Signs of a thaw at Lauderdale

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With fears of a double dip easing, consumers appear to be emerging from their long hibernation

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It's been years since organizers and exhibitors have come out of a boat show using phrases such as "pleasantly surprised," "upbeat and positive" and "plenty of enthusiasm," but this year's Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show seemed to surpass the expectations of many.

"I was pleasantly surprised on all fronts," says Efrem "Skip" Zimbalist III, president and CEO of show producer Show Management. "[Exhibitors] all were saying [it was the] best show in three years; a couple said [it was the] best in five years."

Exhibitors shared that sentiment. Many were thrilled with the number of boats sold and leads collected at the world's largest in-water boat show. But what also universally pleased them was the mood of the consumers, who seemed to be back in buying mode and ready to move forward with new-boat purchases they had been putting off for the last few years.

"I think there is a lot of pent-up demand and there's a feeling on the part of boat buyers that it's not two years from now, three years from now; they're getting ready to pull the trigger now," Zimbalist says. "They kind of reset their own finances ... and they're getting ready. You're seeing a lot of very serious lookers and a lot of buyers and people who had the money probably all along, but were uncertain about how deep the recession was going to be and if it was going to double-dip.

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"They've probably got confidence that we hit the bottom, and even if it's slowly, we're edging up, and so they're ready to pull the trigger and buy," he says.

Attendance rises

Attendance was up about 5 to 6 percent from 2009, Zimbalist says. (Show Management does not release specific figures.)

"Attendance was up strongly the first three days - Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Saturday itself was up about 23 percent; Thursday and Friday were up less," he says. "Sunday was down quite a bit because of the rain and Monday was down a little bit. But overall we ended up 5 to 6 percent on attendance."

For the first time, the show sent invitations to every registered owner of a boat 35 feet or larger in the nation, which may have helped drive the increase.

"[Attendees] were definitely in a more positive mood about shopping for new models and new boats," says David Hensel, brand and marketing director for Grand Banks Yachts. "They were lining up - literally - to get on board our boats. Last year on Thursday when the gates opened, people started to trickle down the docks and it was slow.

"This Thursday [before the show officially opened] someone was at our booth asking to get on board the 53, and every time I went on the boat it was packed with people," he says.

Grand Banks sold one boat at the show and came away with deals in the works and strong leads, Hensel says.

Zimbalist says he heard those kinds of reports from many of the show's 1,087 exhibitors.

"We thought we had a shot from the exhibitor side of things to be flat with last year and we ended up, I think, up 5 percent in numbers and in dollars from last year, which was terrific," he says.

"Overall, the mood was far better than it had been for many years and our hot lead list is extensive," says Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing for Sabre and Black Cove Yachts. "Every model, from the Black Cove 30 to the Sabre 52 salon express, created plenty of good leads."

Many consumers still expected large discounts, he says, "but in both our ranges of boats, inventories are low and our deliveries are now well into next year."

Jacobs is back

Irwin Jacobs, chairman of J&D Acquisitions, was back this year with the Marquis, Carver, Seaswirl and Larson lines. These former Genmar brands did not participate in the 2009 show because Genmar was in bankruptcy proceedings.

Jacobs says all of his brands had sales at the show. Many left with deals pending because some consumers were waiting for Election Day to make final decisions. He estimated that deals will close soon on nine to 10 Marquis, five to six Carvers, four to five Larsons and some Seaswirls.

"There's no question in my mind that we've not only seen the bottom, but we're seeing activity again," he says. "People have been waiting a long time. Not only the people who couldn't afford boats, but the people who had money were waiting. For the first time in three years, we saw lots of activity."

Everglades, which was in the convention center, retailed about $2 million in boats at the show, the company says.

"We sold a lot of big boats, but we also sold boats across the line," says Bryan Harris, vice president of sales and marketing. "We sold 23s, 24s, 27s, 32s and 35s, so it was pretty well rounded for us across the board."

Viking Yachts, too, saw interest across the board on the 10 boats it exhibited at the show.

"We sold a number of boats and what we found interesting was that from the 82 on down to the 42, we sold boats - right across our product line," says Viking director of communications Peter Frederiksen.

He says the company sold about a dozen boats.

"We went into [the show] with guarded optimism, but we came out quite pleased with the results."

Many say the show made them feel more positive about 2011 - certainly more optimistic than a year ago at this time.

"[Things] are definitely better than the fall of 2009," Regulator Marine president Joan Maxwell says. "With new-boat inventories down and distressed inventory declining and the election behind us, I think the industry can look for slight positive growth in 2011."

Maxwell says her company had a good show and wrote contracts on several boats. "I do think we've hit the bottom and that a few buyers are venturing back out. They are still looking for a 'deal,' but the good news is they are looking."

Optimism for 2011

Frank Marciano, president of Dometic Marine, says he left the show feeling optimistic about the coming year.

"Generally, this year's Fort Lauderdale has been very upbeat and positive, more so than the previous two years, which seems to suggest the market is stabilizing," he says.

Everglades' Harris says the results from the show made him feel confident heading into 2011.

"I think that people were waiting for the election to see what was going to happen, and so hopefully now that that's over and with Fort Lauderdale being a success, I think that will help our industry move forward," he says.

Collins, of Sabre and Black Cove Yachts, says one problem that still concerns him is the many consumers who want to move down from a 60- to 70-footer to a 35- to 40-footer, but are having trouble selling their existing boats.

"That market is not moving very quickly, so we have plenty of potential buyers who we will simply have to wait for," he says.

Looking ahead to next year's Fort Lauderdale show, Zimbalist, too, has a better feeling about 2011.

"Based on everything I know now, I [will] plan up a little bit, not dramatic, not huge, but up a little bit," he says. "I think people are encouraged by what happened this year, so I think the existing exhibitors will at least maintain the space they have and many of them will increase a little bit."

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.

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