Seen in Miami: confidence from builders and buyers alike

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If the wealth effect was not in full throat in Miami, it certainly was on the rise and spreading, from the Yacht & Brokerage Show along moneyed Collins Avenue to the NMMA venues at the Miami Beach Convention Center and on across the Venetian Causeway. Sure signs were everywhere.

The turnaround that has been building for the past couple of years was clearly evident at the 2014 fall shows. The seminal Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which ran into early November, was strong, and February’s Miami shows appear to have kept the momentum going (notwithstanding the barrage of storms that battered the Northeast on either side of the shows).

The rebound was evident in the number, quality and sophistication of the new boats and propulsion systems on display — not to mention the sizable investment manufacturers are making in developing the array of new product. And you could read the shift in consumer confidence on the faces, in the body language and in the snippets of conversation overheard from show-goers. Consumer confidence was up sharply in January (102.9), reaching its highest level since August 2007. Enthusiasm was in the air.

“I have a simple message,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said at the industry breakfast on the opening day of the Miami International Boat Show. “We’re back.” It’s the same message he delivered at IBEX in September and, thankfully, it needed no editing.

So what kind of year are we looking at? At a leadership forum hosted by GE Capital and the NMMA, Bruce Van Wagoner said he expected new-boat sales to increase by 5 to 6 percent in units and by 8 to 9 percent in retail dollars — roughly what the industry experienced in 2014. Not too hot, not too cold — our version of a Goldilocks recovery. “Our business is in a safe position — better than it has been in a long, long time,” said Van Wagoner, president of GE Commercial Distribution Finance’s Marine Group.

Although the recovery has not been shared equally across all segments, a number of manufacturers reported that 2014 was one of their best years ever.

The size of many of the new boats appears to be climbing once more after a modest downsizing or, at the very least, a flattening during the immediate post-recession years. The same goes for the engines, particularly the steadily growing outboard segment.

I saw more drapes covering more new boats at this show than I have in a long time. There’s nothing like a little music, a scratchy microphone, and some oohs and aahs from an appreciative crowd as the cover is removed and a new model is unveiled to remind folks that we’ve turned a corner.

The lessons that emerged from the downturn have been hard-won, and smart companies continue to keep a close watch on expenses, inventory levels and the bottom line. But they also are reinvesting in innovation and new product, which is precisely how you excite the market and pull buyers into new boats. Same-old, same-old won’t get it done.

Here’s one more thing to be mindful of: The overall quality of today’s new boats — from fit and finish and sophisticated hull designs to the host of systems that make boats function properly — has never been better. That’s saying something.

The list of improvements and developments is growing: advanced electronics and large displays; side-opening dive doors; digital switching; slow-speed maneuvering systems; better materials and build practices; innovative seating and interior layouts; reliable, efficient and robust propulsion; and on and on.

All that and more was on display at the Yacht & Brokerage Show, which Show Management produced, as well as at the NMMA’s multiple show venues. These new models aren’t cheap, but they’re not your father’s or grandfather’s boats, either.

For a little perspective, consider the 2015 Miami International Boat Show Innovation Awards, judged by members of Boating Writers International and sponsored by Progressive Insurance. The contest received a record 97 entries this year, an increase of 68 percent from 2014.

The big, fast, open dayboat phenomenon that has been sprouting for a couple of seasons seemed to bloom in Miami. Here are three examples.

HydraSports Custom unveiled the massive 53-foot Sueños center console, the largest ever built; Scout Boats president Steve Potts introduced the 420 LXF luxury sportfishing center console; and Regulator Marine showed a scale model of the company’s sleek new 41-foot center console.

I could go on, but you get my drift. The needle has swung back.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.

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