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Do used boats fit in new-boat shows?

The 51st annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show opens today, and while the industry’s last major in-water show of the fall circuit doesn’t come until early December in St. Petersburg, Fla., the show created by the late Kaye Pearson in Lauderdale is the best of the best.

Covering more than 3 million feet in five locations, the docks will be packed with hundreds of new boats, current and non-current. There will be hundreds of used boats along those docks, too. It has always been that way at Lauderdale — new and used making a great show.

It’s common practice to include used boats at in-water shows. The combination has never been a problem. With the 2010 in-water circuit coming to a close, however, thoughts will shift to the 2011 winter shows just a couple of months away.

The winter (mostly indoor) shows have traditionally been limited to the display of new boats. It goes back more than 100 years when the New York Boat Show started it all. Over the years, new-boats-only was the DNA of the winter shows. Manufacturers provided dealers with financial support for showing their new models. The shows were advertised as the first showing of the new year’s models. It was a winning formula for decades, but it’s not working well these days.

The Great Recession has left major winter shows struggling to maintain a size and attraction that will bring in customers. Manufacturers’ financial support for dealers at shows has dried up. Dealers don’t have the new products to fill their large exhibit spaces of the past. Yet it’s critical for the show and the dealers to keep a large footprint so as not to “turn off” the audience.

In recent years, most shows have relaxed certain rules — for example, allowing new non-current models. At some shows, acceptable non-currents have even been more than just last year’s models. But is it finally time for used?

Why not? Jack Ellis, of Info-Link Technologies, speaking at IBEX, pointed out that an average of 1 million boats change hands each year for about $10 billion. For every boat purchased new, three were bought used.

In 2009, used boats accounted for 82 percent of all sales, compared to 73 percent in 2007. Eighty-five percent of first-time buyers enter the market through a used boat. Notably, about a third of the used-boat buyers will purchase their next boat new. It’s all pretty compelling, isn’t it?

Exploring the idea of used boats in this winter’s shows should make for spirited discussions. But it needs to be discussed. Could they be displayed in a dealer’s main exhibit or separately? Would a separate special used-boat section in the show be more desirable? Should there be a reduced price for used-boat exhibit space? Will the show draw increased attendance if used boats are included. Is it time for used?

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