A couple of years ago, the economy looked grim and prospects for the annual boat show in TC looked dead in the water. Who was going to buy a new boat in the middle of an economic meltdown?
“It was ’09 when, at least from our perspective, the industry hit bottom,” said Andrew MacDonald, whose company Blue Water Promotions has run the Traverse City Boat Show for seven years. “It was very tough, it was almost panic, and we haven’t seen anything close to that since.”
This year, when the boat show takes place April 13 through 15 in the Howe Arena at the Grand Traverse Civic Center, prospects look much brighter.
MacDonald knows things are better this year because demand for space at the show is up.
Previous exhibitors want more space and dealers who haven’t taken part in the past want in, MacDonald said.
That’s in stark contrast to three years ago. “It was a time when some very longtime reputable dealers almost did not do the event for fear of not selling any boats,” MacDonald said. “We were able to pull ’09 together, but there were some nervous days in there.”
That said, when the 2009 boat show did take place, it wasn’t a disaster as some had feared. A fair number of boats were sold despite the gloomy economy, he said.
“The actual boat show went fairly well,” MacDonald said. “It was all the trepidation and anticipation beforehand, of the market being spooked.”
‘THIS IS THE TIME TO DO IT’
This year, in contrast, looks good from the start.
“Here’s what we see we see, buyers coming in, and it goes like this -- ‘We’ve wanted to have a boat for so many years, and now we’ve decided this is the time to do it.’ People want to enjoy life, and we hear that story more than anything,” MacDonald said This year, MacDonald said, the hottest models are pontoon boats. He says that’s because the new models feature more and more options.
“Pontoons are red hot and they’re making them nicer. There’s bathrooms on board, they’re more powerful, they can pull skiers, they’re versatile,” he said. “They can choose to do a cocktail cruise, they can do many things. Far and away, there’s more pontoons than anything else in this show. It’s not even close.”
There is one thing about this spring in Northern Michigan that MacDonald surprisingly calls a negative for a boat show.
From a show promoter’s perspective, this year’s summer-in-March weather wasn’t ideal, he said, because you want weather that makes people want to go inside to look at boats. MacDonald hopes the weather on the second weekend in April isn’t as nice as the weather over St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
“You want 50 degrees and rain,” MacDonald said. “One thing you don’t want is, to have the first nice weekend of the year, so in that regard, that’s passed.”
‘PHONES ARE RINGING’
Apparently the weather has the opposite affect if you run a boat dealership on the water.
That’s because sunshine and warmth get people thinking about summer and boating season, said Christine Davis, co-owner of Dewitt Marine in Bellaire.
“We started our operations five weeks early, as opposed to previous years, due to the very mild spring,” Davis said.
Typically the business would open in mid or late April. This year, staff were called in on the Monday after St. Patrick’s Day.
“When there’s snow, we can’t really navigate boats, we can’t put them into the water,” she said. “When the sun is shining, the phones are ringing and people stop by.”
Davis said sales of the boats she offers – Boston Whalers and Premier Pontoons – are already up this year and she believes it’s going to be a great season.
“Sales are definitely up,” she said. “Last year was a decent year and so far we’ve sold a couple boats this winter and we’ve sold boats this spring, much more than we ever had in the past.”
Also, calls are up already this year to reserve slips and rental boats.
Perhaps because of their location on the Chain of Lakes, close to Torch Lake, boat rentals are a big part of their business. They keep 11 late-model pontoons available to rent through the season, and by the end of June, each one is typically rented out every day.
Families rent them out or small groups get them for parties, like bachelor and bachelorette parties, she said. Some people want to spend the day on the sand bar at the south end of Torch Lake; others want to take a quiet cruise through the Grass Lake Natural Area.
“It’s much more practical to rent a boat than it is to go buy one,” Davis said.
SHRINK WRAP IS COMING OFF
In a normal year, Long Lake Marina would still be in snowmobile sales mode and the woods around its Interlochen sales center would be buzzing with sleds.
This year, employees at the boat and snowmobile dealer were busy removing shrink wrap from the boats that will soon be on the sales floor.
It’s been an odd year, said Doug Clemens, sales manager at Long Lake Marina.
“We sold some snowmobiles before the weather went absolutely crazy on us,” Clemens said. Then the snow just disappeared, and many of those people who bought new snowmobiles didn’t have much time to use them.
Now, Clemens is dealing with special orders for boats, an early indicator of what’s in store for the boat-selling season. Clemens said what’s in store looks good. Long Lake sells Rinkers, Hurricanes and Sweetwater pontoons, among other makes.
“It gives me a really good feel for what this year is going to bring,” Clemens said.
Clemens doesn’t see the prospect of four dollar gasoline this summer as being a big problem for the boating industry because people have already gotten used to gasoline in the mid to high three dollar range and they’ve adjusted their budgets. The added 25 cents or so per gallon shouldn’t be a big deal, he said.
“Just like everything else, they get adjusted to it. It’s the old boiling frog theory,” Clemens said.
Gas prices affect used boat Gas prices might push some people toward jet skis, Clemens said. He said the Yamaha Waverunners he sells carry three people and have four-stroke engines rather than the oil-injected two-stroke engines found in older models. They are more fuel efficient, cleaner and quieter, he said.
WIND OR MUSCLE POWER
Of course, for absolute fuel efficiency, nothing can compare boats powered by wind or muscle.
Scott Wilson, owner of Sailsport Marine, a Hobie dealer on M-72 west of TC, talked to the Express from a worldwide Hobie meeting in California last week. He said the talk there was about the emerging popularity of small sailboats, like the new Hobie Trimaran.
They don’t take gas and they’re easy to transport and store, making them much less expensive to own than a powerboat.
“Nationwide, it seems like people are talking about how small boat sailing is coming back. It’s relatively inexpensive to get into,” Wilson said. “The closer to the water, the more fun it is -- it seems like you’re going fast even when you’re not going that fast.”
Wilson said this year looks like it’s going to be a strong sales year. His shop also sells popular stand-up paddle boats and kayaks.
“We had a pretty good season last year, but I think interest is strong this year,” he said. “At least a few people have said they’re not putting gas in their motor boats and they’re buying sailboats instead.”
He said he expects another popular item this season to be the Hobie fishing kayak, which can run by pedal instead of paddle.
That enables fishermen or fisher-women to have both arms free when they reel in fish.
“Everybody this year is talking about the fishing kayaks” at the Hobie meeting, he said. “You can even stand up in them. They’re really stable.”
sales, he said, because those customers tend to be young families looking to get into boating on a tight budget and they are taking every expense into account.
“We noticed last year that used boats were down because of that,” Clemens said.