As final preparations are carried out for Friday’s opening of the Seattle Boat Show, organizers are cautiously optimistic that this year’s event may finally herald a turnaround for the region’s beleaguered marine industry.
George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), said there’s been strong interest from consumers leading up to the show, which runs Jan. 29 through Feb. 6. Online ticket sales are higher than they were last year, he said, and traffic to the show’s website is up 27 percent—suggesting this year’s show may exceed last year’s attendance of about 55,000.
“That definitely means more interest,” Harris said. “I don’t want to get overly confident, but our early indicators are good.”
Participation from exhibitors is also strong, Harris said, with late bookings from exhibitors resulting in a larger show than expected. “If you would’ve asked me about the size of the show four months ago, I thought it was going to be smaller,” he said. “But I think the overall show is going to look very much like it did last year. I think that is really significant.”
Bonnie Bergquist is the executive director of the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, which co-produces the show with the NMTA. Bergquist said association members are more optimistic going into this show than they were last year.
“Last January, no one knew what was going to happen and there was a lot of fear going into 2009,” she said. “Recently, brokers and dealers are seeing an improvement in sales and are looking favorably toward the show.”
Though this year’s show will be roughly the same size as last year’s, it will run for nine days instead of the usual 10. For the last three years, the show’s closing day has coincided with the Superbowl. Attendance on last year’s closing day dropped to about half the usual number, Harris said, and the NMTA subsequently decided to close this year’s show the day before the Superbowl.
As in previous years, the show will be held in two locations, at Qwest Field Event Center and on Seattle’s Lake Union. A free shuttle runs continuously between the two sites.
The indoor portion of the show will include some 1,000 recreational watercraft ranging from dinghies to fishing boats, sailboats to tugs, along with more than 200 seminars and accessories running the gamut from life rafts to radar units. The show’s indoor area typically includes only new boats, but Harris said exhibitors are being allowed to include 2008 boats in up to 25 percent of their displays this year to help them clear out the surplus inventory many were stuck with when the economy tanked.
At Lake Union, showgoers can tour more than 150 boats including cabin cruisers, sailboats, trawlers and mega-yachts. The largest boat on display is Devotion, a 143-foot luxury yacht that can accommodate 12 guests and eight crew members and has a master stateroom with a Jacuzzi tub. Other powerboats on display include a Selene 66, the flagship of the Selene family of yachts, and the Diesel Duck 462, a Chinese-built boat intended for ocean passagemaking.
Sailors may want to check out the new Oyster 54, which makes its U.S. premiere at the show; a Hunter 41 deck salon model with a raised cabin top; a Bavaria 38 with fore and aft berths and salon seating for up to eight; and a Beneteau 31 with an Italian-styled interior and two staterooms.
The region’s premier boating event, the Seattle Boat Show is seen as a bellwether of the area’s marine industry. The stakes are particularly high this year, the show’s 63rd, as boat brokers and dealers hope to see renewed interest from buyers who put off boat purchases as the nation’s deep recession dragged on.
The cancellations of boat shows this year in Tacoma and Everett, as well as the 2010 boat show in Vancouver, B.C., are expected to drive up attendance at the Seattle show.
And there are other indicators that bode well for the show. The Conference Board, a national industry group, reported Tuesday that consumer confidence in January was at its highest level since September 2008. The index rose for a third consecutive month in January, attributed to a resurgent stock market and a drop in job losses in recent months.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association is reporting better than anticipated sales at nine boat and RV shows put on by the association this month. Early reports indicate that dealers sold boats in all categories at the shows, the NMMA said.
“This year, with a slight increase in consumer confidence, pent-up demand and the allure of the boating lifestyle, we’re seeing buyers return, reminding us that boat shows remain an important sales venue for our industry,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said in a release. “At every one of our shows this year we’ve seen buyers in both the high-end and entry-level markets, a sign the new boater is returning and that our Discover Boating efforts are making an impact.”
Whether those factors will translate to dollar signs for Northwest boat dealers, manufacturers and marine suppliers, however, remains the big question.
“It’s really hard to speculate, but from what I have heard people are selling boats and are looking forward to this boat show,” Bergquist said. “My hope is that this show will mark the first significant turn in the economy.”
Tickets and additional information about the Seattle Boat Show Indoors + Afloat are available on the show’s website.