Organizers and exhibitors at the 40th annual U.S. Sailboat Show at City Dock in Annapolis, Md., offered some hope the industry may have started turning the corner toward recovery.
"Last year, after the crash in September, there were a lot of people at this show who were saying, 'I'm going to wait and see before I buy,' " says Greg Emerson, market development manager for Hunter Marine. "I haven't heard that at this show. We are selling boats. I am very pleased. The sailing gods are smiling at us."
In fact, the sailing gods smiled for five straight days, as attendees and vendors enjoyed great weather during the Oct. 8-12 show. Attendance, estimated at 50,000, was higher than last year's, which was the third-best in show history, according to organizers. It was the overall mood of show-goers, however, that excited exhibitors.
"We were expecting lots of lookers and not buyers, but it was the opposite," says Tom Wagner of Passport Yachts.
"We were selling engines and services right at the show, which is unusual," says Stanley Feigenbaum of Beta Marine. "We typically pass out a lot of information at the show, then make our sales in the weeks and months following."
Island Packet Yachts and Catalina Yachts both reported several sales. Jeanneau says it had upward of 10 confirmed sales of boats from 36 to 57 feet, which Jeanneau America president Paul Fenn says was among the best starts the company has ever had for a new model year in North America.
Wayne Burdick, president of Beneteau USA, also noted the change in consumers' mood. "It appears the doom and gloom is over," he says, noting a dozen retail contracts "across the board" on boats from 31 to 49 feet. (The actual number of those that become sales will depend on the customers obtaining financing.) The company is also in negotiations with two potential buyers for the new Oceanis 58, introduced in September at the Cannes Boat Show.
"The tide is rising, the current is changing, and we're starting to get some wind in our sails," Burdick says.
Others were more tempered in their assessments. Marnie Read, marketing director for Morris Yachts, which displayed its high-end Morris 52 and M42, says the boating market has improved, but isn't entirely back up to speed. "I noticed some holes in terms of builders not being here and that's a plus for us," says Read. "But I think there is still a lot of money out there on the sidelines."
Hunter Marine, which showed its new Hunter 50cc and Hunter 39 in Annapolis, reported more than 20 sales at the show. "While these results are nowhere near the totals of years gone by, they are encouraging results that customers are returning to the marketplace and purchasing new boats," says John Peterson, Hunter vice president of sales and marketing.
It was a different story at City Dock the following weekend for the U.S. Powerboat Show, when four days of cold, wet, windy weather resulted in sales and attendance figures far below those normally associated with the in-water show.
"Well over 15,000 people attended during the four days," says Ed Hartman, president of United States Yacht Shows, which organizes the power and sail events. "Those folks did not come to get a suntan. They braved the weather and came to the show with a mission - to pursue the purchase of a boat or boat-related equipment."
Organizers reported more than 600 exhibitors at the Oct. 15-18 show. Foot traffic was light all four days.
"Aside from our wet shoes we had a wonderful boat show," says Jim Maier of Stevensville, Md.-based BOE Marine. "The turnout of serious buyers was great, and we were able to secure a number of marine electronics installations to carry us through the winter. Judging by the activity we saw and conversations we had, we're looking forward to a great 2010."
The 2008 show was held in perfect weather, but only weeks after the stock market crashed and with fuel prices very high. Many retailers felt that even though the crowds were small for this year's show, the outlook for the rest of 2009 and into 2010 is brighter.
John Martini, head of Martini Yacht Sales, the area Tiara and Marquis dealer, reported a signed contract on a new 50-foot Marquis and potential buyers for a Tiara 4300 Sovran and Tiara 3900 Open. Both prospects planned to sea-trial the boats, Martini says, and both have Sea Rays to trade in.
"What we're seeing is that those looking to buy are longtime boat owners dedicated to the lifestyle, rather than non-boaters looking to get into boating," he says. "We had some really qualified buyers and strong leads."
With 10 sailboats contracted for at the sail show, Fenn came away from the power show with no contracts for Jeanneau's Prestige line of powerboats. Still, there were "a lot of good leads," he says, and the overall mood was good, despite the weather.
"The level of consumer confidence is better [than last year]," Fenn says, "no question about it."
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.