Selling boats in a blizzard

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Attendance at the Progressive New England Boat Show fell drastically because of frigid February weather and several feet of snow, but many exhibitors say the people who did show up were buying boats.

Although the Feb. 14-22 show “was impacted by record snowstorms and blizzard conditions during move-in and the first weekend of the nine-day event, the second weekend drew large crowds,” says National Marine Manufacturers Association spokeswoman Sarah Salvatori. It helped make up for a deficit that resulted when organizers closed the show on Feb. 15, the opening Sunday.

Still, the final tally was 35,937, a 24 percent decrease from 2014. That was actually better than show manager Joe O’Neal had anticipated on Feb. 20, when he projected that overall attendance would be down about 30 percent.

“It’s hard to bounce back from closing the show on one of the highest-traffic days,” he says.

Michael Myers of Boston Yacht Sales agrees the weather was “a drag.” “But I think there’s been good activity,” he says, adding that the new Sabre and Back Cove products were helping to energize crowds. “The mood is much more optimistic this year.”

Some also believe the attendance drop also was attributable, in part, to the show’s running concurrently with the Massachusetts winter break week, when many go out of state on family trips to a ski resort or warm-weather beach. The 2014 show was better because it did not coincide with vacation week, Myers says, adding that “a lot of my customers are away this week.”

“The traffic is just OK, but the quality of attendee is good,” John Hendricks, sales director for Hunt Yachts, said on the evening of Feb. 20. “I’d rather have high-quality traffic than a big non-buying crowd.”

Hendricks spoke as he looked on at a christening party for Maggie Mae, a 43-foot Hinckley that went viral nationally when it became stuck in snow, blocking traffic in downtown Boston, as it was being trailered to the show. Owner Robert Vincent, who was having the Hinckley delivered to him in Rhode Island after the show, held the well-attended christening party in the Hinckley booth.

Mike Bassett, who co-owns Louis Marine Ltd. with his brother Tim, says people were buying at their booth, where they had their largest Jeanneau show display to date — 11 boats. Interest was especially high in new models, such as the 6.5 Cap Camerat and the Merry Fisher 695 Marlin, as well as the Merry Fisher 755 and 855.

“First we were just testing the market,” says Bassett, who was one of the brand’s first U.S. dealers at Louis Marine. The dealership recently took on Rec Boat Holdings brand Four Winns after the group was acquired by Jeanneau’s parent company, the Beneteau Group. “Now we are full-on; we can’t keep them in stock.”

The new 19-foot Sea Ray SPX and the 270 Sundeck were popular at the Russo Marine booth, says owner Larry Russo. “I’m happy with the new products; they’re being well received.”

“The 270 and 290 Sundecks have done extremely well at shows,” says Rob Nye, who is based in Knoxville, Tenn., as product support director for Sea Ray. “The biggest thing people are loving about this boat is the width and the space. You have the full width of the beam throughout the boat.”

Exhibitors sensed a mood of optimism among visitors at the family-friendly show.

Exhibitors sensed a mood of optimism among visitors at the family-friendly show.

The Progressive Insurance booth offerings were stepped up for children at this year’s show, with fishing simulators attracting many young anglers. Lines moved quickly as a person manned each fishing pole to help younger children learn the ropes.

Show manager O’Neal says the word on the floor was that sales were generally up despite the attendance decline. The show was expanded again this year to the entire floor, but did not use the A Hall, which helped during a very challenging move-in, O’Neal says.

“We’ve never had a move-in that challenging,” he says. “The city stopped issuing wide-load permits. It was a mess for two and a half days.”

Russo says a few of his Sea Rays did not make it because of the permitting problem.

Because boats were arriving out of order, organizers had to “pile the boats” into the empty hall. The show used 450,000 square feet, compared with the 300,000 it occupied last year.

Hunt Yachts’ Hendricks credited management with creating a comfortable temperature in the high-ceilinged Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Outdoors the city saw single-digit temperatures and below-zero wind chills. “There’s no draft at all. It’s comfortable. It’s a well-run escape for our industry.”

Still, many dealers were disappointed that the crowds weren’t out. After the closing on Feb. 15, exhibitors expected a busy Monday — Presidents Day and the first day of Massachusetts schools’ week-long break — but that never came, Russo says.

“The parking lots fill quickly,” he says. “They’re clear, but small. There’s offsite parking, with buses to pick up attendees and take them back and forth.”

However, snow is an old story for the New England show, Russo says. It is a hurdle that dealers are accustomed to. “This is why we have a nine-day show,” Russo says. “Exhibitors complain about how long it is, but if you get snow on a weekend in a one-weekend show, you’ll be out of business.”

“Although the Saturday and Sunday attendance was not the crush we expected, sales were good,” Russo said after the event closed. “We sold 24 Whalers and 14 Sea Rays, which was about half what we sold last year. We ended the show with a 45-foot Sea Ray sale.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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