After successive years of challenging weather (too hot one year, too rainy the next and Hurricane Sandy lurking offshore last year) the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show finally caught a break this year in the form of fine Florida weather, a wealth of new product launches and perhaps the tailwind of a recovering market.
In response, the crowds came in numbers to the show’s 54th annual edition Oct. 31-Nov. 4, which featured more than 1,500 vessels across six locations.
“Compared to last year, which of course was Hurricane Sandy, attendance was 28 percent higher than 2012 and about 18 percent higher than 2010, which is both fantastic and encouraging,” says Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III, chairman and CEO of Active Interest Media, which owns Show Management and is also the parent company of Soundings Trade Only. (2011 figures were dismissed as an anomaly because of the rain.)
Another notable category of growth came from a 15.9 percent increase in the number of boats under 80 feet on display — an important market sector. This year saw the largest number of boats under 80 feet ever on display at the show.
More important, there was a clear sense of buoyancy among exhibitors. Many say they came away with signed contracts, some of them boasting that it was the best Fort Lauderdale show in years. They agree that new product and innovation were driving forces for sales.
“When you look at this show, number one, there was a far better mood,” says Chuck Cashman, vice president of operations for MarineMax East. “After Sandy and massive rain, contentious elections, there really were no negatives coming into this show.”
As usual, MarineMax came in force, with 91 boats on display covering 11 brands at 11 locations, and well over $100 million in product as well as 100 people working.
The result: a 25 percent increase from 2012 in unit sales and dollars, “which is huge for us,” Cashman says. Declining to reveal a more precise number of signed contracts than “several dozen,” he says sales were strong across the spectrum of models from 13 to 80 feet and were skewed more toward new than used, compared with the 2012 show (90/10 percent this year vs. 80/20 percent at last year’s show.
‘Turning the corner’
“It’s a good sign that people are coming back to new,” Cashman says. As has been the industry trend of late, outboard-powered boats dominated MarineMax sales.
Of note, he says, the Azimut 80 Fly was introduced at the show and MarineMax wrote a contract for the yacht. “We were very excited to walk out of there with a deal on it,” he says.
Looking to 2014 and beyond, Cashman remains optimistic.
“Given the last few years, it’s hard not to have an overtone of cautiousness, but I feel better about heading into this winter and beyond than I have in any of the past five years,” he says. “I really feel like we’re turning the corner and are going to start seeing some true improvement because we’re selling.”
Sea Ray also didn’t offer specifics, but Matt Guilford, vice president of marketing, says sales “significantly exceeded last year’s — up more than 50 percent in both units and dollars — and even our goals for this year’s show.”
Continuing the trend, sales were broad across Sea Ray’s 18- to 65-foot lineup, led by introductions of the 510 Fly, 350 SLX and 260 Sundancer.
Sea Ray launched 12 newly designed boats in 2013, and 10 more are planned for 2014.
“It’s not just the presence and presentation, but you’re seeing a lot of new product,” Guilford says.
Partly in response to Sandy and partly to make a statement, the hub of Sea Ray’s exhibit was an air-conditioned glass tent that provided an enclosed in-water display for debut of the largest two boats.
“Putting the glass booth together was done in partnership with MarineMax and seemed to inspire both the dealers and customers,” Guilford says. “Sea Ray is really trying to again present ourselves as a leader in the industry.”
Randy Caruana, vice president of sales at Mercury Marine, says joystick systems led the day and that sales for the engine manufacturer exceeded pre-show expectations.
“Our joystick systems definitely sold engines and boats and were clearly the preferred system,” Caruana says. “We received extremely positive comments from many builders, who said consumers came to them and specifically requested our joystick system.”
Viking Yachts reports a bump in both foot traffic and boat sales — 12 solid deals done for sportfishermen ranging from 42 to 70 feet.
“Traffic was higher than last year. We registered more than 5,000 people visiting the display,” says Peter Frederiksen, director of communications for Viking. “In both instances this was better than last year, no doubt due to Hurricane Sandy, but this year we saw a lot of new faces as well as people we haven’t seen in a while, which is always a very good sign.”
Frederiksen says business is booming. Viking sold 32 boats during a 2-1/2-month period this spring, he says, and has since opened a fourth production line and is interviewing prospective new employees.
Boston Whaler declined to offer specific sales figures, but Jeff Vaughn, vice president of sales, marketing and customer service, says the company surpassed good 2012 results.
“Actual cash deposits were significantly higher than in years past,” Vaughn says. “The new product that was released was very well received, especially the 350 Outrage and 345 Conquest. This sets a wonderful atmosphere for our dealers and employees, moving into 2014.”
Leads paying off
Chris Wainscott, regional sales rep for Regulator Marine, says the builder sold a Regulator 25 that was introduced at the show and a new 28 and collected “a good number” of solid leads.
“We had several sales on site and lots of activity in the days following the show, with many more to come,” Wainscott says.
British builder Fairline Boats also reports a successful Lauderdale.
“We’ve enjoyed strong sales at the show, further reinforcing the evidence of recovery we’ve seen in the U.S. market,” Oliver Winbolt, head of marketing, said in a statement.
Fairline displayed its flagship Squadron 78 Custom; the Squadron 65, 50 and 42; the Targa 62 Gran Turismo, which was launched at last year’s show; and the Targa 38 Open. Fairline also showcased a piece of its history with the iconic Fairline 19 (the company’s first model, launched in 1967) as part of its celebration of 45 years of boatbuilding.
Blane Aarup, CEO of Germany’s Bavaria Motorboats North America, says he expects to come away with at least two sales of the Virtess 420 Fly, the 2013 European “powerboat of the year,” which made its U.S. debut at the show. Bavaria also collected a number of promising leads at the show, and even added to its dealer network.
“I’ve been coming to FLIBS for a quarter of a century and this acceptance — with over 100 client leads, a dealer on the East Coast and a dealer on the West Coast, with three others pending … was virtually overwhelming,” Aarup says.
Chinese builder Cheoy Lee used the show to introduce its new 87 Alpha Sportbridge Express Yacht, as well as an opportunity to present a “more open and transparent” face to the public, says Gene Weeks, express project manager at Cheoy Lee Shipyards NA.
Gone was the pre-qualification requirement to board a $5 million yacht, replaced by open-door guided tours of the four yachts on display and a big invitation-only bash on the docks.
“That was a strategic move on our part, and we think that was huge,” Weeks says of the open-door policy. “We’re bringing in new clientele with our express line, and these days you can’t tell what a potential buyer looks like.”
Weeks says the contrast between the 2013 and 2012 Lauderdale shows was like night and day for Cheoy Lee.
“We did quite well and have a tremendous amount of momentum coming out of the show that we haven’t seen in years,” he says. “We were writing deals this year, whereas we didn’t even have traffic last year. I have no doubt that we’ll come out of the show with four or five solid sales.”
Closer to home, Regal Marine president Duane Kuck says Regal’s 2014 models were well received “and sales were the best in five years.”
Beyond the busy docks, the accessories tents and convention center were active.
“Overall we were very pleased with FLIBS,” says Jim Hands, director of global marketing for Raymarine. “Consumer traffic in the marine electronics pavilion was quite good and we were very pleased with amount of consumers visiting our booth specifically to inquire and learn about our new products, especially our CHIRP DownVision, Evolution autopilots, and our new gS Series Glass Bridge displays. Maybe it was the great weather but consumers were definitely in an upbeat buying mood, and we’re hopeful this translates into more new boat sales.”
Dean Silver, a southeast regional manager for Furuno says the electronics manufacturer had its best Lauderdale show in years.
“This was my 29th Fort Lauderdale show and … after the three years of economic downturn followed by two years of floods and winds, FLIBS 2013 was certainly a rousing success,” Silver says. “Friday though was by far the best day with an excellent buying crowd that I have not witnessed in quite a few years.”
SureShade, the relatively new retractable sun shade accessory manufacturer, continued its steady growth at the show. Twenty-three boat lines sported SureShade products.
“We expect a big uptick in shade orders from builders and dealers as a result of boat sales generated at Lauderdale — especially with many of the new boat models debuting at the show,” co-owner Dana Russikoff says. “As a result of the show we have secured orders and confirmed design projects with several more builders — some of which we were expecting and several that were not even in the pipeline.”
Zimbalist says that for the most part the feedback he has received from exhibitors is right in line with that.
“I really do think we have turned the corner,” he says in a big-picture assessment of the industry. “Every boat category is not up, but the encouraging thing for me is to see the cruiser market coming back. It’s still down, but no longer bouncing along the bottom. It seems to finally be getting better.”
Zimbalist notes that the brokerage market remains strong and that the superyacht market still is robust at the high end.
“Consumer confidence plays a big part in the smaller boat segment, and consumer confidence is improving,” he says. “I think we’re seeing more people say, ‘I’m not getting any younger, and I think the economy is gradually getting better.’ They don’t want to put off that boat purchase any longer.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.