‘Bienvenidos al Agua’

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This year's Barcelona International Boat Show was the largest in the event's 53-year history.

This year's Barcelona International Boat Show was the largest in the event's 53-year history.

BARCELONA, Spain — Walking the docks and chatting with locals at the Barcelona International Boat Show, an American boat show veteran quickly realizes he’s in a much smaller fishbowl.

The five-day event, now in its 53rd year, is Spain’s largest boat show, set in one of the great cities of Europe on a protected harbor that offers quick access to the Mediterranean.

This year’s show was also the largest in the history of the event, boasting 650 boats and 120 new products on display. About 55,000 people attended. For perspective, the recent Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show featured more than 20,000 exhibitors and more than 1,500 boats on display. About 100,000 people attended (see Page 20).

For more perspective, the 9-year-old National Association of Nautical Companies, or ANEN, Spain’s government-backed version of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, is tasked with building a recreational boating market far different from the one Americans know and love. Soundings Trade Only attended this year’s Oct. 15-19 show as a guest of ANEN.

With protected ports and coastlines on the Atlantic and the Med, Spain has deep nautical roots, but they’re profoundly on the commercial side. ANEN is attempting to turn more of the country’s 47 million people (most of them near its 7,000-mile coast) to recreational boating.

“What we are trying to do in Spain is promote boating as an affordable family activity,” says Jose Luis Fayos, technical and export manager for ANEN. “There’s a perception here that boating is a rich man’s hobby.”

There are only 368 marinas and about 133,000 designated moorings throughout the country, according to government statistics.

Spain was one of the hardest-hit European economies during the Great Recession, but it seems to have turned a corner in 2013 with modest growth.

Fayos says there’s renewed optimism in the Spanish marine market, primarily because manufacturers, vendors and distributors are reporting that 2014 is shaping up to be a much better year than 2013. That somewhat mirrors the performance of the overall Spanish economy. “And next year’s economic forecast is also a positive one,” he says.

If native boatbuilders are challenged, there are such success stories as the Rodman Group, a production powerboat builder that has exhibited at the South Florida shows, and Belliure, a 61-year-old semicustom trawler yacht builder that caters to the high-end market. Rodman executives are considering attending February’s Miami boat show in search of U.S. dealers.

Across the harbor from the show sits MB92, the largest refit shipyard in Europe. “Refits are very big in this region, as many of the larger yachts summer in the Med and winter in the Caribbean,” says Fayos.

Then there are the distributors and international dealers. Regulator Marine came to the Barcelona show specifically to partner with a distributor to spread its brand across Spain. Among the other U.S. brands represented were Bayliner, Chris-Craft, Malibu, MasterCraft, Nautique and Tracker.

“Our companies are telling me they are here to build relationships,” says NMMA export development director Julie Balzano, who helped organize the U.S. pavilion. “It’s more about quality than quantity at this stage.”

“We look at the pavilion as an incubator stand for U.S. companies under the NMMA tent,” she adds. “We’re hoping that, over time, they will move on to their own exhibit space, and we’ll slide other U.S. companies into our pavilion.”

Meanwhile, Nautica Antonio De La Peña in Malaga in southern Spain is counting 25 years representing the Rinker boat brand. “I believe we are the oldest importer for Rinker in the world,” says Rafa de la Peña. “Our customers like the finish, the upholstery, all the standard accessories and the design. You see the boat and you say, ‘This is American.’ ”

During the boom years, de la Peña says, his firm was importing 80 to 90 Rinkers. Now the number is only 10 to 15. “But this year was a good season for selling Rinkers.”

Fayos says ANEN has a valued partnership with the NMMA. Mirroring the NMMA’s Welcome to the Water campaign, Spain’s boating guide boasts the same invitation in Spanish: “Bienvenidos al agua.”

There was a section at the show that was pulled from the NMMA playbook, with an inflatable surfing simulator and a chance to test paddleboards and pedal boats. One of the numerous conferences at the show featured Spanish sailing celebrities, such as two-time Olympic gold medal winner Teresa Zabell speaking about the need to get young people involved in the boating lifestyle.

According to ANEN, registration of recreational boats in Spain grew by 12.8 percent in the first three quarters of 2014, compared with the previous year. However, boats smaller than 26 feet continue to be most in demand, including personal watercraft. During the first nine months of 2014, smaller boats accounted for 90 percent of registrations. However, boats in the 40- to 53-foot range increased by nearly 29 percent (from 66 registrations in January-September 2013 to 85 this year).

For perspective, we’re talking about 3,756 recreational vessels registered through September.

According to types, powerboats dominate the market and account for 42 percent of total registrations, according to ANEN. Sailboats account for 21 percent of the market. Simple boats, from RIBS to folding boats, are commonly displayed at the show. You won’t see triple or quadruple outboards here.

The boat rental market grew by 56 percent from January to September 2014, in comparison to the same period in 2013. During the first nine months of this year 353 boats were rented, more than in 2007, the last year with positive results for the sector, according to ANEN.

A timely press conference at the show had government and ANEN officials announcing licensing changes that were years in development and designed to move more people into boating. Essentially they require no licensing to operate a boat under 17 feet and extend the ranges where boaters can venture offshore, which opens up the Balearic Islands, a popular destination 80 miles from the Spanish peninsula.

“The range is the most critical part of this new law,” says Fayos. “We see that as a good opportunity to expand our recreational boating market.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue.

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