If the Seattle Boat Show is any indication, the recovery the region’s boating industry has long been waiting for seems to finally have arrived.
The nine-day show, which ended Saturday, was marked by bigger crowds than last year, enthusiastic showgoers and most importantly, sales. Exhibitors reported boats selling in categories ranging from dinghies to luxury yachts, said George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association.
“It seems like all categories were selling across the board,” Harris said. “It was a really good show.”
Sales included a 68-foot Hampton yacht sold for $2.3 million by Hampton Yacht Group. Robert Fiala, a partner in the Seattle company, said the dealership sold four boats in total during the show, two of them new.
“It’s not often you sell new yachts at the show,” he said. “We were delightfully surprised and very happy about this beginning to the year.”
Dan Krier, the vice president of sales and marketing for Marine Servicenter in Seattle, was also pleased. The company sold one new sailboat during the show, Krier said, and will likely close on two or three more new sailboats priced between $230,000 and close to $500,000 by the end of the month.
“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It’s a huge success. These are the first new boats we’ve sold since summer.”
Exhibitors at Qwest Field Event Center, the indoor part of the show, also reported strong interest and sales. Ron Meng, president of Islands Marine Center on Lopez Island, said the company sold about a dozen boats and only two were financed; the other buyers paid cash.
“It exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Going in, we didn’t know what to expect.”
The mood of this year’s show was a sharp contrast from last year’s, when the nation was in the throes of an extended recession. There was an air of quiet desperation as exhibitors put on brave faces amidst scarce sales and fearful consumers.
But this year, as the economy slowly recovers, showgoers exhibited a new optimism and willingness to spend. “Not one client complained about the economy,” Fiala said. “(The mood) was a lot brighter.”
Attendance at the show was up almost 9 percent from last year, despite the event being a day shorter than last year’s. Organizers and exhibitors reported a strong turnout by Canadians, following the cancellation of this year’s Vancouver Boat Show.
There were no concrete numbers available for the number of Canadian attendees, but the NMTA, which co-produces the show with the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, reported that Canadians made up 7 percent of online ticket sales. And since the majority of ticket sales are at the door, a 71 percent increase in unique visits from Canadians to the show’s website, compared with the same period last year, suggests that a sizeable number of Canadians may have attended the show.
Those also included about half a dozen Canadian exhibitors. Among them was Paul Hrabowsky, the owner of Ocean Sailing Enterprises in Richmond, B.C., which sells Italian yachting hardware. Hrabowsky exhibited in the Seattle show for the first time this year and was happy with how it went.
“The response we got from the general public and from potential dealers was great,” he said. “We’ll be back next year, without question.”
Buoyed by the success of the show, boat dealers and brokers are now hoping the momentum continues throughout the year. Bill Baker, president of Bakes Marine Center in Issaquah, thinks the show proved that consumers who were riding out the recession are now ready to make their boating fantasies reality.
“There’s been a little pent-up demand for the past couple of years,” he said. “I think people wanted to buy but felt uncomfortable buying. Now, there’s a little more optimism.”
Baker predicts that as people see their friends and neighbors buying boats, they’ll be more likely to follow suit. “People look to others for their comfort level. When you see three or four of your neighbors buying something, it makes you feel more comfortable buying it,” he said.
Krier said he’s noticed a shift among potential boat-buyers in the past few months as consumer confidence has begun creeping back.
“There are people who are going to continue to be naysayers and say the sky is falling. And then there’s a group of people who are looking at what they’re doing with their dollars and saying, ‘Life’s too short. I want to get into boating.’ And they’re the ones we’re selling to,” Krier said.
“I think the tide is shifting and there are more of those people out there.”
For his part, Harris believes the region’s marine industry is on the upward swing, albeit slowly. “It definitely feels like we’re headed up,” he said. “We need to take this one day at a time. Everything still seems a bit fragile.
“But the turnaround’s got to start sometime,” Harris said. “It feels like it has.”