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The New Normal

I’ve never liked the term “new normal.” It typically refers to a situation worse than whatever preceded it, but somehow spun into a positive.

The early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic come to mind. We all remember being cooped up in our homes, wearing masks in public, limiting our social interactions and enduring shortages of, well, just about everything. It was like a perpetual impending snowstorm where people hoarded toilet paper, paper towels, milk, bread, eggs and everything else.

To keep cabin fever at bay, many people tortured themselves trying to make sourdough bread and all sorts of other analog food from scratch. I fell victim to the boredom by buying a carbon-steel wok, seasoning it and then learning how to make flat rice noodles for pad see ew, drunken noodles and pad Thai. We ate it with our neighbors like the apocalypse was upon us. Maybe that’s because some days, it felt like it was.

As an industry, we collectively started to peek out from behind the pandemic curtain when the Miami International Boat Show kicked off in February 2022. Many of us tried to mask up and limit our interactions on opening day, but by noon, people were shedding their KN95s, shaking hands, giving hugs and forgetting the idea of social distancing. It felt irresponsible and reckless, but we tried.

By that time, Soundings Trade Only’s parent company, Active Interest Media, had transitioned to an entirely remote operation that continues today. I’ve been working from home for seven years, but prior to the pandemic, I would go to our offices in Essex, Conn., about a half-dozen times a year, giving me a chance to collaborate with colleagues professionally and check in with them personally. The last time I was in that office was more than three years ago.

So when we got together for a team dinner before the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in late October, I was surprised by the emotion that was felt all around. I’d seen a couple of my co-workers earlier in the year, but I hadn’t seen many people in years. A lot of us hugged (yes, there were single-handed “bro hugs”), and all of us were surprised by how much we had missed one another. The show was a lot of the same, with people reconnecting and rekindling friendships. It was an amazingly happy event for just about everyone in the industry — you could feel the normality in the air.

But now, as some things about our industry are rolling back into familiar territory, other things are changing again. The Covid boat-buying bubble burst months ago, and all of us are discovering what this particular new normal will mean for us.

For example, all but five of 15 boat registration segments in this month’s “By the Numbers” column (Page 55) were down from the prior year, a noticeable decline that’s been continuing for at least six months. In addition, most boat dealers who responded to the December Pulse Report (Page 56) survey said they expect boat show sales to flatten going forward.

As boatbuilders catch up with orders, new-boat inventories have normalized, and dealers are going back to managing their floorplan financing creatively. Many are also learning that their salespeople need to pivot from simply taking orders to actively selling again, which takes time. And interest rate hikes, inflation, troubles in Europe and whispers of a looming recession are all regular cause for concern.

Still, many organizations have our collective backs. The National Marine Manufacturers Association is working hard to make boating more accessible for everyone, fighting for industry stakeholders on Capitol Hill, and ensuring that we get the right messages out at boat shows to attract the next new batch of boaters. The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas is helping dealers prepare for a post-Covid industry with Dealer Week, scheduled for Dec. 5-8 in Austin, Texas. Dealer Week will include sessions about preparing for 2023 disruptions, floorplan financing and inventory, changing customer demographics, selling and closing more customers, using digital tools and more.

The 2023 landscape can feel disconcerting, but it’s no worse than what we all just lived through, and our industry has always stuck tightly together to overcome adversities. That’s been true whether the disruptive force is luxury taxes, global economic collapse or a pandemic. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll continue to learn along the way and help one another to adjust to this new normal, too. 

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.

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