Exhibitors at the Norwalk (Conn.) Boat Show acknowledge that the show’s footprint is smaller than in prerecession years, but its location — on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, a short trip from metropolitan New York — makes it an appealing showcase.
Adding to exhibitor optimism was the best summer in recent memory, which was capped by the show’s return Sept. 24-27 to Norwalk Cove Marina amid four solid days of warm blue-sky weather. Exhibitors say a near-perfect summer in the region, combined with lower fuel prices and a continuing economic recovery, have produced a solid 2015 and optimism moving forward.
“The year has been good. From July 1 to today we didn’t have a bad weekend,” says Bob Petzold, president of Petzold Marine Center in Portland, Conn., which sells Sabre, Back Cove, Ocean, Regal and EdgeWater boats. “With fuel prices down, everyone I spoke with used their boat more often, and we’re already benefiting with increased sales.”
Petzold’s thinking about 2015 is that with more boat owners out on the water, they brought more non-boating friends and family aboard and introduced them to the lifestyle. “We have had several new people get into boating this year, which is encouraging,” he says, noting sales of an EdgeWater 245CX and a Back Cove 37 to first-time boaters this year.
Echoing several vendors at the show, Petzold says sales were consistent for most of the year. “We have never slowed down, even in August. This is the first time ever we’ve seen no hiccups,” says Petzold, whose family founded the business 70 years ago.
Although dock traffic was modest throughout the show and producers tallied 14,098 paying visitors, exhibitors say those who attended were serious shoppers. “Most of our customers come focused, and they’ve done their homework,” says Paul Cusson, president of Atlantic Outboard in Westbrook, Conn., which carries the Pursuit and Robalo lines.
Among its half-dozen boats on display, the dealer showcased the new Robalo R-160 center console, one of several entry-level boats at the Norwalk show. Listed at $22,433 with a 70-hp Yamaha, the boat has attracted several entry-level boaters to the dealership.
“We had our first on the floor the first week of August, and within four days it was sold,” Cusson says. “We’re excited for this show and for the Hartford show this winter.”
Peter Knutson Jr., a dealer at MarineMax Long Island in Lindenhurst, N.Y., which carries the Azimut, Boston Whaler, Sailfish and Sea Ray lines, says 2015 was the “best summer we’ve had in five or six years, both in buying and using boats.”
From his perspective on Long Island’s South Shore, the increased demand for boats bigger than 50 feet “has been very noticeable this year.”
Noting a steady decline in fuel prices, stability in the stock market and decreasing unemployment, Knutson says his customers “don’t seem as scared about their finances as they were.”
Bob Chace left the banking industry about a year ago to sell boats for Cape Yachts, a Beneteau and Sanlorenzo dealer in South Dartmouth, Mass. He says he was named Top Gun among all Beneteau salespeople in the United States, with more than $6 million in sales.
“The Norwalk show went really well,” he says. “I spoke to a lot of people from the New York and Greenwich [Conn.] areas, and although I didn’t write any contracts there, I’m close to writing two,” he says. “They came to the show as active buyers.”
One anecdotal observation Chace made that bodes well for the economic recovery: “I’m talking to a lot more guys in the commercial construction business since last year,” he says. “And when I look around I notice that there is a lot of commercial building going on. It just shows me there are people out there ready to buy boats.”
On the lower end of the cost spectrum, Jim Cascadden, regional sales manager for Baja Marine, was at the show supporting local dealer Long Island Boat Center. This year, the builder’s Pro-Line brand introduced a value version of its 20 Sport, stripping away some of the bells and whistles and knocking its $38,000 price down to less than $29,000.
“Our 20 Sport ‘ad special’ was an obvious hit — big boat, low price,” Cascadden says. “And our dealer said over the weekend the crowds kicked in, boats were sold and strong leads generated — many from previous Pro-Line owners.”
Ken Hilton of Standish Boat Yard in Tiverton, R.I., carries the NorthCoast line built by C&C Marine in Bristol, R.I. He says he picked up several strong leads at the Newport boat show the week before, then ran the new NorthCoast 27 Hardtop pilothouse boat to Norwalk.
Hilton says the boat, priced at $178,000 with twin Suzuki 250 outboards, was introduced this year at the New England Boat Show in Boston and is a “home run” design as a fish boat/pocket cruiser built on a great hull.
“I ran from Newport at 21 to 24 knots in 4- to 5-foot swells and didn’t dig the bow in once. It was a good, comfortable cruise,” he says. “I burned only 14.5 gallons per hour over the 4-1/2-hour run, so I know the boat will appeal to a lot of seasoned boaters out there.”
The Norwalk Boat Show will return Sept. 22-25, 2016.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.