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Published in Economic Development
Lansing-based Triton Industries is trying to find ways to lower the barriers to entry into the boating industry. Lansing-based Triton Industries is trying to find ways to lower the barriers to entry into the boating industry. COURTESY PHOTO

Michigan’s $7.8 billion boating industry continues to evolve

BY Sunday, March 01, 2020 04:20pm

Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry has fueled a thriving boating sector, and boat manufacturers in the state are developing new ways to grow the next generation of boat builders and enthusiasts.  

The state’s marine market is valued at $7.8 billion, the third-largest in the country. Nearly 1 million boats are registered in the state, according to Michigan Boating Industries Association, which estimates that nearly half of all Michiganders take to the water each year to boat and fish.

MiBiz spoke with two manufacturers in the boating sector to get a sense of some of the ways the marine industry is supporting the future of outdoor recreation.

Mercury Marine

Wisconsin-based Mercury Marine and its training division, Mercury University, are partnering with Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, located in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to offer students a 12-month, 42-credit-hour marine engine maintenance program beginning in September. 

Qualified marine technicians are needed to keep the region’s boat industry growing, Nick Van Nocker, training technology manager at Mercury Marine, told MiBiz. Until recently, the engine manufacturer has primarily focused its education programs on Mercury Marine’s dealer network, but now has expanded its efforts to include technical colleges, according to Van Nocker. 

“Michigan is one of our biggest markets out there, but it’s an area that we don’t have a real strong training presence in yet,” Van Nocker said. 

When students finish the course at Great Lakes Boat Building School — which includes extensive hands-on training on equipment supplied by Mercury — they will receive a certificate demonstrating their successful completion and their familiarity with Mercury’s maintenance procedures and engines. The work will count toward becoming a certified Mercury technician once the student is employed by a Mercury dealer.

The program is an expansion for Great Lakes Boat Building School as well, which has historically only used wooden boats in its training programs, according to Van Nocker. The school has signed an exclusive partnership with Mercury Marine and will only train on its engines. 

“This is a way that we can pull people from different areas of the country because the Great Lakes is such a big boat building area,” Van Nocker said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand how many jobs are just inside of this region and how many dealers we have inside of this region that can employ students coming out of these programs.” 

Manitou Pontoon Boats

Lansing-based Triton Industries Inc., maker of Manitou Pontoon Boats, has nearly doubled in size in the last four years, according to company operations director Cory Highfield. 

The manufacturer, which became a division of Quebec-based BRP Inc. (Nasdaq: DOOO) via a 2018 acquisition, has grown alongside the overall pontoon boat industry. Since the recession, the popularity of pontoon boats has grown quicker than both runabout boats and towboats, Highfield told MiBiz. The appeal of pontoon boats came partially because of a shift in reputation for the boats that often include deck plans fitted with expansive lounge areas, stand-up bars or sun pads. 

“There was a stigma that was associated with pontoon boats for a long period of time,” Highfield said. “They were viewed as the vehicle that you would take your sunset cruise on with grandma and grandpa. Now, we’re penetrating into a younger demographic and it’s seen as more of a family vehicle than as an older person’s vehicle.” 

The company is acutely aware of the effect these expanding families also will have on its business and has focused on reducing barriers to entry into boating and increasing the accessibility of its products. 

“We need to continue to introduce people to boating, and because of the price of some of our products, it’s not something that younger people that have families and college debt have the disposable income or are willing to use the disposable income that they have on,” Highfield said. “If you’re not a boater and you haven’t been around boating at a very young age, it’s harder to get people into boating at an older age when they have that disposable income.”

Private companies and industry associations want to bring boating within reach to more people. Boating clubs are an example of how manufacturers can help potential customers dip their toes into boat ownership, according to Highfield.   

“When you arrive, the boat is already on the water and it’s got a cooler full of your favorite beverages. It’s basically as easy as handing you the keys, you get on the boat and you’re off for the day,” he said. “For those Millennials, they value the experience much more than they value the ownership. As an industry, we have to learn how to adapt to that.” 

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