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Boating In COVID Times

Boating In COVID Times

COVID-19 has impacted all sectors of our economy, and the boating industry is no exception. PATRICK MOLNAR looks back at the impacts of the pandemic on the local marine industry businesses as well as on recreational boating in general.

Australia has proven to be one of the most efficient countries in fighting the coronavirus. Predictions from the Australian government that the virus will be a pandemic even came two weeks before the World Health Organisation made it official. So as the situation escalated, Australia closed its borders to all non-residents and non-citizens, then entered a nationwide lockdown. Businesses were categorised into essential and non-essential, which resulted in the suspension of several business operations around the country. New restrictions then came into effect in various states.

Queensland streets and waterways became empty as people were urged to stay home and only leave their homes to obtain food, receive medical treatment, exercise, and to perform work. Recreational boating and fishing became prohibited.

BOATING RESTRICTIONS AND IMPACT ON BUSINESSES

As restrictions came into effect, ventures had to come up with innovative ideas to stay in business. While people could not personally inspect their desired boats the traditional way anymore, many businesses started offering virtual tours of their boats. To adhere to social distancing rules, several boat retailers packed their websites with ready-made interactive tours of their selection, enabling potential boat owners to inspect boats from every aspect. Additionally, one-on-one video calls also became available to answer any customer questions.

Online boat sales is not a new phenomenon. However, with the current pandemic, many businesses decided to move their boats online. In today’s world, online shopping has become a significant part of many people’s lives. Apart from virtual tours and video calls, people were also given the option to inspect and test their desired boat in person, by appointment, even with the restrictions in place, accompanied by one sales representative.

The virus had no mercy over boat shows either. 2020 had a promising line-up of prestigious boating events around Australia. As the situation escalated at the beginning of the year, news about postponed boat shows started circulating. In Europe, for example, Ancasta, one of the region’s biggest boat retailers, held its first 10-day virtual boat show on 14-23 April, where they showcased their new boat selection by offering access to boat specifications, 360-degree view, videos, and dedicated staff. The online boat show attracted more than seven thousand visitors from all over the globe. With the success of their first virtual boat show, they held another one on 21-25 May for their used boat selection.

On the Gold Coast, Riviera immediately announced its online boat show at the beginning of April. This came immediately after the annual Riviera Festival of Boating and the Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show were postponed. At that time, Riviera owner Rodney Longhurst said that they have seen real desire for family and friends wanting to get back on the water, and that Riviera owners were telling them that they were “keen to return to their much-loved boating way of life when they can.”

While all other major boat shows in Australia have been postponed in 2020, the dates for 2021 have already been set. This should be positive news for those looking forward to participating at these events. Many local boating and marina businesses had to come up with innovative ideas to keep their businesses afloat during these difficult times. Karla Herbert-Evans, owner of Nautical Training and Marine Services on the Gold Coast, explained that her business was immediately affected when Maritime Safety Queensland notified them to suspend all class, one-on-one, or group onboard practicals due to social distancing restrictions.

“These restrictions terminated all income for nearly two months. When the initial lockdown came into place my business was at a premium with a lot of enquiry and active Nautical Training sessions and marine services. I used the downtime to initiate back-end office work, build a new website, and work on new nautical training programmes for navigation and practicals,” shares Karla. “Once Marine Safety Queensland advised we could resume training, operational conditions were tailored accordingly to demonstrate compliance with measures in place to ensure that ‘as far as reasonably practicable’, social distancing guidelines were adhered to. Initially, I believed we needed the heavy restrictions but realising that you are a ‘non-essential worker’ was character-building, and I was very relieved personally and financially when we were permitted to resume business.”

Staying in business during the lockdown was only possible by making harsh decisions. Charmaine Webb, marketing manager at The Boat Works, explained how they managed to keep the boatyard’s doors open during the three months. “We needed to continue to stay afloat, so we went out with a boating stimulus offer of half-priced shed, hardstand, and marina. This enabled us to maintain our staff levels, assist the 60+ tenants onsite, help the chandlery keep selling supplies to the boating public, and to keep the doors open and avoid having to shut the facility down. The chandlery, Marine Trade Supplies, did record numbers over the three months, which was staggering,” states Charmaine.

The importance of assisting the broader boating community and boating business operators on the Gold Coast was just as important during the lockdown as before. The Boat Works and its team implemented COVID-19 guidelines to cope with the situation. “Our guidelines will more than likely stay in place for general wellbeing and hygiene practices. We are a unique environment being outdoors over 55 acres with 50+ individual sheds and wide expansive hardstands allowing adequate spacing between the vessels,” adds Charmaine.

Similarly, yacht clubs, where hospitality is a great part of their business, faced serious consequences. Brett James, general manager at Southport Yacht Club, explained the club’s directions when the lockdown was announced. “The Board had three clear directions. We need to keep the club finances under control, look after all staff, and look after Club members,” states Brett. “After the lockdown was declared, our immediate actions were looking at all costs, and applying for any grant available to the club. Uncertainty in the beginning and shutting down the club was difficult.” The club has since resumed operations post-lockdown and have implemented rules in place to comply with current government health and safety standards.

As a response to the inundation of information on COVID-19, the Boating Industry Association (BIA) also established a dedicated webpage for its member boating businesses, providing them with the relevant statements and facts relating to the boating industry to assist in safe operations, and to protect the health and wellbeing of the workers.

The Australian government further introduced stimulus packages to address the Australian economic challenges of the pandemic and to support business investments. The packages aimed to provide business assistance to keep employees in jobs, and other financial support.

BOATING AND WELLBEING

Recreational boating was banned on 30 March, although boat owners could still use the waters for essential purposes such as fishing for food, travelling for work, or getting groceries if there were no other means.

While being out in the open water has significant positive impacts on people’s well being, boaties could not use their boats for leisure activities for over a month. The nationwide lockdown resulted in promising numbers that allowed Australia to “flatten the coronavirus curve”. In Queensland, restrictions were eased from May, which meant that boat owners could take out their boats for recreational purposes.

The fact that recreational boating was among a handful of activities that were allowed again after six weeks in Queensland, clearly reflects its importance for the community and its positive effects on one’s general wellbeing.

“Being on your boat is perhaps one of the safest places as you are effectively self-isolating in itself. The majority of our customers who are in the cruising community had exactly the same response,” says Charmaine Webb.

When Queensland and Western Australia announced the easing of restrictions beginning in May, Darren Vaux, BIA president, immediately stated that these announcements were good news for the boating public, businesses and jobs. “Recreational boating out in the fresh air and sunshine is good for mental and physical health and is a low-risk activity that a family can easily do whilst adhering to social distancing and hygiene rules.”

If we all continue practical physical distancing, maintaining good hygiene at all times, and following safe practices in our home and work environments, we have a great chance to keep Queensland in its promising state, and to ensure recreational boating continues for our personal wellbeing. To enhance its economic viability, perhaps, we have to continue to become wiser, more creative and more innovative with our way of life. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are on the right path.

 

 

Published in the August – November 2020 print edition.

 

 

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