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N.Y. Boat Show: a case of bad timing

Exhibition at the Javits Center saw attendance drop 49 percent as many buyers chose to stay home

John Taylor came to the 104th New York National Boat Show ready to see the latest model that Striper, a division of Seaswirl, had to offer — only to find the brand missing from the show this year.

The Affordability Pavillion at the New York Boat Show displayed eight different models that could be financed for less than $250 a month.

“It’s just not the show it was,” says Taylor, 68, of Bridgeport, Conn., who bought his 26-foot Striper at the 2007 show. “They don’t have the selection they’ve had in years past.”

A change in show dates was the reason Seaswirl didn’t exhibit this year, according to the company’s vice president Jason Scruggs.

“I spoke to my local dealers located in Long Island, and they said they thought the show would be a waste of time and money,” says Scruggs. “There’s a possibility we would return if the dates changed back to January, but we can’t say for sure.”

This year’s show — the 104th — took place Dec. 13-21, nearly two weeks earlier than in the last five years when the dates ran through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“It just looks very uncrowded this year,” says George Thebold, 70, from Greenwood Lake, N.J. “We’ve come up during the week [in the past] and there was always a nice crowd. … I’m actually here talking to dealers to sell my boat, a 24-foot Rinker powerboat.”

Last year’s attendance was 61,464, down about 3 percent from 2006. From 1986 to 2002 the show was held after New Year’s Day, but in 2003 the Javits Center, longtime home to the show, shifted the dates back into the holiday block.

Average attendance before the switch was around 95,000 to 100,000, says Michael Duffy, show director for the last 17 years. That number fell to around 75,000 after the 2003 switch and saw a 49-percent drop for this show.

Duffy says organizers hoped holding the show before the holidays would boost sales. However, Rich Nau of Sandy Pond, N.Y., thought few people would be interested in buying a boat for Christmas in this economy.

“People are worried about having the money to spend on Christmas presents for their families; they aren’t thinking about boats,” says Nau, who says those he spoke to were surprised the dates were so early.

“Everyone was used to the dates being over New Year’s,” says Nau. “It definitely wasn’t advertised enough.”

Broad Channel, N.Y.-based Buster’s Marine Service, which is a Mercury Platinum Dealer that also offers Mako, Seacraft and Tahoe, also thought there wasn’t enough notification about the date change.

“It’s weird with the state of the economy and the date change,” says Adam Schmitt, president of Buster’s Marine Service. “There are serious people coming to buy, but we had a number of calls from customers who didn’t know we were at the show — they didn’t know the dates had moved up. There was not enough notification.”

Duffy says, however, that the show this year did more advertising than ever before, launching a viral campaign that started in July, which included a video on YouTube. Organizers also sent e-mails to more than 100,000 people notifying them of the date change.

“In fact, some people said to me they couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing one of our ads,” says Duffy. “We have to make do with the dates the Javits Center is willing to give us.”

Two anglers at the show were looking to buy, but were downsizing from their previous vessels.

“I think a lot of people are downsizing with everything,” says Frank Hodroski Jr., 63, from Jackson, N.J. “We sold our Bayliner that was 22-1/2 feet; it got to the point we just couldn’t handle it anymore. We’re looking for a fishing boat, maybe 20 feet.”

Hodroski says he’s been attending the boat show on and off for the last 10 years and he noticed the show floor was short on visitors — and selection. Despite 100 dealers and 255 contracted companies exhibiting, people walking the floor noticed the shift: in previous years, numbers had been 275 to 280 companies and 120 dealers.

Robert Arcate, sales representative for Mariner’s Cove Marine in Hampton Bays, N.Y., and Bay Harbor Motors, Staten Island, says the people who attended were still interested in their higher-end boats, such as Fountain Powerboats.

“The people that are here appear to be buyers,” says Arcate. “The personal watercraft models are doing well, and people seem to be very interested in the smaller jet boats such as the Sea-Doos.”

Arcate says people are attracted to the smaller, trailerable models so they don’t have to worry about having a place to keep them during the winter.

This is the third recession I’ve seen after 35 years in the business, and these types of high-end vessels have always done well,” says Arcate.

For those who can’t afford such high-end vessels, the show introduced an economy section, sponsored by Discover Boating, displaying eight different boat models that could be financed for less than $250 a month.

“There’s this concept that only the wealthy and affluent can own boats, and we’re trying to change that point of view,” says Leslie Heins, 38, representative for Discover Boating. “People come by and see what we have, and then we direct them to the dealership that is giving the offer.”

Models included a Mako 171 Center Console with a Mercury 90 hp 2-stroke outboard for as low as $140 per month, and a Bayliner 185 for around $169 per month. The booth also offered fliers with guidelines on what to look for when buying a boat.

“About 75 percent of boaters are making less than $100,000 per year, and we want to show people how accessible it can be,” says Duffy.

Many manufacturers offered deals such as extended warranties to lure interested parties, says Duffy.

At press time, the dates for the 2009 show had not been set. Duffy says it would be ideal to have the show in mid- to late-January.

“This year proved that there is sales action out there, and that a show is still the best place dealers and manufacturers can display their product,” says Duffy.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.