BRAINERD, Minn. -- Since COVID-19 hit American shores last spring, the environment for business has been challenging, to put it lightly.
Consider the industry of outdoor recreation a definitive exception to that trend. While restaurants, retailers and hospitality outlets have been struggling to stay afloat, the likes of pontoon sellers, ice house rentals and all-terrain vehicle dealers are lapping their sales numbers from this time last year. There’s plenty of reasons why this success is happening now and to this degree, but the No. 1 factor may be this: There is no easier, nor more enjoyable way to social distance than to hit the trails, hang out on the ice, or vanish into the wilderness.
"We’ve seen more out-of-state fishing licenses in the last three months than we’ve ever seen,"
— Josh Duflo, manager at Reeds Family Outdoor Outfitters in Onamia.
“It is incredible. We had a good January last year and we’re four times better than we were last year. Last year, we had a phenomenal year and it is just rolling into this year being an incredible year,” said Cory Frantzick, a sales associate at Power Lodge, a Brainerd-based boat dealership. “I think a lot of people are coming to the area because they’re able to work remotely, so why wouldn’t you want to work at your cabin in the Brainerd lakes area? A lot of people in the Twin Cities apparently want something new, so they come see us and we get them out there and into some fun stuff so that they can social distance.”
Josh Duflo, manager at Reeds Family Outdoor Outfitters in Onamia, agreed with this assessment. Business has been so good the last few months that outfitters like Reeds are concerned they won’t be able to keep up with demand for some of their offerings, he said, while orders are starting to get backlogged three, four or five months.
“It’s absolutely insane down here,” Duflo said. “I think there’s a ton of people coming down here. We’ve seen more out-of-state fishing licenses in the last three months than we’ve ever seen..”
That seems to be the crux of it, judging by what owners, managers and salespeople say. There’s been a surge in customers, many of them from the metro or outside Minnesota altogether, who are pouring into central Minnesota to escape the claustrophobic congestion of urban centers for the tranquility of the great outdoors.
New trends in technology, such as the rise of remote employment and familiarity with virtual meetings, means people can work white-collar jobs from afar while they camp out in the boonies.
On top of that, many of these folks are coming here to stay long term, according to Charlie Melby, an owner of SPR Motorsport & Marine in Pequot Lakes, which means the spring rush is coming earlier and stronger.
Another wrinkle in the situation is how little snowfall has come this winter, Melby said, alongside warm spells and windy conditions that’ve made some larger lakes inhospitable for ice fishing.
The result, he added, is a heavier emphasis on things like all-terrain vehicles and watercraft over things like augers and snowmobiles.
“Mainly pontoons right now. They’re selling like crazy. It’s never happened in January like this,” Melby said. “We don’t do much with snow right now. There’s not enough snow. We'll be ready next year, but the trails haven't been too good for people to come snowmobile and up here we haven’t had the traffic for snowmobilers. We’re mainly doing the marine side. There’s always water.”
"Last year, we had a phenomenal year and it is just rolling into this year being an incredible year,"
— Cory Frantzick, a sales associate at Power Lodge, a Brainerd-based boat dealership.
On the flip side, Duflo said Reeds is committed to being a winter season outfitter for the time being, with 90% of their offerings still inclined toward snowmobiling, ice fishing and other pursuits in sub-freezing temperatures. If that means they run out of product, then that’s a reality they’ll have to accept, Duflo added, but they’re keeping pace for now.
“When we’ve had the opportunity to get our hands on a product, we’re buying pretty much everything. Some of our competitors have pretty much given up and switched over to summer,” Duflo said. “We’re still in full fledged ice mode here. We’re trying our best and, I mean, some of the items (running out) … are just inevitable. For augers, they only make so many a year and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”