Whether you're in the market for a yacht or a pontoon boat, a dock or a custom rod, the Chattanooga Boat & Sport Show this weekend may be your best bet for rock bottom prices, organizers said.
The 35th annual show at the Chattanooga Convention Center downtown begins today and lasts through Sunday, serving as the kickoff to the area's boating season, said Keith Parker, co-owner of BK Productions, which puts on the event every year.
"You're going to get the best deals here," he said. "There's 11 dealers and about 30 booths with anything from gutters, boat docks, boat lifts - you name it. We'll also have a large selection of fishing tackle at wholesale prices and custom rods."
The Tennessee River draws a large boating crowd each year, and area dealers count on the show to bring out boating enthusiasts to jump-start the season. Though it's not quite time to don flip-flops and shorts, dealers want to get customers ready to make big-ticket purchases for the warm weather that will roll in several months from now.
"People at the show are seeing who we are, what we have, the different boat lines we carry," said Brian Mays, manager of Island Cove in Harrison. "They'll come back as late as summer and say, 'I was at the boat show,' and buy a boat. Usually we'll sell about two dozen boats at the boat show."
Mays said the show is big business for the dealership. Workers begin planning for it as early as November, determining which boats will be brought and the best way to arrange them at the convention center.
Slowdown halves sales
With the economic slump of the last three years and drastic dips in consumer discretionary spending, the boating industry has been hit hard.
"At the end of 2010, new boat sales were down 55 percent from the highs of 2007," said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "So it was a pretty dramatic downturn."
Sales of used boats declined by just 7 percent, he said. Moving into this year's boating season, Dammrich is optimistic that new boat sales will grow by 5 percent to 10 percent.
He said the winter boat show season so far has attracted more boating enthusiasts, as well as sales as high as 200 percent over last year's shows.
"I think recovery is going to come sooner and stronger for the boating industry, new boat sales, than most people expect," Dammrich said.
The mixture of improving consumer confidence, increasing prices for used boats, the limited availability for 2009 or 2010 model pre-owned boats and an influx of new models, features and accessories will all contribute to the industry's recovery, he said.
Locally, dealers are sharing Dammrich's optimism.
"We're certainly optimistic," said Pam Alford, store manager of MarineMax. "So far this year things are looking good, and the boat show will be a good start."
Alford said the dealership's inventory of large boats has helped it "weather the storm real good" the past several years. She's hoping the boat show will keep the company on the right path.
"It gets everybody into the boating mood," she said. "They know there are great deals, great incentives, and they come in very excited."
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