Showtime in Lauderdale: Will the buyers return?

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FLIBS is an important barometer. With more than $3 billion worth of boats and equipment on display over 3 million square feet of terra firma and terra not-so-firma, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show is the exclamation point on the fall show season.

We’ll all be watching closely the degree to which buyers are returning to the market when the big top opens Thursday. The folks turning out for shows these days are the serious ones. They may be taking a bit longer to bite, but they remain, in aggregate, good prospects.

The tire kickers and “whistling gophers” are pretty much gone. Definition: A prospect walks up to a salesman and asks, “How much does that go fer?” Salesman answers. Prospect sucks in and whistles in amazement. That’s a whistling gopher.

If you’re underwater on your mortgage or boat loan, odds are we won’t see you jingle-jangling along the face dock at Lauderdale. The pretenders are sayonara.

We know how closely new-boat sales track consumer confidence, and yesterday’s number was not good. But recession fatigue also is at play. If you’re in a position to buy, how long do you sit on the sidelines and wait? We’ve all grown a lot more inured to bad numbers and bad headlines. At some point people say, “Life goes on.” Our ability to make the best of a tough situation and forge ahead is about as central to our makeup as a species as you can find.

There have been a couple of encouraging signs on the economic front. The prospects of a second recession have receded somewhat, based on economic numbers that were better than expected and strong corporate earnings. Also, the odds have been improving of late for more substantive action on the European sovereign debt crisis, although we will have to wait for the results of today’s European summit meeting before taking that to the bank. Buyers and sellers alike could do with a lot less volatility.

Gee-whiz for gee-whiz sakes is not the pond where I would be fishing, but innovation and smart design will lead the early adopters back, even against economic headwinds. And FLIBS has always been a good venue for “new” introductions.

This year’s event will serve as the showcase for a number of new launches, everything from outboards to electronics to several new pod-drive boats. Cool stuff — the kinds of boats and gear that can pull folks off the fences.

So let the show begin. We’ll be talking to builders, dealers and consumers. And we’ll be listening for snippets of conversation from people going through the boats or on the bus to the convention center or sitting in the food court. What are show-goers talking about? What are they looking at? What’s on their minds? You’d be surprised what you can pick up by talking a little less and listening a lot more as life goes on.


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