Boat shows better than expected

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We’re now three weeks into the industry’s winter boat show season, and among the descriptions now coming out of them is: “better than expected.”

Sure, no one is expecting attendance to go up at any of the shows, and it isn’t. But those who predicted the bottom would fall out are really being proven wrong thus far.

More specifically, shows I’ve been tracking — namely Cleveland, Toronto, San Diego, New Orleans and Houston — are currently under way or just completed. They have experienced attendance declines ranging from a low of 5 percent to a high of 21 percent. While declines can hardly be labeled “good,” these are significantly better overall than the preshow predictions by some of 40 to 50 percent declines. Happily, no one appears to have even approached those drops!

Better than encouraging attendance statistics, however, are the reports that boats are being sold at these shows. Surprised? We shouldn’t be. Shows have always sold boats, albeit recently not in the numbers we hoped for. But sales are made nonetheless. Moreover, there are some interesting and unexpected observations being reported now.

For example, with the Cleveland show currently half over, virtually all exhibitors are agreeing crowds are “better than expected.” Said Jim Burroughs at Happy Days Boating Company: “We came in not sure we’d see very many people and any sales. But the crowds have been good; we already have four completed sales, and we’re now believing the second half of this show will be even better.”

Lowell Joy, Lakeside Marine, had a different observation. “The prospect-tracking system we use is very thorough, and it’s showing us that nearly 60 percent of the people we’ve taken detailed information on are new to us, not previous prospects or customers. We didn’t expect that. So far, we’ve closed on two Tiaras, and we’ve got a surprising list of serious prospects,” he added.

I find Joy’s experience most interesting because expectations have been that new prospects would be few and far between this year. One thought about this comes mind: Could it be that the Discover Boating campaign is producing some impact we weren’t expecting?

Following that line of thought, there are strong indications that smaller boats are actually doing better than big boats. So reports Ken Lovell at the Houston show and Ken Alvey at Cleveland. Both have dealers reporting unexpected small-boat sales activity in their shows. “We assumed going in that big-boat activity would be the more robust, but the opposite appears to be happening,” said Alvey.

While no one is sure exactly what’s happening, yet — i.e. small boats outselling large boats or newcomers exceeding old, etc. — one thing does seem certain: Thus far, boat shows are generating more activity than most admit they expected.

Specifically, I visited the Cleveland show all yesterday, and the mood throughout was more upbeat than I ever expected. That reaffirmed my conviction that dealers who intend to be around for the recovery recognize that boat shows are still where the action is.

Lowell Joy summed it up best when he said, “Shows are still all about staying in front of your current customers and finding those new prospects.”

Amen!

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