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Marinas, dock builders pin hopes on virtual boat show

'If people are looking for a boat, (the boat show is) the only way they are going to find one right now. The inventory is still very low,' says Doug Bunker

The 63rd annual Toronto International Boat Show (TIBS), Canada’s premier boating event, is going virtual this year. The event kicks off today and runs until Sunday, Jan. 24.

On The Water Designs, a dock manufacturer on Highway 11 in Kilworthy, has been a vendor at the popular annual show for 15 years.

“It’s a pretty big deal for us. We offer a supporting product to boats, so to do a show like this in January helps us meet with our clients and plan for projects that will be coming up for the spring,” explained owner Brandon Jewitt.

This year, On The Water Designs will be presenting a seminar called What Dock Do I Need?, an educational opportunity for dock buyers to learn all the ins and outs of purchasing and owning a dock.

“I've found over the last couple of years there are so many people from dock companies and people interested in docks at these shows, and there was nobody giving a non-biased presentation to people that is sort of like Dock School 101,” Jewitt said.

On The Water Designs did a similar presentation this past fall at the virtual Cottage Life Show, where attendees gave positive feedback for the seminar that teaches dock buyers about some of the more popular dock styles, and how they might fit with the client's shoreline. The seminar also addresses key information in regards to permits and decking maintenance requirements.

“The goal of the presentation is to give value to our clients who will be at the show. It’s not going to be a long sales pitch for the company, it’s going to educate people, we are even going to talk about styles of docks that we don’t even provide,” Jewitt said.

“The end game for us is we want people to see us as a go-to place for our industry. We want to show that we are knowledgeable and trustworthy, and you can’t do that by making a commercial sales pitch," he said.

While presenting at a virtual show as opposed to an in-person event isn’t ideal for companies like On The Water Designs, Jewitt said there is still a lot of value with holding virtual events, and he believes some of his clients even prefer it.

“I've found that some clients that I've spoken to love it, they love that they don't have to travel to Toronto, they don't have to wait in line, pay for parking, shuffle through the aisles, they can sit by the fireplace and interact with whoever they want,” he explained.

Jewitt believes the virtual boat show will be a positive experience for his company and his clients.  

“It’s going to be a positive experience either way. How it impacts the sales remains to be seen, but we look forward to connecting with people,” he said.

On The Water Designs has been in business for 18 years and annually completes 500 projects with the help of their 30 summer staff members. Despite the pandemic, business is still thriving for the dock industry.

“We’ve been really fortunate because the pandemic has pushed everybody who has property in the cottage countries to try and spend time there and get out of the city,” Jewitt explained.

“Our sales have increased and have been pretty high over the last year.”

Like dock sales, boat sales are also booming for local marinas, according to Orillia District Chamber of Commerce special events coordinator Doug Bunker.

“The situation with the (boat show) is if people are looking for a boat, that’s the only way they are going to find one right now. The inventory is still very low,” Bunker said.

“When you order a boat now, you don’t get it till later. Last year if you ordered a boat, it could be nine to 12 months before you got it.”

Bunker says boating really took off during the spring and summer months of last year, as it was one of the few activities that could be done safely during the pandemic. That translated into record sales for local marinas. However, now boat inventory is at a record low.

“I know some of the marinas are saying they don’t have any product because they sold everything they had. Locally, you probably can’t find a boat right now,” Bunker said.

Bunker remains optimistic that the demand for boaters this spring will be met by local marinas, which will translate into another successful boating season. Bunker is also optimistic that the TIBS will provide a boost to the industry.

“It remains to be seen what the response of the show will be, what the commitment is from the public to buy boats, so we’re kind of waiting till after the event to see what the response is like from the dealers, but we are hopeful everything will even out,” he said.