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A view from here: A new look in Miami

For a moment, I almost didn’t recognize the business leader. He looked — well, he looked different. More relaxed. Confident. Brow less furrowed. Like a weight had been lifted.

One more sign, perhaps, that we had made a turn off the bottom. This was at last week’s Miami show. We talked about business, told a few jokes, commiserated about the winter. What a difference a couple of years makes. More smiles from exhibitors. A good bit of the glumness was gone.

Even before attendance figures were released for the Miami International Boat Show, you sensed that they were going to be better than the previous two years. We saw it at the fall shows — the boating faithful starting to return, to nose around, see what was new.

It was important for Miami to continue that momentum. And with a run of good weather, more than 100,000 members of the tribe came out, about 14 percent more than last February. Granted, last year’s numbers weren’t tough to beat, but you have to start someplace. And up is up.

Pent-up demand is a funny thing. It can wobble and drift, advance, retreat and advance once more, like consumer confidence.

People are returning to the docks. Are they in a buying mood yet? It’s safe to say, I think, that they are slowly — ever so slowly — working their way in that direction. They are trying to get there — they would like to get there — but they still have a ways to go. Showing up is the first step.

I overheard a sales guy, who was giving demo rides at the show, talking to a fellow sales jockey on the dock. Actually he was complaining more than talking. He’d just spent a good bit of time with a customer he thought was a “live one.” That’s what my father, who spent his working life running retail businesses, used to call them. But when he suggested that they look at some numbers, the would-be buyer deferred, saying he was still about two years out, had a house up north and he had to move first.

“Two years,” the guy on the dock howled. “You know how much time I spent with this guy?”

Deleveraging is going to take some time. Right now, it’s a good sign just seeing more folks showing up, taking demo rides, poking around, lifting hatches, conferring with buddies or significant others.

That’s what the early stages of recovery look like. An executive with more bounce in his step. A consumer shelling out money for a trip to Florida and the boat show.

Final note: A U.S. consumer confidence index leapt to its highest level in three years in February. The new high reflects “growing optimism about the short-term future,” said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center, in a statement.


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