Fence-sitters prevail at Lauderdale

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With a few exceptions, business was slow, but turnout beat expectations

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Attendance was down and floor traffic light in some areas, but many exhibitors at this year’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show were hopeful of a market rebound.

A few exhibitors — from Zodiac of North America to marine display and night vision camera manufacturer VEI — reported stellar sales. And while many others saw a decrease in sales, they said the leads and interest generated at the show indicate a measure of pent-up demand in the marketplace.

The 49th annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, held Oct. 30 through Nov. 3, featured more than $3 billion worth of boats, yachts, superyachts, electronics, engines and accessories. The show encompasses more than 3 million square feet of space on land and in the water at six locations.

Helped by mild, dry weather, foot traffic on the docks was steady from the start. On opening day, Jennifer McCauley Stern, director of marketing for Nordhavn Yachts, frequently had a line of people waiting to board one of several trawlers the company had on display. She says she expected to distribute nearly 500 brochures and other pieces of sales literature.

High-end sportfishermen, express cruisers, passagemakers and luxury yachts also drew consistent interest. Along the face dock at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, megayacht row had its typical stream of curious browsers. Foreign tongues and accents could be heard consistently.

The Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, where the smaller sportfishing boats, center consoles, cuddy cabins and runabouts are housed, was noticeably slow Friday afternoon. While dealer staff handled questions from potential customers on the main floor, the third-floor collection of booths, where vendors sell everything from painted seashells to boat lifts, was quiet. Some vendors sat and read or talked on cell phones.

Better than expected
Attendance figures were not available at press time, but producers expect the numbers to be down by a single-digit percentage. That’s better than the double-digit decline the show was expecting, says Efrem (Skip) Zimbalist III, chairman and CEO of Active Interest Media, parent company of the show’s producer, Show Management Inc.

“That’s a victory in today’s economy,” he says.

Zimbalist says even though attendance was down, the show attracted quality buyers. And despite the economy, people still love boating, he
emphasizes.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand,” he says. “They’re just waiting to feel confident again.”
Nick Bischoff, vice president of sales and marketing for Tiara Yachts, made a similar observation.
“There was a lot of interest, but no taking it to the next level,” he says. “There were more fence-sitters than I’ve ever seen.”

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However, now that the elections are over, Bischoff expects a “soft rebound” by May or June.

Tiara was promoting its new 3900 Open, which replaces its 3800, as well as the new Volvo IPS propulsion system on its 3600 Open. Tiara executives also announced the industry’s first factory-sponsored and endorsed certified pre-owned program.

“It’s about building image and enhancing the resale value of a Tiara yacht,” says Bischoff. “We wanted a competitive advantage over our No. 1 competitor in the market — and that’s pre-owned Tiaras.”

‘Just a slowdown’
Like Bischoff, a number of exhibitors expressed “cautious optimism” for a market recovery.

“It’s just a slowdown, but I think it’s going to turn around and there’ll be a new lot of rich people,” says Merv Monger, an Australian-born sales executive at Horizon Marine Center, a Fort Lauderdale brokerage that recently picked up the Rockharbour line of Down East-style Turkish-built yachts. “The general consensus of people I talk to is that we’ll have one more slow year before it picks up.”

John Anderson, the new CEO of Australian boatbuilder Riviera Yachts, says this, too, shall pass.

“We will survive this just as we have everything else put in front of us,” he said at a press conference the evening before the show opened. “We’re going to manage our way through it rather than sell our way through it. We will position ourselves to survive.”

That’s just the attitude business leaders need to succeed in today’s market, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Dammrich was the keynote speaker at a Marine Marketers of America luncheon held during the show.

“This down market is the time companies — you and your clients — should be stealing market share and preparing to take full advantage of the recovery that I believe is coming in the next 12-18 months,” said Dammrich.

Despite the credit crunch, there were boat loans available at the show for those who were well-qualified, says James A. Coburn, vice president of Flagstar Bank and past president of the National Marine Bankers Association. “There is money out there,” he says. “Financing is available.”

Power innovations
Technological innovation, particularly in the area of propulsion, proved to be a driving force at the show.
ZF Marine unveiled a system that controls low-speed steering and power with a helm joystick, bringing pod-like maneuverability to conventional shaft-driven inboard boats.

A sea trial aboard a 63-foot Bertram by Soundings Trade Only revealed ZF’s Joystick Maneuvering System (JMS) provides precise low-speed control over the boat. Its maneuverability was on par with pod drive systems from Cummins MerCruiser Diesel and Volvo Penta. In the near future, JMS will be integrated with ZF’s SteerCommand, according to the company. This will allow an inboard vessel’s rudders to move independently, giving greater control at both low and high speeds, performing along the lines of Volvo Penta’s IPS and CMD’s Zeus.

“It will improve steering performance at cruising speeds, and with JMS it will maximize performance of the propeller thrust,” says ZF marketing manager Martin Meissner.

ZF also announced during the show that it will be offering its own pod drive for recreational boats from 30 to 48 feet. The ZF Pod is rated to 450 horsepower. The ZF POD will be paired with ZF’s SmartCommand control system and JMS.

Realizing that pod-drive technology is here to stay, inboard manufacturers Yanmar and Caterpillar introduced engines that are compatible with pods from either CMD or ZF. The 575-hp Cat C9 ACERT can now be used with the Zeus pod propulsion system.

“Pod drives are changing the direction of Cat business,” said Kelly G. Miller, Caterpillar sales manager
for North America, during a press conference.

Yanmar announced the Zeus pod drive can be linked to Yanmar diesel engines in the 400 to 575 range. Smaller engines — those up to 450 hp — will provide diesel power to smaller ZF pods such as the 2800 and 2500.

In addition, Yanmar introduced its ZT350 sterndrive, touting its smooth shifting, which is a result of a hydraulic clutch instead of a cone clutch. The ZT350 will be matched with Yanmar’s BY and LP diesel engines.

Boats big and small
For boatbuilders, bigger often proved better. Vicem, the Turkish builder of classic Down East-style express cruisers for the U.S. market, is partnering with Sanko, a $2-billion-a-year Turkish textile and manufacturing conglomerate, to build Frank Mulder-designed superyachts.

Vicem is building a 150-footer capable of 28 knots, and has a 120-footer designed for a top speed of 55 knots on the drawing boards. “We are moving into a whole new world,” says Turgut Konukoglu, Vicem’s executive director.

Among other new boats introduced: Lazzara Yachts’ LSX 92 automotive design-inspired motor yacht; Marlow Yachts’ 72E, 70E and 53C long-range passagemakers; Jupiter Marine’s first express boat, a 39-footer; Everglades’ first two express boats — the 320EX and 350EX; Regulator Marine’s 34-foot SS (Starboard Seating Center Console); and Italian boatbuilder Sessa Marine’s new C 46 Open Hard Top (named for its retractable hardtop).

For some exhibitors, smaller was better.

Zodiac of North America reported sales 2.4 times higher than last year’s total, and the highest since 2003.

“The trend of sales growth in our RIB product line continues,” says Howard French, vice president of Zodiac of North America.

He says the fuel economy of RIBs compared to traditional center consoles is drawing more attention to Zodiac as a primary boat. Sales volume in Fort Lauderdale centered on the 11- to 15.5-foot Yachtline Deluxe RIBs, though sales among Jet boats, and Cadet inflatable lines were also brisk, the company says. Zodiac redesigned its floor plan this year, presenting more fuel efficient RIBs than in the past, and launched a new microsite, SaveFuelKeepBoating.com.

“We’re also encouraged by reports that the 80-foot-and-larger boat market is still holding its own, and that relates to us as our mid-sized tenders are essential support vessels for these types of boats,” says French.

“We remain cautiously optimistic for the year,” he says.

Electric outboards
The strong market for yacht tenders also drew a lot of attention to the closet-sized booth occupied by Torqeedo, a Crystal Lake, Ill.-based electric outboard manufacturer that was new to the Fort Lauderdale show.

“We were pleasantly surprised to see the amount of interest in our kayak motor,” says Steve Trkla, president and general manager. “We didn’t expect this kind of response … because it’s a big boat show.”

However, he says many people were interested in using the motorized kayak as a tender for their larger boat. He passed out more than 600 brochures to prospective customers at the show.

Another small boatbuilder, EPower Marine, introduced its panga-style boat rigged with electric motor, the Calypso 23e, that consistently drew the curious to a small section of electric boats on display in the convention center.

Hell’s Bay Boatworks owner and president Chris Peterson says he was cautiously optimistic. “For our first-ever Fort Lauderdale show we were quite pleased,” he says.

Hell’s Bay has eight models of shallow-water skiffs in the 14- to 18-foot range and sells them factory direct instead of through a dealer network.

The company had its flagships on display, including the new 18-foot Boca Grande skiff, the Professional 17.8 and a Marquesa. The boatbuilder typically does not take orders at boat shows, but Peterson says, “My sense is I had more qualified leads and more people ready to buy our boats than [at] last year’s show.”

Fishboat maker Pro-Line Boats, of Crystal River, Fla., came to the show with a double-barreled plan to increase its market share among conservationists, divers and entry-level buyers. It showed its new line of Pro-Lite 17-, 20- and 22- foot center consoles and 18-, 20- and 22-foot flats boats with floorboards, bulkheads and transoms built of Coosa composites.

The lighter weight of the boats yields better fuel economy, and they can be powered by smaller engines than the standard Pro-Lines and towed by a minivan. Tricked out with just the basics, the line is “very aggressively priced,” says company general manager John E. Walker.

Pro-Line also introduced its new specialty line of 26 Super Sports and 32 express boats with hull graphics by marine life artist Wyland (who only goes by the one name). Wyland, an avid diver, expects to start helping customize the line for divers. Part of the proceeds from sales go to the Wyland Foundation, which promotes environmental education.

Seeing clearly
VEI launched its OceanView Apollo II night vision camera at the show, and says it had taken lots of orders for the product.

“Adding digital zoom and an LCD camera controller with no additional cost has proven to be a great move,” says Mike Bader, OceanView’s CEO. “We have added significant value to the already tremendously successful Apollo, and judging from the reception we have had at FLIBS, I am confident the Apollo II is going to be a world beater.”

The Apollo II incorporates a thermal imager with its new 2x digital zoom and an ultra-low-light camera in the same 360 pan and tilt housing. The camera also has an on-screen camera position locater and a home button. The Apollo II enables the user to see clearly not only in total darkness, but also in a variety of poor lighting conditions, including heavy rain, bright sun and some fog.

Globalization was much on the mind of Bertram CEO Giovanni Vacchi. Bertram’s new $2 million “54” is both a tough fishing machine and a luxury cruiser, says Vacchi. It rides on the traditional Bertram deep-vee hull and stores 25 rods, but the yacht also is finely finished inside in white-oak paneling and sports a big, open and airy wraparound windshield, power-actuated aft windows, an aft galley for entertaining, anti-rolling gyros, and comfortable staterooms.

“This enriches the possibilities for using the boat,” Vacchi says. “Our strongest commitment is to the American market [where Bertram is a fishboat], but you need to have a global approach. When the domestic market is soft, you have to build for the world.”

Foreign presence
Foreign companies were looking beyond the recession to a rebounding American market. Fifteen Italian companies were represented at the International Yacht Builders’ Pavilion and at Club Italia, a guest lounge on the superyacht docks.

“This year we decided to be here in force,” says Carlo Ferrari, the Italian trade commissioner in Miami. “Everything is low now. Everybody is waiting to see what happens, but this has happened many times before. As long as people eat and work and sleep, there will be a market for boats.”

Plus, he says 60 million U.S. boaters are hard to ignore. “How can we dismiss a $38 billion market?” he asks.

The Arab countries remain a lucrative market for U.S. boat manufacturers, accessories makers and marina and boatyard builders, says Farrokh Golchin, who was trolling the show for companies interested in doing business in Dubai.

“The boating market is in its infancy there, but growing rapidly,” says the general manager of Dubai-based Knotika Holding, which organizes boat shows in Dubai and does consulting work.
He says the boating industry in Dubai remains “very buoyant” despite the world economic slowdown.

Trade Only staff members Jim Flannery, Chris Landry, Rich Armstrong and Bill Sisson also contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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