On the docks, more spring in their step

Signs from recent boat shows indicate that more serious buyers are crowding out window shoppers as the economy gets stronger


At the Yacht & Brokerage Show in Miami Beach, Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III was talking to the CEO of a European builder of yachts from 60 to 100 feet.

“Halfway through the show I asked him how he was doing and he said he sold two boats,” says Zimbalist, CEO of Show Management, which runs the February show and the Palm Beach International Boat Show, held in March. “I said, ‘You must have been working on these deals for a quite a while.’ He said, ‘No, I never met the guys before this show.’ ”

Based on that success, the builder will be back next year. This kind of scenario is occurring more often these days as the marine industry welcomes an increase in new-boat and brokerage sales, Zimbalist says.

Serious buyers have supplanted the more cost-conscious show-goers of the last four years, he says. “I’m very optimistic about the industry,” Zimbalist said at a “Signs of Strength in the Marine Industry” media briefing and breakfast at the Palm Beach show. “If you walk the docks at this show and others, there is more seriousness about buying by the attendees. We saw a lot of sales at the [Yacht & Brokerage Show]. We had a half-dozen to a dozen of our exhibitors issue press releases about how many boats they sold at the show.”

Not only that, some exhibitors heading into the Palm Beach show were scrambling to assemble boats because they had sold their inventory at the Miami event, Zimbalist says. “That’s certainly a good problem to have,” he says. “I think there is a renaissance in boat sales. The buyers are there and they expect the latest innovation, the latest technology, and they expect a great deal. And those companies that are providing that are experiencing great sales.”

The 27th annual Palm Beach show, held March 22-25, featured hundreds of boats, from 8-foot dinghies to megayachts exceeding 150 feet — more than $350 million worth of boats and accessories. This year’s show featured 50 boats 100 feet or larger, compared with 32 last year. Thirty-nine boats from 80 to 100 feet were there, compared with 27 last year. “So we’re seeing quite a growth and this show is becoming quite a center for both new and brokerage super-yachts,” Zimbalist says.

And that is exactly what the city of West Palm Beach wants. “I see the boat show as a cornerstone to the development of our city as a marine city,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said at the briefing. “We think we have all the components in place to make us one of the world-class marine cities. We have great cultural venues, a beautiful waterfront, wonderful marina and marine purveyors, and we have access to luxury goods.”

The show has an annual $75 million economic impact on West Palm Beach, according to Muoio.

Not giddy, but optimistic

Brokerage sales have done well recently, “particularly in the middle-size boats,” Zimbalist says. “There are still some in the superyacht category, but if you want a high-quality boat, you either have to pay up for it in the brokerage market because there is a limited supply or … buy new.”

And anecdotal evidence suggests that builders are selling boats, too. “You see the manufacturers on the phones back to the factory asking when can we deliver this and when can we deliver that, which is a good sign,” Zimbalist says.

Still, caution looms. The industry should not “get giddy,” he says. “We’re probably at least 50 percent below where we were at the peak,” he says. “We have a long way to go and I don’t think anyone is planning on getting back to those days soon. It’s going to be a slow and steady climb out, but people love to go boating. It’s in their blood.”

Pent-up demand has been building. “There are a lot of baby boomers who are saying, ‘If not now, when? I better get out there and buy that boat or upgrade to that boat if I am ever going to do it,’ ” Zimbalist says. “Look for those signs out on the docks this year.”

One of the first indications for Active Interest Media, which owns Show Management and several marine magazines, including Soundings Trade Only, came at the 2010 Palm Beach show, Zimbalist says. “The number of exhibitors was up from 2008 and 2009, and that was the first show in several years that we could actually say that,” he says. “The growth hasn’t been dramatic or double-digit, but it has been good, steady growth in terms of attendance and exhibitor participation.”

AIM held the media briefing and the event marked the formal introduction of the company’s Marine Group of publications, events and websites. “Over the past eight months we have been able to bring together eight of the leading marine media brands and organizations, which include Show Management, Yachts International, BoatQuest, PassageMaker and their Trawler Fest, Soundings and Soundings Trade Only, and more recently Power & Motoryacht and Sail magazines,” says Andrew Clurman, AIM’s president and chief operating officer.

Combined, that group reaches almost 6 million monthly readers and has almost 28 million Web page views a year, and the six boat shows that Show Management produces attract more than 350,000 people, Clurman says. “So each of these brands and combined teams of over 100 show and media pros are all dedicated to one central mission: giving boat owners and buyers the information they need to pursue their passions with confidence,” he says. “And this is an industry where there is a lot to learn.”

The marine group will focus on communicating with boaters and the industry through advancing technologies, especially social media, mobile media and iPad or tablet media, Clurman says. Two billion people worldwide now use the Internet, one in five people worldwide logged on to a social network in the past month, and 11 percent of the U.S. population is using an iPad or tablet device. “The technologies are really changing how people collect and trade information and talk to each other, whether it’s on handheld devices, desktop or tablet devices,” Clurman says. “This is really creating a permanent change in how people communicate, which has a big impact on this industry, where there is so much information to learn and so much information people are always gathering when looking to buy a boat.”

Clurman cites this example: “In the last 24 hours 75,250 people used the Internet to search the term ‘new boat for sale,’ ” he says. “That equals about 2 million people in the last 30 days. Obviously we sell a fraction of that in any given month, but that tells you there is a huge pipeline of people out there looking for information about boats.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.


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