Michigan businesses face lockdowns and renewed interest in the great outdoors
The Wellston-based Pine River Paddlesports Center was bracing for a slump when the pandemic struck last year. To the kayak and canoe rental supplier’s surprise, business “has skyrocketed,” said Alaney Miltner, who runs the business with her husband, Jacob Miltner. The 2021 season is shaping up to be their best year yet.
“People are really excited to be outside and to be able to do things,” Miltner said. “They feel unlocked.”
Revenue jumped 30% last season from 2019, she said. Sales in June were up 10 percent from the same time of year despite heavy rains at the start of the month, which dampened sales. The company has also been selling dates for months in advance and at a faster rate compared to previous years.
Other countries have started to open up to vaccinated U.S. travelers, but Miltner predicts that lingering hesitation over health and safety will keep a significant amount of tourist dollars in the United States. Milter reports receiving visitors from as far away as Florida.
COVID-19 restrictions have been a boon to paddlecraft companies, but the increased demand is not without its challenges.
“My husband and I work about 80 hours a week, that’s insane,” Miltner said. She and her husband also live on site campgrounds in a “canvas outfitting tent, so we’re here every day all day.”
During the first increase in customer numbers last year, Miltner persuaded her mother to quit her job at an office supply store in Manistee to come work for her and help her take over. “I was out for lunch with her one day and I was like, ‘Mom, we’re really having fun. How much are they paying you? I’ll give you more.’ “
Miltner, who herself is an avid kayaker herself and has worked at the Pine River Paddlesports Center since her teenage years, is encouraged by the influx of new patrons who are discovering the outdoors, some for the first time in their lives.
“People are learning that there are parts of Michigan that are not just cornfields,” she said.
Driven by the boom in sales, Miltner and her husband are full of ideas for growing the business, from adding “glamping” amenities and services to adding a bakery and cafe or even from a golf course.
Last year they offered winter rafting to the public for the first time, which turned out to be a success; 80 percent of winter customers were first-time customers, a fact that Miltner said was pleasantly surprising. They plan to offer rafting again in the winter this year.
This year’s strong sales coincide with the 50th anniversary of the kayak and canoe rental service, since Miltner’s stepfather founded the Canoe Livery in 1971. and make it a business that can support an entire family. ‘year,’ Miltner said. “I think we are there.