LACONIA — Five years ago, Donald Gagnon was hanging out in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he saw a strange vessel float past. It looked like a tiki bar, but it navigated the water like a boat. A year later, when Gagnon sold his truck dealership in Rochester, he thought of those boats and figured he could have a part-time retirement business selling the tiki hut boats on Lake Winnipesaukee.
It turned out that he was wrong – there just wasn’t a market for tiki hut boat sales. Instead, he found a different market.
“Sales weren’t there, but everyone started calling for a ride, so we started doing charters, and it just took off,” Gagnon said.
In his first year of business, Tiki Hut Boats of NH took 170 people on charters. Last year was the company’s second year in business, and they chartered 1,500 people. This year, they’ve already sold charter tickets for more than 1,800 guests.
Gagnon made two changes to the business this year. First, he moved the company from Akwa Marina to the Winnipesaukee Pier. And second, because he didn’t want to work as much, he took on a partner in the business, Mark Kierstdad.
The boats are built more like rafts, with a pressure-treated wood deck atop 13 barrels. A bar surrounds the helm, and a bamboo hut provides shelter from the sun. Up to 10 guests can perch on barstools around the bar.
Gagnon said the tiki boats are much more stable than they appear. “They’re more secure than any other boat, because it’s a 16-foot octagon,” he said, adding that there’s not been as much as a spilled drink due to rough waters.
Secure, and a safe place to be during the summer of coronavirus, Gagnon said. He’s convinced that the pandemic has helped his business because people feel comfortable hiring a tiki charter when they don’t feel safe doing many other usual summer things.
His staff sanitizes the boats twice between charters, Gagnon said, and the captain wears a mask. Only private charters are offered this year. He said the public has responded, and his two charter boats are booked solid for most days of the week this summer, with some guests coming from a considerable distance for the experience.
“A mother drove from Rhode Island on Wednesday for a surprise birthday party for her 13 year-old son. She said, point blank, ‘I can’t do nothing (back home) because we’re worried about the virus’,” Gagnon said. “In this environment, the boat is really safe.”
Gagnon and Kierstdad have leveraged the success of their business to help their new neighborhood. They joined Eastcoast Flight Craft and Weirs Beach Jetski Rental in paying for a Fourth of July fireworks show and, on the evening of Independence Day, walked around the boardwalk and handed out $500 in cash to people they saw wearing face coverings.
“This is a very friendly atmosphere for us,” Gagon said about Weirs Beach.
Despite his success this year, he said he has no plans to expand his fleet or open a second location – he’s already busier than he bargained for.
“It’s a full-time business for four months,” he said. “I like what I do, but I don’t want it to become overwhelming.”