Mood surprisingly upbeat for the 50th anniversary show that will set the table for the months ahead
It's been a very difficult year for the marine industry, to say the least. But exhibitors and organizers of the 50th annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show are putting their most optimistic foot forward for this year's event. The show is a key indicator of sorts for the industry given its broad range of boats (from bowriders to superyachts), products and the large international audience it typically attracts.
"It's more upbeat than I expected," says Jay Reynolds, chairman of the boat show committee for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the Lauderdale show. "I think there is some optimism because so much of our industry relies on the boat show. The mood going in has to be upbeat."
Andrew Doole, junior vice president of Show Management, which produces the event for the MIASF, says he's been getting a lot of positive response from exhibitors. "Everybody's been looking forward to the show, being a bellwether for the industry," he says.
Scheduled for Oct. 29 through Nov. 2 at six locations throughout the city, the show serves as a barometer for the months ahead. More than $3 billion worth of boats, yachts, electronics and accessories will cover 3 million-plus square feet of exhibit space on land and in water at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, Hall of Fame Marina, Las Olas Marina, Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Marina, Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, and the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center.
In the 12 months since the 2008 show, the industry has seen layoffs, production cutbacks and bankruptcies in numbers unparalleled in previous downturns. However, recent reports that the recession may be nearing an end offer some hope going into this year's show.
"I think the [MIASF] members and the show committee are realistic about the projections," says Reynolds. "I don't think anyone expects a record-breaking year, but as we get closer and closer to the show the market seems to be stabilizing. As long as the market continues its slow creep up, I think [consumer] confidence is going to go up."
Boat dealers, brokerage firms and those selling aftermarket products are all offering predictions - or at least hopes - for a decent show. "We're feeling kind of upbeat," says Jim Renfro, vice president of sales for dealership Fairline Florida, of Fort Lauderdale. "We're seeing an uptick in activity recently. Hopefully some of that pent-up demand will come to fruition."
"We're all banking on it being an upswing to a mild summer," says J.J. McConnell, co-owner of Gilman Yachts and immediate past president of the MIASF. He says his brokerage business is about the same as this time last year - "not really slow, but not a barn-burner" either.
"I would expect [the show] to be similar to last year," says Jimmy Harrison, owner of Frank & Jimmy's Prop Shop in Fort Lauderdale. While last year's show was off compared to previous years, Harrison says it was better than expected. "And I think this one will be about the same," he says.
"A lot of people are looking forward to the show, with economic conditions improving all the time," says Show Management's Doole. "We're expecting a good show and a good crowd." He says exhibit space is sold out at Bahia Mar, with "tremendous response" in big boats.
Reynolds says there are exhibitors who are not returning this year and others are paring back their displays. Those spaces, however, are being filled by people who have been waiting to get into the show.
Renfro says his Fairline dealership will be showing fewer boats this year, but that has more to do with inventory levels than his expectations for the show. "We're just not inventorying the level of product we have in the past," he says. Still, he will bring the same number of sales staff this year.
There is consensus that there will be some great deals at Fort Lauderdale and other fall shows, and consumers realize that. However, exhibitors will have to put more effort into each sale. Gone are the days when salespeople could simply sit in the booth and wait for customers to line up. "You've got to fight harder for it," says McConnell, of Gilman Yachts. "I think everybody is going to have to role up their sleeves and work harder."
Frank Herhold, executive director of the MIASF, calls this the "new normal."
"Buyers always have considerations," he says. "Among the new considerations are going to be personal job security and dealing with new lending requirements. Exhibitors are going to have to recognize the new normal."
Still, Herhold joins the chorus of optimism. "We can have stock market downturns and hurricanes, and we can still have a successful show. It's kind of uncanny," he says.
While this year marks the show's golden anniversary, Doole says there will be no grand ceremony or celebration to mark the occasion. He says Show Management is focusing its resources instead on advertising the show to consumers and bringing in potential buyers. "We're doing everything we can to help exhibitors with PR as much as possible," he says.
As usual, there are some industry activities scheduled for the show, most of which are geared toward educational or professional development.
Marine Marketers of America will hold its second annual awards luncheon Oct. 29, with a keynote speaker to be announced. The luncheon will be held from noon to 2 p.m. in the Grande View room of the Bahia Mar. For information, visit www.marinemarketersofamerica.com.
Boating Writers International will present the grand prize for its annual writing contest Oct. 30 (8 to 10 a.m.) at the Bahia Mar. There will also be a panel discussion on blog and Web site creation. The panel will include three BWI members who have created revenue-generating blogs and/or Web sites. Each presenter will talk for about 10 minutes about what he or she has accomplished and then break into "separate corners" to answer specific questions.
"The speaker committee believes this program is timely, useful and will allow some of our leading e-communicators to show what they've done and how they did it," says BWI chairman Mike Sciulla.
YachtInfo, an alliance dedicated to the industry's professional development, debuts Oct. 30 in the Bahia Mar Ballroom. Developed by the International Superyacht Society, MIASF and U.S. Superyacht Association, the program offers curriculum for entry-level crewmembers through seasoned professionals. The daytime program builds upon the existing ISS crew training seminar program. A captains briefing and cocktail party will follow the educational program.
Tickets for the seminars are $25; complete tickets, which include the seminars, captains briefing and cocktail party, are $35.
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.