Minnesota leads the nation in boats per capita, with about 15 boat registrations per 100 people.
Boating also ranks as one of the top reasons people take trips to Minnesota and why many Minnesotans vacation in their home state.
Those factors alone help explain why the Minneapolis Boat Show — opening Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center — is the second largest of its kind in the Midwest. It’s second only to the Chicago Boat, RV and Sail Show, held two weekends ago.
“We are a population that spends quite a bit of money to have fun outside,’’ said Corey Uchtman, chief executive of Mission Boat Gear, a small Plymouth-based accessories dealer with a presence at the show.
Jammed with more than 700 boats and 230 exhibitors, the Boat Show reflects a prime passion in Minnesota. Despite long winters (or maybe because of them?), the recreational boating industry annually delivers an estimated economic impact of $3.1 billion to the state, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The same trade association says the industry supports 11,000 jobs in Minnesota, generating $807 million in direct retail sales alone. All together, it’s a scene powerful enough to fill all four domes and the auditorium at the convention center. The only other consumer show in Minnesota to outrank the boat show is the auto show.
Ruthie Johnson, marketing and event coordinator at Wayzata-based River Valley Marine, said the Minneapolis Boat Show is more than just a beauty pageant for dealers and manufacturers. The four-day show draws about 38,000 visitors, many of whom are looking for deals. She said the boat show anchors the biggest sales month of the year.
“It’s a high-traffic show and people take advantage of the sense of competition to score big discounts,’’ Johnson said.
Uchtman said the show also packs a sales punch for ancillary businesses — from lake resorts to water ski and wake board retailers to a smattering of entrepreneurs displaying new products.
Explore Minnesota commissioned a new study last spring and summer to update the profile of the state’s travelers. Based on data from 1,300 trips, the study found that spring and summer visitors rate Minnesota highest for its parks, trails and outdoor activities. More specifically, the surveys looked at what motivated travelers, including Minnesota residents who travel to destinations within the state.
Results tabulated in October show that 9% of travelers interviewed participated in motor boating, water skiing and jet skiing. Another 11% participated in canoeing, kayaking or paddleboarding. And 18% of the respondents said they traveled to or within Minnesota to go fishing.
The activities spark the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars a year on lodging, food and fuel in the months from April through September. According to the study, 42% of survey respondents said they stayed at hotels and motels. Another 22% stayed at Minnesota resorts, lodges, bed-and-breakfast inns, rentable vacation homes, campgrounds and RV parks.
State investments in boating are reflected year in and year out in a variety of budgets, including ledgers at the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR’s is running $150 million behind on schedule maintenance for water landings, roads, trails, buildings, bridges and other utilities.
Gov. Tim Walz has recommended $70 million in bonding money to address the DNR’s deferred projects. At the same time, boat owners would benefit from a set of five waterfront projects in the governor’s 2020 bonding proposal.
The $14 million wish list includes a breakwater wall and other improvements at Roschen Park and Ohuta Beach in Lake City; boat launch improvements at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park in Washington County; renewal of Red Wing’s Upper Harbor and Bay Point Park and a new boat ramp and visitor center for Crane Lake Township at Voyageur National Park.
Beyond the consumer angles inherent at the Minneapolis Boat Show, the event doubles as an informal convention of the industry’s major players. Minnesota companies are a big part of that game, even as boat brands continue to be consolidated.
In 2018, Medina-based Polaris Inc. acquired Boat Holdings for about $800 million, giving the recreational vehicle giant ownership of industry-leading Bennington pontoons. Polaris expanded its boat holdings less than a year later by acquiring Larson Boats, originally in Little Falls.
Polaris isn’t the only outdoor-vehicle maker to expand into boats. Winnebago Industries, Inc., with its executives based in Eden Prairie, announced in June 2018 it was buying Chris-Craft Corp.
In the fishing boat sector, St. Peter-based Alumacraft received new life when it was purchased in 2018 by BRP/Evinrude — in keeping with a trend pairing boat manufacturers with designated engine makers.