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COVID-19 And The Marine Industry: Looking Back, Looking Forward

On March 5, 2020, Brunswick Corporation reported that its Mercury Marine outboard facility in Suzhou, China, was reopening after a prolonged coronavirus shutdown. Kevin Grodzki, the publicly traded, Illinois-based company’s vice president of communication and public affairs said there would be no business disruption from coronavirus and that the company was imposing World Health Organization and United Centers for Disease Control standards at its facilities worldwide while imposing a ban on travel to and from level one and level-two COVID countries.

As it did in most industries, the COVID-19 pandemic created endless challenges for the marine industry, as well as opportunities, a boom in the boating business never seen before and changes not likely to end anytime soon. Photo by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

“We’re not aware of any Brunswick personnel having contracted the coronavirus,” he said. “And one of the reasons why we’re putting these travel restrictions in place is to keep it that way.”

Seven days later, an employee at Mercury’s Fond du Lac, Wis., headquarters was diagnosed with COVID-19 following a holiday trip to Egypt. Employees who had direct contact with the individual were sent home for testing. Meetings were limited to three people and Brunswick banned all international travel and limited domestic travel under CDC guidelines. All Mercury Marine employees who could work from home were told to do so, and Brunswick workers around the globe were encouraged to do the same, where possible.

“We felt at that time we needed to give every Brunswick facility the same opportunities to put employees in a position of safety,” said Lee Gordon, Brunswick’s vice-president of Global Communication in a recent interview.

The news of March 20, 2020, was more dramatic: Brunswick was shutting down marine production as the company announced its 25 facilities and 12,000 employees in 24 countries on four continents would be idled for two to three weeks out of an abundance of caution. Distribution and delivery operations would continue with a limited number of personnel.

Later that day, Fond du Lac employees were notified that their colleague, diagnosed with the disease just nine days earlier, had died.

Across the world boatyards, dealerships, manufacturing, entire industries. In fact, entire countries were shutting down. In the United States, where the virus first presented in the port cities of Seattle on the West coast, followed by New York in the East, the lack of a coordinated national response resulted in what seemed like as many sets of guidelines and mandates as there were jurisdictions.

“We were bombarded with ever-changing regulation,” said Chuck Cashman, the chief Revenue Officer for MarineMax, which has 70 retail dealerships in 20 states. “This is the city code, the state code, everybody was trying to do the best they could, but it was so fluid and so changing day-to-day.

“We were generally considered non-essential,” he continued. “Our legal team and our human resources team were trying to figure out how do we best protect our team in a situation that was changing daily, and sometimes hourly for the first three weeks. Our executive team was meeting two to three times a day; How do we protect the team, protect the company? How long are we good if our stores can’t open and we don’t sell a boat?”

Like many dealerships, and some manufacturers, MarineMax was able to open specific locations due to providing product and service to the Coast Guard, Marine Patrol and other government agencies.

Federal funds available to companies willing to keep employees on the payroll and extended unemployment benefits, while positioned as a life raft to keep the economy afloat, created a set of concerns all their own.

 “So, we’re fighting to be open, but there is this undercurrent that some of the federal programs—and I know they were doing the best they could, too—our team could make more money staying home, and that was the prevailing wind for a while and that added a complexity, to tell someone ‘Hey, we want you to come back to work,’ still concerned about COVID even with all of the safety precautions and a team members thinks ‘I can just stay home without having to risk any of that and make more money, or at least the same money,’” said Cashman. “But our team was amazing. They said they were in it for the long haul and if you’re going to be open, we’re going to come in—the majority of them, anyway.”

Adopting and Adapting
While struggling to keep their businesses operating and workers employed, recreational marine companies and their suppliers the world over began producing Personal Protective Equipment. Masks and face shields dominated the production—first to supply employees, and not remove critical resources from frontline medical workers, and then supplying local healthcare, first responders and other organizations. Worldwide, marine companies that could not open made sure their inventory of PPE made it to local healthcare providers.

In Ireland, Whale, a maker of plumbing and heating systems for the marine and RV markets began producing plastic pumps for hand sanitizer bottles. Marine stainless-steel fabricator Tampco responded to a shortage of IV poles to accommodate growing patient loads in hospitals. In the United States, HydroHoist Boat Lifts had its subsidiary RotoMoldUSA began producing critical medical material handling equipment, and even Chicago Marine Canvas secured material for and had its 5 employees begin making face shields.

Those businesses that remained open, and those fighting to reopen, adhered to WHO, CDC, and local guidelines.

During the pandemic, RotoMoldUSA—a subsidiary of HydroHoist Boat Lifts—manufactured United States Food and Drug Administration-approved plastic pallets for shipping medical supplies nationwide.

“Our mantra was, whatever the local governing bodies want us to do, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Cashman. We’re not going to do less, we’re not going to do more. So, we went in line with the guidance we were given.

At Mercury Marine, parts and accessories distribution remained operational throughout the early weeks of the pandemic, using tracking devices to determine if employees were able to maintain physical distancing and other protocols.

Like many of its counterparts in the industry, Brunswick and its divisions began implementing split shifts, staggered breaks and imposing one-way looped walking patterns in offices and factories. BC has used protocols established at Mercury Marine throughout its facilities globally, “tailoring them slightly for the unique operations they perform” and local regulations, said John Buelow, vice president of global operations for the marine propulsion and products leader, who further explained that protocols were enhanced or changed based on CDC and WHO guidelines.

Buelow’s team implemented six safety tracks that are still in place today: Personal Responsibility, Entry Protocols, Physical Distancing, PPE, Enhanced Cleaning and Tracing—the identification and response to known or expected exposures. Mercury established a hotline for employees to self-report exposure or infection and hired additional people to conduct tracking and tracing.

“What we found, most often, is that people were very, very proactive in sharing potential risk information and through this entire set of protocols, we have been very successful in making sure the workforce remains healthy,” said Buelow.

About 2,500 people, mostly hourly workers who are members of the International Association of Machinists union were on site at Mercury headquarters throughout the early weeks of the pandemic.

Mercury Marine, Buelow explained, remained focused on communication, compliance and auditing as more workers returned to campus.

“It’s remarkable the attitudes and approach of all the team members to take the steps to keep everyone safe,” he said. “It’s been a great relationship between us and the IAM; a real partnership working together on this, all marching toward the same goals.”

For all involved, constant communication with staff and between facilities were key to understanding and compliance.

Like Somebody Flipped a Light Switch
As the coronavirus pandemic was working its way around the globe, idling billions as it went, people suddenly found themselves at home, with time on their hands and a computer at their fingertips.

At MarineMax, said Cashman, they had survived the trauma of closing stores and were working to reopen as many as possible in whatever capacity possible.

“As we’re doing that, we started noticing online traffic coming in from the website, people calling about boats,” he said. “Interest in boating was growing almost at an exponential pace. So, then we started getting a little optimistic there is actually really, really good interest. We didn’t know yet if it was demand, but it turned into demand and I would tell you inside of 45-days where the municipalities let us open.”

It is a sentiment echoed across most of the marine and outdoor industries.

“Then, like a light switch, things ramped back up,” said Brunswick’s Lee Gordon. “I don’t know who said it, but they talk of ‘L’ curves and ‘J’ curves and ‘K’ curves, the marine industry was a light switch curve.

“Demand is through the roof and we’ve had to expand manufacturing facilities in Florida and Mexico and Portugal to keep up with the demand and we don’t see that stopping this year,” he added.

In fact, many U.S. boat companies are already taking orders into the 2022 model year and builders are dealing with an all-new set of COVID-related issues relating to supply chain shortages and shipping delays.

Boating Boom, Boat Show Bust, Technology Thrust
What was a boom for the boating business, was less-so for the boat show business, as venues around the globed locked their gates and producers, dealers, manufacturers and meeting planners scrambled for a technological solution to on-site participatory group events.

The Miami International Boat Show—held each year in mid-February—was the last major boat gathering before shows started shutting down. In retrospect, given the large international contingent, the annual Miami show was likely a super-spreader event long before the term was a familiar part of the lexicon.

For companies such as MarineMax, who had early entry into the digital platform sales arena and had hosted a handful of virtual boat shows before the pandemic, the transition was seamless.

“Sixty to ninety days into COVID you never heard so many virtual this and virtual that,” Cashman said, then chuckled. “While many were traumatized by ‘this is the only way we can do business,’ we were already doing it, and our team learned lessons along the way and we were better refined, our team was more comfortable executing in that fashion, and our customers had been exposed to it before, they were used to seeing digital offerings from us. So, it was very natural and easy for us to continue down the path that we were already on.

“We were selling boats where our stores weren’t open because we could engage digitally,” he added.

While digital platforms took the place of boat shows as a sales vehicle in 2020, they won’t replace boat shows any time in the near future.

“Boat shows have a vital place in the industry, no question, but not every boat show is vital,” said Cashman concluded, explaining that pre-pandemic, MarineMax spends roughly $12 million annually on boat shows. “And I will tell you, we will not spend $12 million on boat shows going forward.”

Like falling dominoes, boat shows were canceled, postponed, rescheduled and canceled again. The HISWA show in Amsterdam was even closed down midway through its four-day March run.

In June, it was reported that the wider global exhibition business was reeling from the loss of an estimated $6 billion in revenues from the cancellation or postponement of more than 2,000 events.

Like many marine industry companies, Mercury Marine has had to ramp up to production in an attempt to meet skyrocketing demand for its products. Photo by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

One of the largest international exhibit producers, Informa Markets, issued a shareholders rights offer which raised £1 billion to help improve liquidity while pledging to go forward with its marquee events the Monaco Yacht Show in September, and Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. In October, when it would also present a live version of the Palm Beach International Boat Show. Palm Beach was held earlier as a virtual event.

At the same time, the governing board of Italy’s marine industry association—Confindustria Nautica—and the board of directors of show organizers—I Saloni Nautici—were working with regional authorities and city of Genoa, Italy to produce the Genoa International Boat Show two weeks later than scheduled, to October 1-6.

The Show Must Go On
Though “The Show Must Go On’ is an adage that was abandoned by Broadway, it became a mantle of sorts for the marine industry.

Some minor controversy between exhibitors and producers sank the Monaco Yacht Show, though the Principality sponsored ‘Planetary Health Week’ during the show’s September dates, touted as focused on health and the ecology and designed to capture the spirit of the yacht show. Seminars and panels were held virtually.

Genoa, which was held almost exclusively outdoors on land and water, closed its six-day run with a regulated crowd of 71,000 visitors, about 78% of normal attendance and some 800 exhibitors.

“These figures are a testament to the miracle that was performed in organizing this 60th edition, allowing our businesses to carry on working as if nothing had happened,” said Saverio Cecchi, the Confindustria Nautica president, following the event. “Companies need this tool at their disposal.”

Cancelled this year, the Miami International Boat Show will return to its original convention center venue in 2022. Photo by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

Drawing on its international experience and resources, Informa developed an “AllSecure” plan which limited crowds based on venue size, established additional cleaning, temperature checks at entry, contactless ticketing, one-way traffic patterns, physical distancing and masking requirements among the most noticeable of protocols.

“The expense is extraordinary—all the additional staff it requires, the cleaning staff, the security staff, the thermal measuring devices, the extra cooling down of tents, paramedics, ambassadors,” said Andrew Doole, president of Informa Markets U.S. Boat Shows in an interview just ahead of the opening of its thrice delayed Palm Beach event.

Working with Broward County and Fort Lauderdale, a 62-page document became Informa’s safety Bible, and has subsequently been used to open other Informa shows, but also smaller regional and local boat shows who have adopted the Informa protocols.

“We’ve shared that plan with other show producers, other groups within Informa and the City of West Palm Beach is using that for anyone who wants to produce an event now—they are sending them our COVID safety plan as a template,” Doole said.

At the same time the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show was opening its gates, the National Marine Manufacturers Association announced the cancellation of the Miami exhibit and eight other winter 2021 boat shows, having previously sold some of its smaller market shows to local producers.

The organization subsequently released a schedule of in-person boats shows starting again in the fall of 2021 through all of 2022.

Return To Normalcy?
What’s in store for the immediate future? What will ‘normal’ look like?

“What’s gone on isn’t an elastic band that gets stretched and goes back to its original shape,” said Cashman of MarineMax.

“I don’t believe that we will ever be at a place where the office is 100-percent filled the way that it used to be because there are now options,” said Brunswick’s Gordon. “There’s now flexibility for employees who want to work in the office or work remote. I have a team of four people in four states and we get along great and there’s not one piece of work that isn’t getting done.”

Gordon’s predictions include a reduction in travel and changes to boat shows and conferences.

“The word ‘hybrid’ will be part of our lives—everything is going to be in-person and virtual, there’s going to be something for everyone,” he said.

“The additional cleaning will be with us for a while and I think masks will be with us for a while,” said show producer Andrew Doole.

In the thick of the pandemic, high-performance marine industry companies such as Nor-Tech began producing personal protection equipment.

The Consumer Electronics Show will return in January 2022 as an in-person event. The organizers already have announced that there will be a mask mandate for the entire show for everyone who works or comes into the show.

Universally, everyone sees enhanced cleaning of product and facilities as a ‘forever’ change, something that Mercury Marine has been doing during the so-called cold and flu season for years prior to the pandemic.

Mercury Marine’s Buelow believes things like physical distancing changes will stay in place until the next “natural evolution” of the shop floor.

“We are going to stay the course with these protocols for the time being because they have proven to be effective,” he said “While we are very encouraged with progress in the communities around vaccination, and declining infection rates, we know we can’t relax and take our eye off the ball

“But we have started to prepare for how will we unwind these protocols,” he continued. “The team that was originally put in place to develop and enforce these protocols across the enterprise is now developing criteria and a road map around the decision-making process for relaxing those protocols.”

Cashman said MarineMax and the industry itself will meet any challenges dealt by the pandemic and its aftermath through training, awareness and comfort.

“We just changed, and it’s not going back,” he said “I can’t imagine that we will have a store without hand sanitizer at the greeting counter for, forever. I just think that’s going to be part of it.

“We do a lot of fist bumps now, and I’ll acknowledge to the customer,” he added. “I look forward to the day I can shake your hand again without thinking.”

Editor’s note: Tony Esposito is the U.S. correspondent for International Boat Industry—a trade-media news portal—and the former director of sales and marketing for Mercury Racing. He has contributed several stories to speedonthewater.com.

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