Boat shops booming
Business is brisk in some industries amid pandemic
As many small businesses across the state and the country shutter, some permanently, in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, a thankful group of local boat shop owners is not only surviving but thriving.
Traffic may be down on the roads and in the skies, but the water is crowded.
“It’s been crazy,” said Jason Smith, owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters in Saranac Lake, taking a short break in front of a rack filled with kayaks. “I’ve sold through the majority of my summer stock of boats. Everybody’s trying to play catch-up.”
Most boating businesses closed along with other non-essential businesses when Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down the state in March. Along with the uncertainty of the pandemic came the worry about when operations would be allowed to reopen, and then who would show up.
“In March I was really concerned about how things were going to go,” said Terrence Fogarty in the marina he’s owned for two decades with his brother. (Jay Fogarty runs the popular Mountain Mist Ice Cream stand next to Fogarty’s Lake Flower Marina, while Terrence takes care of the boat operation. The location has been a marina since the early 1900s.) “This town was a ghost town in early May,” said Fogarty. “Then Memorial Day hit, and it felt like a rodeo ride.”
Recreational boating has been a popular activity not only for locals, who got out on the water as they’ve always done, but for visitors to the Adirondacks eager to escape the cities. Renting — or buying — a kayak, canoe, guideboat or motorboat has been seen as a safe activity, a way to get outdoors at a time when being on the lakes and rivers is not only less risky than being inside, but a way to get out after long periods of self-isolation, working at home or actual quarantine.
“With all the uncertainty, you’d think that boats would be the last thing that people would want to buy,” said Fogarty. “But you can have a lot of fun and be away from people. It’s a complete escape.”
Smith says his sales are well up over last year; his outfitting business as a whole is up 15%.
“If I could get 25 more boats under $1,000, I’d sell them all instantly,” said Smith. “But I can’t.”
What’s preventing boat businesses from doing even better is the supply chain, which has been drastically affected by COVID-19.
“People can’t get materials to build kayaks, paddles,” said Smith.
It’s not just the boats and gear; the smaller parts that go into boat-building — Smith gives foam cores from a manufacturer in Montreal as an example — are backlogged, which further stalls the economic system.
First, customers bought stand-up paddleboards, then entry-level kayaks, “then it went up and up,” said Smith, who has waiting lists for the rest of the season and is already placing orders for next year.
“June went from zero to 60,” Rob Frenette said under a canopy of trees behind Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake, which he’s owned since 1983. As he repaired the seat of a boat, he said that he’s been so busy he hasn’t had time to do the numbers, but he’d never seen a June like this one.
Initially, Frenette didn’t know if he could open — or even if he wanted to. Many groups that normally rented, including the Boy Scouts and schools and colleges, canceled. But he did curbside sales until he opened the store for Memorial Day.
“Then my phone started ringing off the hook,” said Frenette, who started off the season with 300 boats, many of which he’s sold, and has a rental fleet of 150. Stacked under the trees around him were rows of canoes, and in a nearby shed there was a collection of wooden guideboats, some of which date back to the 1800s. Frenette, a fourth-generation Adirondacker, began building guideboats decades ago.
In downtown Saranac Lake, Rivka Cilley owns St. Regis Canoe Outfitters with her husband Dave. They implemented a 12-page action plan that includes an outdoor washing system to help put in place new safety measures. She says that she’s noticed a difference this season, as events have been canceled and larger groups aren’t coming.
“It’s a different audience,” she said. “There’s been a lot of education. How to paddle. How to read a map.” She said that rather than making reservations months ahead of time, people are coming up on short notice, unsure of state mandates that have been changing on short notice.
Though restocking has been really stressful, she said “everyone’s been really grateful and happy” to get out on the water.
“I sold what I’d hoped to sell by the end of September by July 4th,” said Smith, who is still doing some curbside business.
Though he said there are fewer folks walking through — “they don’t mill around the store buying shorts” — Smith said more second home owners came to town earlier to quarantine in the country. Then there are the newbies, who have been flocking to the water all summer. “People are like, I’ve gotta get out of this house.”
All summer, said Smith, folks have been calling or coming in to say, “I’m buying a kayak. I’ve been talking about it for years.”