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Powering ahead

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The “vibe” at the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference in Tampa Tuesday on the opening day of the show was as strong as any I have sensed since pre-recession days. How much of that was attributable to the industry’s continuing recovery and how much was enthusiasm about the new venue is difficult to say. But both factors clearly are in play. (IBEX is scheduled to return next September to Louisville, Ky.).

I spoke to several exhibitors throughout the afternoon who were pleased with the level of first-day business. One sure sign: There were far fewer references to the economic malaise of the not too distant past and there was much more focus on the opportunities at hand. Memories of the recession -- but not the lessons, I trust –- are fading in our collective wake as the industry gets on plane and powers forward.

Improving times was the theme of NMMA president Thom Dammrich’s opening remarks at the industry breakfast on Tuesday.

“I have a very simple message for you this morning,” Dammrich told a large audience. “These are good times in the boating industry, and more good times are ahead. Boating is alive and well in this country.”

Dammrich said total retail sales in the recreational marine sector were expected to climb about 8 percent this year, from $36.9 billion in 2013 to about $39.8 billion by the end of 2014. “That would be an all-time high,” he told me in remarks after the breakfast.

The number of new boats sold in 2014 – including sail and PWC – should come in at about 220,000 units, with the powerboat category contributing about 175,000 of those, Dammrich said. A 6 percent increase in new-boat sales during the next five years would bring that figure back to just under 300,000 boats. And that would make a lot of people smile.

And although there are inevitable unseen hurdles and challenges here and abroad, Dammrich is optimistic. “I’d say we’re looking at a good three- to five-year run,” he told me.

At present, Dammrich said, “The housing market is the biggest drag.” He quickly added “and Washington, D.C.” The issues there range from ethanol to the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The talk around the show was what you wanted to hear –- new products, new ways to improve the boating experience, innovation across categories (from propulsion to materials), 3-D printing, the power of digital, the “connected” boat, new ways to grow the pie and attract a younger, more diverse audience (video, mobile and country star Jake Owen, who has the water gene), the need for more advocacy and how nice it is to have an IBEX with boats in the water.

Show director Anne Dunbar told the breakfast attendees that she wanted them leaving this IBEX saying, “Wow.” I think she’ll get her wish.

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