Arguably, the markets hit most severely by the economic collapse of 2008 could be found in the Rust Belt capitols of Cleveland and Detroit. So when we can see clear signs those markets are recovering, it sends good vibes everywhere as we move into the heart of our winter boat show season.
The Detroit Boat Show has doubled in size in just two years. It’s a great comeback. This year, show manager Nicki Polan added another complete hall and it's sold out. Detroit is one of the longest-running shows (nine days) in the industry, set to run Feb. 15-23.
Meanwhile, I spent the last four days at the Progressive Mid-America Boat Show in Cleveland, a show and a market I know well. Attendance was running virtually the same as last year through Sunday. But what really seemed improved is that dealers are indicating a genuine enthusiasm for the sales they feel the show will be delivering.
"We sold boats up to 36 feet on opening day," said Trey Hardy of MarineMax in Port Clinton, Ohio. "That hasn't happened in awhile. These people are much more serious this year. I really think we're going to do very well with our follow-up."
Rocky Piacentino of Catawba Moorings in Port Clinton reflected that feeling, too. "We closed the first new Key West 239 sold in the Great Lakes on opening day,” Piacentino said. “Frankly, I'm also convinced we'll close two Regulators after the show. Things are definitely more positive this year."
Pontoons were a big attraction in Cleveland this year. "These aren't your grandfather's pontoons anymore," said Eric Koren of Atwood Lake Boats. "For example, our Aqua Patio 240CB (center bar) has had more picture taken of it than Brad Pitt. It's sold and we've closed on several other high-end models with people who want to use them around the Lake Erie Islands area. We haven't seen that before."
"Surprisingly, our outboard models have been getting a lot of attention" said Kevin Rodenhauser of Boater's Point in Port Clinton. "The people we're talking to seem pretty focused on price and value and they're more interested in our dayboats than in cruisers."
Tom Mack of South Shore Marine in Huron, Ohio, offered another view: "With our boat lines (Regal, Pursuit, Grady-White) we don't come in expecting a lot of closings during a short show. Those days are gone. What we do want is to go out of here with highly qualified prospects we can work with following the show. The show stokes are future and, so far, we have an excellent list of prospects that are really engaged in buying. We see a definite improvement this year."
During the last two years, both the Cleveland and Detroit shows have been reinventing themselves by expanding interactive features and attractions and characterizing the shows as big mid-winter family boating events boasting everything from cooking classes to kid's pirate shows. Both shows are growing again and when that happens in the heartland, we should expect it to happen everywhere.