No Boat Shows Does Not Mean Sales Are Dead in the Water

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The Ft. Myers Boat Show wrapped up a shortened run Sunday with results that clearly signal traditional boat shows are far from dead. In spite of the difficult loss of virtually all our major market winter shows this winter, the future for our boat sales remains bright for a variety of reasons.

The Ft. Myers show, the last of the industry’s major fall events, was cut short by one day due to Tropical Storm Eta. When the show finally opened on Friday for the weekend, the boaters showed up. 

“We didn’t recover all of Thursday’s lost attendance, but the other 3 days were each up over last year which proved to be a win for our exhibitors,” said John Good, executive director of the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association. “Clearly boaters want their boat shows,” he emphasized, “and early reports from exhibitors like the Boat House, Formula and others indicate buyers aren’t deterred by the pandemic. It’s been all good news here.”

What can we conclude from the record attendance at the recent Jersey Shore Boat Sale & Expo, the success of the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show, and now the Ft. Myers show? 

First, boat shows are alive and well, and will continue to be after we leave Covid-19 in our wake. 

The claim that boat shows will no longer be needed because we’ll be selling boats online just won’t hold water. The internet's takeover of the communication landscape led to identical predictions of the demise of boat show in the early 2000s, and again in the crash of 2008. 

Neither happened. Boat shows continued and grew as the industry recovered — and expanded. 

Why? Simply, nothing can replace them. Observers agree shows generate excitement for a myriad of reasons: boaters turn out for the show experiences; exhibitors can’t come face-to-face with the big number of prospects in any other way; and most important, boat buyers demand a tactile experience. They can look at pictures and videos online, but they can’t touch, sit in and smell that new boat. Boat shows do it all.

While there is currently legitimate concern that boat sales may take a hit after the new year without the traditional injection of excitement and promotion from winter boat shows, there are some important factors swirling out there that will help dealers maintain headway. 

For example, we like to say the boats we sell are mostly small craft and affordable for the average family. But let’s be honest, we don’t build inexpensive boats at all. So, the customers that bought our boats so aggressively during last summer weren’t the ones experiencing layoffs or lost jobs to the pandemic. 

Indeed, our prime customers are marked by having responded to the pandemic by paying down debt at a record rapid clip. As a result, they have money, good credit and will relish current low interest rates. 

As an added bonus, the Federal Reserve continues to highlight Chairman Jerome Powell’s statement that they “aren’t even thinking about raising interest rates.” Indeed, some predict rates could remain at low levels well into 2022.

It’s also good news that households have accumulated $2 trillion in new savings deposits since February, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal. That's more than 10 percent of GDP and it foretells of a possible unprecedented wave of consumers' spending — down payments for new boats won’t be a problem. 

As more positive evidence, this pandemic is actually boosting the market for expensive homes. 

Nearly 25 percent of home buyers between April and June bought houses priced at $500,000 or more, up from 14 percent of buyers during the preceding nine months, according to the National Association of Realtors. Mortgage rates are low and rates for boat loans are also attractively low. 

It means boating’s prime customers, white-collar professionals, have largely avoided the worst of this downturn. They are buying larger homes and vacation homes — and they can buy boats.

Finally, there are economists that point out after the Great Recession, it took more than six years to return to the recent jobs peak. You’ll recall boat sales experienced a similar slow but steady recovery during that period. 

However, This cycle is different as it started with an outside shock that abruptly shut the economy overnight, and then started reversing almost as quickly as businesses reopened. It has a way to go to get back to where it was in February, but even a slow recovery of the remaining disruption means boat sales are in a position to continue to grow. 

So, are we handicapped without our traditional big winter boat shows? In some ways, sure. But we’re not drydocked, either. 

It’s important that dealers recognize that at least a portion of the normally large expenditures they have to be in a winter show should be now redirected to other marketing channels. Included in those could be virtual boat shows like the ones now being finalized by MTA’s in Cleveland, Seattle and more. 

The one thing no dealer can afford to do this winter is disappear from view. Without the stimulus of a major market boat show, dealers will have to promote themselves with advertising and clever promotions in available media that could include local boating publications; well-designed email campaigns; boasting attractive offerings for a showroom visit; using digital outlets like Facebook and YouTube; even good old reliable direct mail which even in today’s virtual world is very successful. 

And as far as our traditional boat shows go, they will definitely return, perhaps as early as next spring outdoors, and they will continue to be the single most cost-effective selling platform in our industry.

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