‘Green shoots’ of new life sprout at IBEX

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Talk at the show suggests industry may be in the early stages of a turnaround

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The final International BoatBuilders' Exhibition & Conference in Miami - at least for a few years - ended on a high note, with many exhibitors saying they were making sales and seeing signs of life in the industry, despite a drop in attendance at the show.

The 19th annual IBEX was held Oct. 12-14 at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Next year's show, which will include a component from the now-defunct Marine Aftermarket Accessories Trade Show, is scheduled for Sept. 28-30 in Louisville, Ky.

"It was better than expected for us," says Russell Sinacore, OEM sales director for Uflex USA, which manufactures steering systems, controls, cables and steering wheels. "People were fairly receptive and gave us a pretty good indication we're no longer in a free fall." Uflex, he says, has seen a "couple of clicks up in business" in recent months.

Many exhibitors believe the industry is starting a slow upward climb. The term "green shoots" could be heard throughout the exhibition hall, referring to signs of life emerging from the doldrums of the last 12 to 18 months.

"I felt that we had some pretty good leads," says Bill Mahoney, product manager for Molex, which was showcasing its sealed connectors. Despite the promising business, he too says traffic was "definitely slower" than previous years.

No surprise

Most exhibitors had expected fewer attendees heading into the show and weren't surprised by the turnout. Final figures weren't immediately available, but attendance for the first two days was down an estimated 18 percent, according to show co-director Stephen Evans of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which produces the show along with Professional BoatBuilder magazine. Exhibitor numbers were down as well, with a total just shy of 500 compared to more than 700 last year.

"The traffic is down considerably," says Bruce Essig, national sales manager of program distribution groups for Odyssey Batteries/EnerSys. "But the ... builders that are here are all solid prospects."

This was not unexpected, says Essig, adding that his company is in growth mode, with a $38 million expansion under way at its Missouri facility. "I think [the marine industry] will have some growth in 2010, and that's what gets people excited," he says.

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Tim McDonnell, president of Marinco Electrical Group, noted slower boatbuilder traffic on the first day, though it was about what he expected. "We've seen a slight uptick in our aftermarket business and our OEM business," he says. "I think we've reached the bottom." As for 2010, "it's only as good as the outlook our customers have," he says.

Frank Marciano, president of Dometic Marine, acknowledges OEM traffic was slow, but says there was never a question whether his company would exhibit at IBEX. "How can you not be here? You have to support the industry," he says. "This is the place to be."

Industry outlook

At the annual awards breakfast on the final day of the show, NMMA president Thom Dammrich continued relating signs that the industry was poised for a rebound in the next year or two.

Participation in boating peaked in 1997, when about 32 percent of U.S. adults reported going boating. Since the launch of the Discover Boating campaign in 2006, those numbers are on the rise and were back to 32 percent in 2008, Dammrich says. People who participate in boating are the likely boat owners of the future.

Dammrich says he expects consumer confidence to start climbing by the end of the year, and the housing market to further stabilize - both good signs for boating. "When [consumer confidence] turns positive, historically boat sales turn positive," he says.

Dammrich estimates some 135,000 new boats will be sold in 2009, and expects that number to stay relatively flat for 2010. However, he predicts 2011 sales will climb to between 150,000 and 175,000 units. And while only about 52,000 units will be built this year, the drop in inventory levels means about 135,000 units could be manufactured in 2010, Dammrich says.

He also presented anecdotal evidence that boating isn't going away, citing Discover Boating's recent ad and photo contest, which invited people to show why they love boating. About 40 entries were expected, Dammrich says, and about 400 were received. "Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that what we are really doing [is selling the boating lifestyle]," Dammrich says. "Boating is not going anywhere, that's for sure."

Seminars

As in years past, IBEX 2009 included more than 50 seminars in nine tracks ranging from design and engineering to boatyard and marina operations to composite materials and methods. "I'm hearing great things, by and large, about the seminars," says show co-director Carl Cramer, publisher of Professional BoatBuilder magazine.

New this year were three seminars specifically tailored to dealers: "Dealer Economics: How to Survive," "Stop Scaring Your Banker: What You Need to Know," and "Keep Your Dealership a Top-Notch Performer." Though the dealer sessions weren't well attended, despite high registration numbers, Cramer says dealer programming would likely continue next year, with plans to start publicizing it earlier.

A general session on the first night of the show was another new component. An estimated 250 to 300 people attended the event, which featured marketing strategists Al Ries and his daughter Laura Ries. Al Ries stressed the importance of marketing and the need to position companies as leaders, not just better than the competition.

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"The best word to own in a prospect's mind is leadership," he says. "If you want people to think you're better, tell them you're the leader, then they'll think you're better." He suggested three rules: 1) think big, 2) follow the laws of marketing, and 3) reach for the stars.

Another well-attended seminar addressed new evaporative emissions requirements and proposed changes in the amount of ethanol allowed in gasoline.

Wrap-up

The final day of the show is traditionally slow, and it gave exhibitors a chance to reflect. "We did have some solid business with some OEMs," says Mike Oathout, vice president of sales and marketing for Taylor Made Systems. "We feel like we've hit bottom." And while it will likely be difficult through the end of the year, he says business should pick up come January.

Oathout also is looking forward to the move to Kentucky next year. "I'm optimistic it will bring new customers," he says.

For Cramer, a highlight of the show was the better mood he saw in the exhibit hall. Unlike last year's show, when the stock market was bottoming out and the economic situation was in a major state of flux, IBEX 2009 came as the economy is starting to improve. In fact, on the final day of the show, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 10,000 for the first time in a year.

"The remarkable part for me is the people are smiling," says Cramer. "And people are smiling because they are conducting business."

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.

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