When the 45th CMTA Hartford Boat Show was held in Connecticut’s capital city Jan. 23-26 amid a wave of bitter cold weather felt from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest, vendors saw it as an opportunity to test the market. What most say they found was another measured step toward recovery and whatever the “new normal” will become.
“The dealers reported sales of 111 units valued at more than $5 million,” Connecticut Marine Trades Association president Grant W. Westerson says. “Since the show, a number of dealers have indicated they have made additional sales attributed to their exposure at the show. I’m confident that if the weather and fuel prices are accommodating this summer, boating will have another strong season.”
The Thursday-to-Sunday show had 355 boats — the largest a 38-footer — and an estimated $11 million in product on display in a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall at the Connecticut Convention Center. “We sold out our exhibitor space and had to turn some people away, which killed me, but it’s a good sign,” Westerson says.
Attendance was up slightly, to about 13,000, largely because of better-than-expected turnouts on Saturday and Sunday. “The show was full, almost too crowded on Saturday and Sunday,” he says.
Exhibitors say the regional show is a particularly good barometer for the smaller-boat market, with potential buyers showing a clear preference for dayboating. “Big bowriders seem to be a sales trend right now,” says Mark Passeri, president of A&S Boats, a South Windsor, Conn., dealership that carries Chaparral, Moomba, Supra Sun Tracker and Tracker boats, and Suzuki engines.
Still, Passeri had greater expectations for the start of 2014. “The show was OK for us. It wasn’t great, but we’re not disappointed, either,” he says. “We’ve had some follow-up, and we have some deals working. We sold some boats, not as many as I thought we would.”
Passeri says he noted a lot of “non-boaters looking for something to do on a cold Saturday or Sunday” and wondered whether the seemingly unending winter in the Northeast was driving them through the turnstiles. “We definitely saw a lower-quality buyer of boats,” Passeri says. He had 11 boats at his display, which was honored as the best at the show.
Among A&S Boats’ sales was a 20-foot Moomba wakeboard boat to a family that won $1,000 in a drawing that was open only to those who purchased boats at the show — an incentive that organizers added to encourage sales.
In the pontoon section, dealers reported results that were more satisfactory. “I found this year’s show loaded with more of what I would call interested, serious buyers, but less than last year of those willing to pull the trigger at the show,” says Chick Shifrin, owner of Columbia Marine, a pontoon dealer in northeastern Connecticut.
Shifrin, who sells pontoons exclusively, says that segment, which has fared well in a weak economy, is “flooded with lots of dealers, makes and models, so it is a bit more confusing for the average buyer to sort it all out.”
Still, he says, his dealership closed several deals in the days after the show. “I think the buyers are doing their homework about the boats available, as well as the dealers they want to deal with,” he says.
Other dealers came away with a similar take on the buying mood. “We had a wonderful show, with deposits on 34-, 32-, 28- and 25-foot boats,” says Diane Bassett Zable, owner of Bassett Yacht & Boat Sales, a Monterey, Lazzara, Galeon and Mercury dealership in Springfield, Mass. “The mood was much more upbeat and quite clear. They wanted a new boat, and they left deposits to take advantage of the great winter rebates and secure their March production slots for May deliveries.”
After years of holding the indoor show during the week before the Super Bowl, organizers have moved it to Feb. 5-8 next year. (The Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb 1.) The change, Westerson says, is being made because the New York Boat Show is moving its dates to late January, which he thinks should have a positive effect on the CMTA show. “The Hartford show will benefit by moving farther away from the year-end holidays and will gain the Monday of show week for additional setup time,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.