Annapolis Boat Sailboat Show 2010

The weather was spectacular.

To us, the show was a bit ominous for what it had to say about the boating industry.

While the Friday crowd exceeded what most of our boat show worker friends could remember for a Friday, the number and the size of the boats, the lack of crowding at most vendor displays, the limited (missing) lines of lookees at most boats, and the discounts being offered all signaled “trouble.” Anecdotally, this seemed to be “retiree” day as the majority of the crowd seemed to be of a certain age. Of course it was a weekday, but we have been on many Fridays when stroller avoidance was a necessary skill.

So, is it trouble ahead or trouble behind? [15 Oct 2010, Apparently it is trouble behind if the contents of this report are to be believed. Of course living so close to Nation’s Capitol for three decades one learns there is nothing, absolutely nothing, without spin.]

First, there were far fewer boats – perhaps 1/2-2/3(?) the usual. Where builders only had small boats to offer, they were there. Where builders had a range of offerings they seemed to have brought the bigger/biggest ones and left the rest behind. They seemed to be targeting people with disposable cash. Several builders with historical show offerings of three to five boats brought one this year. This didn’t seem to be a show focused on getting people into sailing, it seemed to be focused on industry survival.

Second, while there was some crowding in narrow passage ways in some tents, unlike previous shows, where a wait was almost always required to talk to a vendor, if we had to wait this time it was for a single person ahead of us. But usually, even that wasn’t required. Attendees seemed to be keeping their distance lest they be drawn into a potential transaction. We made some purchases and in every case, the “thank you” seemed more heartfelt than in years past. The key indicator was there was negligible back up at the customized ball cap vendor.

Third, our view of how many folks were actually looking at boats may have been skewed by when we walked out on the docks ourselves. But the lines we saw, if we saw any, were short. The piles of shoes were small and many boats appeared to be ignored. The exception was the boats offering charters, these did seem to be attracting attention.

Fourth, since we are modifying the boat for offshore sailing, we were in search of discounts. The least we received was 10%, the most was 45%. We’ve seen 10% commonly at prior shows, 45% was a shocker. This is indicative of companies paring margins to near zero just to keep production lines open and staffed with experienced folks.

Fifth. We have been attending these shows since the early 1980s. We worked at them in the ’80s. We have seen changes in technology to be sure. We have also seen changes in economic context, though 2010 seems to be the new low since the luxury tax almost killed the industry. But what struck me the most at this show was the age of the attendees. Janet and I had slightly different perceptions, and it was a Friday. But it seemed to me this was a significantly older crowd than in years past — perhaps as much as ten years older on average. Now, my own age may be affecting my perceptions. I admit to some age-related sense of urgency when it comes to our cruising plans. So I may be more conscious of the age of those around me.

Do sailing and cruising have a viable future or a stagnant one? If our medium-sized (nearly all sail) marina in one of the most active sailing regions in the US is indicative, perhaps 10-15% of the boats are used. For Sale signs are sun faded; docklines are moss-greened. If one counts the boats out and about on any given weekend, this would seem to be characteristic of the other, larger marinas nearby. We can remember weekends when half the slips would be empty. It seems to me that sailing and cruising are most strongly associated with Boomers and Boomer-kids. Watching the comings and goings in the marina while working on the solar project, it has been rare to see people under 40. It don’t think there is a boat here less than five years old. School in session or not, the families with kids aren’t showing up anymore.

It seems the middle is missing — we see a big/new boat elite, we see a charter/timeshare demographic, but the want to move up middle, the want to drop the docklines and go demographic seem to be missing. Is it all about money? In which case a rising economy will float new boats. Or is it all about a Generation with more plans and hopes than fears that is moving out of the market center to be replaced by a Generation with more fears than anything else?

Time to work on the boat….

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