Making waves: Rising economic tide raises boat sales

Making waves: Rising economic tide raises boat sales

January 25th, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Business Around the Region

Chris Rayburn, left, Spencer Collins, center, and Tom Weber discuss the various capabilities of the 2013 XStar by Motor Craft at the annual Chattanooga Boat and Sport Show. A portion of the proceeds from the sell of this boat are being donated to help pay for cancer treatments for the Service Manager Tammy Tippins' 9 year old son Joseph Tippins.

Photo by Jay Bailey /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

Rossville resident John Holder makes the drive up to Chattanooga every year for the Chattanooga Boat & Sport Show - not to buy, but to look.

"I'm like a little kid," he said with a laugh, surrounded by pontoon boats. "Anything shiny catches my eye."

Holder was in the door moments after the show opened Thursday. He'll be followed by about 6,000 other people this weekend, said Keith Parker, co-owner of BK Productions, which organizes the show.

"There's over 100,000 square feet of boats and accessories," he said. "If you've been thinking about buying a boat, now is the time."

Showgoers walked on red-carpeted aisles Thursday, browsing sports boats, fishing boats, swimsuits, summer gear, booths and personal watercraft.

Vendors are offering reduced prices and incentives like free extended warranties until the show ends Sunday afternoon.

Parker organizes boat shows across the Southeast, and said more people are attending the events this year.

"At our shows, as well as other shows I'm aware of, attendance has been up anywhere from 14 to 20 percent," he said.

The higher number of people bodes well for the 2013 selling season, he added, and could build on the 2012's successful season.

Across the nation, power boat sales jumped about 10 percent in 2012 -- the first significant increase since sales dropped dramatically in 2008, according to the National Marine Manufacturer's Association.

"The industry was averaging about 300,000 new power boats every year, then in about 2008 we started to see a decline from that," Ellen Hopkins, vice president of communications, said. By 2010, sales bottomed out at just over 142,000.

"This 10 percent is kind of the turnaround for our industry," she said. "I think new power boat sales can be a barometer for the larger economy."

The boat sales leading the increase are boats smaller than 27 feet, Hopkins said, which include aluminum pontoon boats, fish and ski boats, cruisers and jet boats.

"There are a lot of those in your neck of the woods," she said.

Stan Hales, already a boat owner, said he visited the boat show specifically to look at smaller fishing boats. He fishes both area lakes and lakes in Florida.

"We love boats," he said. "But we're strictly fishing boats, not play boats."

In Hamilton County, boat owners renewed 2,737 boat registrations last year, part of over 80,000 renewed across the state. Nationwide, more consumers are making outdoor recreation a priority, Hopkins said.

She said increases in consumer confidence and economic growth have contributed to the industry improvement.

"A lot of people that were thinking of buying that new boat during the recession hit pause on that and kind of waited it out, so we're seeing some of those buyers come out," she said.

Terry Kelley, general manager at Island Cove Outdoor Center, has been bringing boats to the Chattanooga show for 20 years. This year, he brought 25 Tracker boats to the showroom.

"We do make sales from the show," he said, "but it's also a great way to kick the season off and meet and greet customers. It's been a long winter."

He sold about 200 boats last year and hopes to increase that count in 2013. Hopkins said the National Marine Manufacturer's Association expects sale numbers to climb another 5 percent this year, although they'll still fall well short of the pre-2008 numbers.

She added she hopes the industry will eventually get back to a 300,000 sales level.

"If the economy continues to improve, yes, the industry will get back to that 300,000," she said. "But it's really hard to predict."