The 68th annual Seattle Boat Show drew its typical 50,000-plus visitors and marked another clear step up in sales activity, says the regional marine trades association that owns and produces the show.
More than 1,000 boats were on display and more than 400 exhibitors participated.
The Pacific Northwest marine market fared better through the Great Recession than most of the rest of the country, partly because of demographics that lean heavily toward aluminum fishing boats.
“In 2014 there were 4,638 new boats registered in the state of Washington and 58 percent of them were aluminum,” says George Harris, president and CEO of the 700-member Northwest Marine Trade Association.
“We’re a $4.02 billion industry for Washington and create 26,000 jobs,” adds Harris, whose group has produced the Seattle show since its start in 1947.
The show was held in two venues Jan. 23-31, shortened by a day, as it was last year, in deference to the Super Bowl appearance by the region’s beloved Seahawks (that part didn’t work out as well this year). The indoor site is the Century Link Field Event Center and the in-water venue is Chandler’s Cove on South Lake Union.
“Some people think of us as a regional show, but this year we sold tickets to people in 28 states and seven Canadian provinces and had visitors from as far away as Mexico, Australia and Italy,” Harris says.
“A couple from New York attended all nine days of the show, looking for a trawler-style boat in the 50-foot range specifically to cruise the Inside Passage,” Harris says. They attended some of the 230 seminars that were held in seven rooms throughout the show.
“They want to be cruisers and wanted to learn everything they can,” Harris says. In the end they did buy a boat, but Harris declined to give specifics.
“I think in Washington we have a unique type of boating here,” he adds. “It doesn’t get too hot or too cold, so we can boat year-round — and we don’t get hurricanes. It makes for a really pleasant place to boat.”
New-boat sales have made solid gains during the past three years, Harris says. Sales in the state have been up each year since 2012, and in 2014 they rose 24 percent.
“It was a record-breaker for us,” says Kelly Hawley, owner of Tom-n-Jerry’s Boat Center in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Tom-n-Jerry’s carries the region’s most popular line, Hewescraft, Canadian-built KingFisher and the G3 Boats line to maintain a fiberglass presence.
“We were up 30 percent in sales at this year’s show, compared to last year, and last year was a record-breaker,” Hawley says.
The dealer displayed 11 boats across its line, the largest a 33-footer.
“We bought this dealership in January 2008 and we haven’t had a down year yet, Hawley says. “We have gone up every year. Even back in 2008-09 when the economy was not good, we did all right. We’re not in the luxury market. Fishermen are going to go fishing because that’s their recreation.”
He foresees a repeat of 2014 this year, with growth of about 20 percent in unit sales.
“From customers we just heard positive stuff. It’s not the doom and gloom from the past,” he says.
“It was as good a boat show as we’ve ever had in Seattle,” says Jeff Messmer, vice president of marketing and sales for Ranger Tugs and Cutwater Boats. “The 2015 Seattle Boat Show results were very similar to the 2014 show in both units and dollars, and 2014 was a record show for us.”
Messmer declined to provide specifics, but says he detected a clear change in potential buyers.
“I will say that the deals that we wrote at this year’s show were to more educated buyers — those who came prepared to make a purchase,” he says. “We typically have some attrition [of signed contracts] after the show. We don’t see that happening this year. The deals are very solid.”
Brian Krantz, owner of Inside Passage Yacht Sales, which he launched two years ago, says his sales were twice what he had anticipated. He wrote four contracts at the show and got another six good leads that he anticipates closing in the near future.
“I try to use shows to take the pulse of the people, and I’m finding they are at a place where they are ready to make a decision,” he says. “People came interested in buying a boat. Everybody has been putting things off, but they came here ready to roll.”
Inside Passage Yacht Sales carries the Finnish-built Sargo (formerly Minor Offshore), Parker and EdgeWater lines.
“Sargo is rocking the Northwest market right now,” he says. “I partner with good manufacturers, so when they do well, I do well.”
Krantz also was a presenter at the Seattle show seminars. He says the number of visitors at his seminars — on finding the right boat and the process of buying a boat — more than tripled from last year, drawing more than 100 people to the former and 250 people to the latter.
“People devoured the data,” he says.
Mike Bell, the owner of watersports gear and accessories dealer Adrenaline Watersports, says his show numbers were their best in 15 years, “up 35 percent over their best year, which was in 2007, before the downturn.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.