also strong and all sales have seen a “healthy increase,” but he’s only noticed a minimal supply disruption with items including smaller boat parts, life jackets and stand-up paddle boards that come from China.

“People are anxious to get out,” Garcia said. “It’s woken some people up to how fantastic our backyard is and they feel more secure staying in their backyard.”

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.