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Trend at shows continues to look better

I believe in trends. They usually predict what’s ahead. That’s why we’re all watching the fall boat shows so closely. The results are now in from four early shows on the Great Lakes and East Coast, and they’ve produced an interesting trend.

First, realistically, all shows were braced for some decline in attendance this fall. But as these four shows have each unfolded, there’s been a notable curve up. In order: 1) Michigan City, down 12 percent; 2) Tampa, down only 5 percent; 3) Newport, up 12 percent (not including exhibitor guest tickets); 4) Cedar Point, up a nice 13 percent.

The Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show and the North American In-Water Boat Show at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, (above) both ran last weekend. Each experienced clear weather and unexpectedly good turnouts. Of Newport, Grand Banks’ Tucker West said: “Best weather I can recall. Friday’s attendance was phenomenal, and Saturday was the biggest in memory." (Grand Banks also won the Best Powerboat Exhibit award.)

Similar comments have come from Cedar Point. “Five days of perfect weather can sure make people more enthusiastic,” noted Lowell Joy, Lakeside Marine. “We sold an inventory 43 Tiara, we have several other new Tiara and Pursuit deals pending, and, so far, we have four or five preowned sales wrapped up. Price is driving the sales — these buyers are all bargain hunters — but it’s clear as the current inventories go away our margins will get better."

At Newport, Ron Lawnsby of Fleet Yacht Sales (Div. of Bristol Marine) said, “The entire show was excellent. We have more strong leads than in many years. We sold a 36 Hunter to a prospect we’d never seen before, and we already have six test sails scheduled on our 41 Hunter. We introduced a new Hunter 39 with a truly upgraded interior appeal, and we have several test sails on that one, too." Fleet teamed up with Advantage Yacht Sales (Mass.) and Long Island Yacht Sales (N.Y.) in the show.

Tom Mack, at Ohio’s South Shore Marine (Contender, Rampage, Scout, Carolina Classic), observed at the Cedar Point show that the public’s attitude is much better than a year ago. But, interestingly, the change he sees goes back even earlier than the show. “We saw a noticeable turn in the second half of the summer,” he said. “July and August are usually slower for us, but there was a definite spike up this year. We had our biggest August ever for unit sales.”

Mack shared some other observations. “Frugal is in vogue,” he said. “Many prospects are asking, ‘What’s the best deal you’ve got,’ instead of asking about particular brands or models. They seem less loyal to any brand."

He also noted that the prospects are well aware of the tough times for the boating industry. “It’s no secret,” he said. “They came expecting the show to be smaller, and they weren’t bothered by that. What they really wanted to know was how we were doing. Translation: Are you going to be around? That’s why we elected to have as big an exhibit as we do in good times to show people we’re doing well."

But Mack’s team wanted to take the idea one step further. The staff wanted a sign that boldly showed South Shore’s new and used unit volume by month for every year from 2004 to present. “I had reservations,” he admits. “But our team wanted to dispel any myths that sales aren’t happening, so we did it. It showed we’ve already exceeded our total ’08 sales by August ’09, with four months still to go (140 units in all of ’08 vs 146 units so far in ’09.) People were vocally impressed with our success. That sign was a winner, and people want to do business with winners."

The next “test” for this developing upward trend in shows will come this weekend at the Norwalk (Conn.) Boat Show and the Lido Yacht Expo in Newport Beach, Calif.

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