LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The International BoatBuilders' Exhibition & Conference opened with a flourish this morning as the Kentucky Derby bugle call ushered in the 20th annual event at its new location at the Kentucky Exposition Center.
More than 500 exhibitors are in Louisville to show off their latest products, systems and services. Seventy are first-time exhibitors. Dozens of seminars will be held during the conference, which runs through Thursday. As of Monday, preregistrations for the event were up 10 percent from 2009, organizers said.
Also new this year is the MAATS Aftermarket Pavilion, sponsored by Soundings Trade Only.
Although these are challenging times, the boating industry has a strong base of more than 17 million boat owners and 70 million participants, noted Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which produces the show along with Professional BoatBuilder magazine.
Speaking this morning at the annual Industry Breakfast, Dammrich said that even in a sluggish economy boating remains a $31 billion business. Although people are buying more used boats than new ones - 82 percent versus 18 percent in 2009 - that balance should start drifting back to a more traditional 72-28 split in the coming years.
New-boat sales are down 55 percent, but total boat sales are down only 16 percent from their peak in 2006, Dammrich said.
"Overall, this industry is healthy and still alive," he said. "We are resilient, the American consumer is resilient. We will bounce back again."
Dammrich said indicators such as improving consumer confidence, a slowing rate of decline in new-boat sales, an uptick in sales of RVs and light vehicles and four consecutive quarters of GDP growth bode well for boating.
"The momentum, I believe, has shifted in our direction," he said.
An inspirational and humorous keynote address was delivered this morning by Tori Murden McClure, the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
McClure, a native of Louisville who is president of nearby Spalding University, described her harrowing adventure, which included an aborted trip in 1998. She faced 70-foot waves from Hurricane Danielle that caused her to capsize a dozen times before she was rescued 900 miles from France.
A year later, with encouragement from boxing legend Muhammad Ali, she completed her journey and earned a spot in history.
People fall down, she recalled Ali telling her, but "a failure is a person who doesn't get back up again."
McClure documented her journey in the book "A Pearl in the Storm."
Presentations and awards
This morning's breakfast also included a presentation by Frank Peterson, president and CEO of the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. He discussed the findings of the group's recent boating consumer report, which is based on a survey of about 2,800 people that was done in June.
Although only two in 10 consumers considered themselves worse off than 12 months ago, 75 percent would continue cautious spending habits.
Peterson said that to grow boating, the industry should partner with other outdoor recreation groups, such as those that serve campers or hunters. Those activities, he said, often are the gateway to boat ownership.
He also suggested that the industry look closely at improving fuel efficiency and providing pricing promotions and trade-in programs to entice buyers.
The full report can be found at www.rbff.org.
The Mel Barr Award was presented to Catalina Yachts president Frank Butler by the National Marine Representatives Association. Barr established the group and served as its first president.
Recipients of this year's CSI awards were honored for their achievements. Dammrich said 44 boat and engine manufacturers were honored this year.
— Beth Rosenberg