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FLIBS proved it’s time to start dreaming again

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I met a guy on the bus running between venues at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show who wants to become part of the industry. Tim Wilhelm, 47, is a Florida boat nut with a good job that pays the bills, but the day job doesn’t speak to his passion.

He’s been tinkering for a while with a new product he’s bringing to market: an on-board rack to hold your skis and wakeboards that fits into a gunwale-mounted rod holder. His fledging company is called Rack It (rack yourboards.com). Wilhelm was in Fort Lauderdale attending the show and doing some reconnaissance work. Based on conversations with boaters he met there, he plans on developing “forks” for the rack, which will allow it to carry paddleboards, too. Smart.

We exchanged cards and shook hands as the bus pulled to a stop. I hope to see him in a year or two, standing behind his own booth, proudly extolling the virtues of his product. He’s part of our future.

Walking the docks at FLIBS, I also struck up a conversation with boatbuilder Ross Hartman, who owns Danalevi Powerboats of Belchertown, Mass. (www.danalevi.com). It turns out Fort Lauderdale was Hartman’s first major show and the culmination of a nearly decade-long dream. He introduced a 22-foot performance boat named Furina in Florida, with styling that’s a mix of retro, automotive and European design elements. Hartman says his goal was to create “something different.” He accomplished that — and more. Hartman took a dream deferred by the Great Recession and finally turned it into reality. I wish him well.

My wanderings also took me by Dragonfly Boatworks, the Vero Beach, Fla., builder of small, innovative fishing skiffs and paddleboards that look like little sculptures. Company manager Mark Castlow showed me his latest creation — a custom version of the company’s 16-foot Emerger Tiller fishing skiff with a bow section that folds back onto the deck. Cool beans.

The customer wanted a tender/fishing boat that could be stored on the transom of the Rybovich walkaround he’s having built. And he wanted it to have a removable lift system. Castlow built the boat with the folding bow, and T.J. Kiefer of TNT Custom Boat Works in Fort Pierce, Fla., created the lift system — a collaboration that produced an elegant solution.

In small ways, these encounters signal larger changes taking place inside our industry. Innovation is clearly alive and well, but more than that, there is a growing sense of confidence among both consumers and the trade — not overconfidence, by any means, but a sense that things are finally starting to improve in a broader way.

That was clearly in evidence at FLIBS, where attendance was up 28 percent this year over 2012, when Hurricane Sandy brushed past, and 18 percent higher than 2010. And early reports from exhibitors on sales and foot traffic also were encouraging. You can point to a combination of recession fatigue, the wealth effect, pent-up demand, improving confidence and signs of renewed growth.

Successful companies are stepping up with new products and ideas, fresh marketing strategies and more effective ways of reaching customers. The number of new boat and product introductions at Fort Lauderdale is emblematic of that shift.

If I heard it once at the show, I heard it five or six times: “The consumer has changed. Today’s customer is looking for this, or today’s customer is looking for that.”

And this change is not slowing. The core market will continue to evolve as boaters move through their 50s and 60s and transition into retirement. I’ve used this figure before because it never fails to give me pause: 10,000 or more baby boomers a day are turning 65, a current that will run at that clip for roughly another 15-plus years.

Smart companies anticipate where their market is headed and get out in front of it. How do you continually look forward? You really listen to the chatter on the docks, on the water, in your showroom, at the shows. And you pay close attention to the changing ways people use their boats and interact with family and friends. Our laboratory is made up of marinas, anchorages, boat ramps, sandbars, yacht clubs, tackle shops, waterfront bars and a host of online communities — any place the tribe gathers.

What are boaters talking about? How are they upgrading their boats? How are they using their smartphones on the water? What boating websites do they visit? What do they really want to do on the water?

As I moved through the show, talking with old acquaintances and new ones, it was nice to have the resignation of yesterday replaced by conversations on the dreams and aspirations of tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.

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