Overall turnout was up, and dealers were encouraged by the higher percentage of entry-level prospects
Paul Hegarty of Hyannis Marina echoes the sentiments of many Northeastern dealers when he calls the New England Boat Show "critical."
"We're prepared to be as aggressive as we need to be," Hegarty said after the first of the show's two weekends. "This show is crucial."
Fortunately, the timing of the Boston show, coupled with good weather during its nine-day run (Feb. 14-22), brought a 15 percent increase in traffic opening weekend and a 7 percent overall increase from last year's turnout, organizers say.
There were fewer exhibitors this year, and only 300,000 square feet of space was used - down from last year's 370,000.
An extra effort
Hyannis Marina had written one or two deals early into the show, and the sales staff was working some promising leads, Hegarty says. "Our feeling is we're going to get some boats sold, but it's going to take sort of a special focused effort," Hegarty says. "I think one of the particular things to come out of this show is we're probably working more closely together as a sales team in getting those customers expressing serious interest, to get them to come forward and buy a boat, whether it's new or used."
The Sea Ray brand did better for Hyannis than did more expensive nameplates such as Jupiter and Contender, Hegarty says.
"There was a kind of a little bit of a drumbeat from people who are obviously financially able to ... look seriously at those kinds of boat, which are a little more expensive," Hegarty says. "But they all said the same thing: The way their portfolios declined last year, and the way the economy is going, they were just going to postpone that decision."
More new buyers
Larry Russo of Boston area-based Russo Marine says he sold 23 Sea Rays of all sizes at the show, including a 44-footer and one 55-footer. While that was half of what the dealership sold at last year's show, 42 percent of those buyers were first-time boaters, Russo says. An additional 25 percent were new to the brand.
"So two out of every three people who bought a boat from us were new to us this year," says Russo. "That's remarkable."
In a typical year, the inverse is true - two of every three buyers come from the ranks of current Sea Ray owners, Russo says.
Last year, Russo Marine attracted 5,600 potential buyers to its booth, which has only one point of entry so people can be identified. This year, the number was 6,800, Russo says. (Only one person per family or couple is counted.)
In part, that was attributed to the general increase in traffic; in part to the prime location of his booth, Russo says.
"We had a combination of everything - young people who were enthusiastic about the prospect of going boating, and other people saying they want to have fun and want to get the best deal," Russo says. "They realized they can't wait two months and get a boat for a little less. We didn't have people beating us up on price; they pretty much paid the posted price. It went very well. We just didn't get enough of those people."
Awaiting a rebound
Russo speculates the percentage of entry level boaters was higher because current boaters are sticking with what they have until the economy turns around.
That's the case with Rich Lannan, who bought his Triton Manitou pontoon two years ago at the show. He was hoping to trade the Manitou and an 8-year-old Cobalt he owns for a Manitou that would do what both boats do now. Lannan, who is president of The Lannan Company, a Nashua, N.H., real estate firm, sat around with some buddies at the show, chatting about the economy. In the end, he decided to play it safe and wait.
Jim Francoeur, his friend, saw his MasterCraft at the show in 2004 but waited until July before buying, demonstrating that boat show contacts can lead to sales down the road.
Russo says that's why he calls February "boat show month."
"We sold 35 boats this month - Sea Rays, Whalers and pre-owned, and we're very pleased with that," Russo says. "That compares with last year's 41, so we're not doing too badly."
Tempted by bargains
Francoeur and Lannan both saw some good show deals, but figured sticking with what they have would be the smart thing to do.
At Russo's booth, which also offers space for a few other Northeastern Sea Ray dealers, such as New Hampshire-based Irwin Marine and Hyannis Marina, there were signs boasting that boats were going at cost, and prices could not drop any lower.
William Irwin says the show weekends were strong but weekdays soft. He says his sales were down from last year, but he did meet his goal and had more promising leads this year. He, too, says he saw a lot of new faces.
"The quality of people looking for boats was [better]. Hopefully when the weather breaks they will want to go boating," Irwin says.
At Hingham, Mass.-based 3A Marine Service, $5,000 rebates were advertised for smaller Seaswirl Striper boats and as much as $10,000 on Four Winns, says customer service manager Patrick Desmond.
"This year the deals are better because the manufacturers want to start building boats again," Desmond says. "They're offering rebates and incentives - stuff we haven't seen in years."
That is paying off, Desmond says.
"The people I'm talking to today are looking for a reason to buy," Desmond says. "It's not going to be a Coast Guard package. They want the best deals."
On Monday, after the show's first weekend, 3A had sold four boats, including two 33-footers. In addition, several people had come to talk about repowering current boats.
Timing a plus
Desmond, echoing the thoughts of several other dealers, thinks the timing of this year's show paid off. It was held on winter break, when kids were out of school, and some say that helped. And, Russo points out, there were no Patriots playoff-game conflicts, and there was sunny weather each day.
Some attributed a better-than-expected consumer mood to the change in administrations and the new economic stimulus package, while others were more skeptical.
"Some of us were puzzled that nothing in the economic stimulus package targeted this industry," Hegarty says. "The RV and auto industry had help, but as far as I can tell there was nothing in there for the boating industry. I think consumers are still concerned because they haven't seen any help yet in their neighborhoods."
But Desmond says he was hearing different things from consumers.
"I don't think anybody really understands it yet, but I hear people say, whether I get $600 or $1,200 back isn't going to help me buy a boat," Desmond says. "I'd rather see them take that money and put it to something useful."
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.