Carolyn Burgess has been running the family business for 15 years. Typically, at this time of year, she has half her Scarborough, Ont. marine retail store packed up and on display in a booth at the Toronto International Boat Show. But this year, the show is going virtual.

“This year, my goal is to find new customers, as opposed to going down and just ‘sell, sell sell,’” said Burgess, owner and operator of The Rigging Shoppe Ltd.

The annual trade show is a crucial event for Canada’s marine industry, and typically attracts more than 70,000 visitors to the Enercare Centre at Toronto’s Exhibition Place. This year, it’s a virtual marketplace where shoppers can connect with merchants offering sales and seminars.

Hundreds of familiar vendors are taking part, but none are sure how much business to expect. Regardless, many in the industry are bracing for another big boating season after last year’s surge in sales prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Who knew all we needed was a pandemic to revive the Canadian marine industry?” joked Burgess.

As a marine retailer, known in the business as a chandlery, The Rigging Shoppe is a first stop for many new boaters, and there were plenty of those in 2020.

“In the spring when people were considering what to do with their leisure dollars, they couldn’t travel. They weren’t eating out. They needed an outlet to spend some money, while also isolating – so bingo, they bought a boat,” said Burgess.

Prior to this boom however, the used boat market in Canada was on the decline for more than a decade, according to Perry Woodman, owner of brokerage service Breezeway Yachts Inc.

But 2020 changed that.

“Typically it takes about 12 months to sell a used boat in North America,” said Woodman, who has been selling boats in the Greater Toronto Area for nearly two decades. “Many of the boats we listed last year took less than six weeks to sell, and in some cases we would have several buyers looking at the same boat, and sellers were getting their asking price, which is practically unheard of on the Great Lakes.

“I think it was just a convenient, safe, interesting escape, and for a lot of people [boating] ended up replacing summer travel plans.”

The problem ahead for the used boat market and marine retailers is going to be supply, not demand. Woodman said many customers who listed their boats with Breezeway actually took them off the market in 2020, in order to keep boats for themselves. It was also more difficult to ship used boats from the United States due to border restrictions.

Mercury Marine Ltd., a division of the Brunswick Corporation, and one of the most popular manufacturers of outboard engines, said it also saw sales increases. Among other brands, Brunswick also owns Boston Whaler, a popular fishing vessel. Brunswick’s third-quarter net sales rose 24 per cent from the same period a year ago.

“Sales were up all across the board,” said Chris Drees, president of Mercury Marine. “But, one area where we saw huge growth was in mid-horsepower range motors, which are often sold to entry-level boaters.”

Engines were in hot demand for new boats in 2020, but Mercury’s inventory for the 2021 season is healthy, said Drees.

Trade shows like the boat show going virtual may actually help with product supply, said Drees, as it will likely push demand to later in the year, allowing manufacturers a chance to catch up.

Meanwhile, boaters who manage to get their hands on a new or used boat this year could face issues outfitting it.

“There were so many delays because of COVID,” said Burgess, pointing to issues with importing products from overseas due to manufacturing stoppages.

“There is a finite supply of inventory in the pipeline, so there will be shortages all over the place. Buy early would be my message.”