OCEAN CITY – Although the attendance at the 26th Annual Seaside Boat Show fell a bit from last year’s record numbers, the turnout exceeded seemingly everyone’s cautious expectations.
With nationwide attendance numbers at similar boat shows dwindling and the economy needing a huge shot in the proverbial arm, vendors and promoters for this year’s show were cautiously optimistic that the usual kick off to the boating season wouldn’t be a dud.
“It was better than we expected,” said Scott McCurdy, president of North Bay Marina in Fenwick Island. “We were pretty satisfied with the respectable turnout, and though we aren’t overly excited about the state of the economy, no one is going to be jumping off any roofs in panic.”
Over 14,000 people came and went through the doors of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City last weekend, and according to Charles Smith, spokesman for the Ocean City-Berlin Optimist Club, event sponsor, the boat show was considered a success despite a slight decrease in numbers.
“We were a down a bit in attendance from last year, but last year was the best ever,” said Smith. “The dealers felt that price reductions helped show sales, and we feel that the dealers did well but not as well as they did in years past.”
Dennis Shoemaker, President of the family operated Harbor Marine in West Ocean City, said that he remains optimistic for the outlook for the year based on the weekend’s turnout.
“I think we should be able to hold our own this year,” said Shoemaker. “We had several sales and lots of leads, and it’s always a fun weekend. We think people still want to get out and have a little pleasure now and again with their boats.”
McCurdy said that though sales might have been down a bit, he was confident the show gave a pretty reasonable picture for where the local industry was headed for this upcoming season.
“By and large, I think everyone sold something, and that’s better than selling nothing,” said McCurdy. “Traditionally, the weather is the main factor with early sales, but no one can ignore the economy at this point. We are still hoping to see sunny and 60 degrees on the weather forecasts for the weekends in March and April so people will come here.”
The boating industry has been on about a three-year downturn, according to industry reports, and some of the nation’s largest retailers of boats have shown losses in the first quarter of this fiscal year to be significant.
MarineMax Inc, which is the largest recreational boat retailer in the nation, announced recently that same-store sales have shown a 52-percent decrease compared to the 9-percent drop-off from last year’s comparable quarter. In the first quarter of FY09, which ended Dec. 31, MarineMax Inc reported total revenues of $100.2 million, which was down from $215.3 million the same quarter last year.
All the doom and gloom numbers aside, local businesses are still moving forward and remain hopeful for this season’s outlook despite the tough economic times.
“We know that it’s not going to be as profitable as 2008, but we don’t think it’s going to be terrible,” said Eric Fiori, owner of Bayside Jet Drive Kawasaki in Ocean City. “We are moving forward with the opening of a new store (on Worcester Highway near Ocean Pines in April), and we wouldn’t be spending all that money to do that if we didn’t have any optimism about the future.”
The one thing that could get lost in the mix in all of this is the numerous charity and children’s groups that the Ocean City-Berlin Optimist Club gives money to each and every year.
Smith said that the organization, which is considered one of the top civic groups in the area, will give a substantial amount of money to local groups even though the amount raised this year, fell short of last year’s numbers.
“We will spend the money on budgeted programs like the boys and girls scouts, the ‘Reading is Fundamental’ program, Recreation and Parks programs in both Ocean City and Ocean Pines, Diakonia, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and many others,” said Smith.
McCurdy said that most local businesses will be playing up the affordability aspects of boating and will try to dispel any notions that spending time on any boat this coming summer is a luxury only.
“Boating can be enjoyed for a reasonably small investment, and we don’t see a wholesale abandonment of the sport,” said McCurdy. “I don’t think anyone is doing the numbers they did three or four years ago, but there is business out there.”
Fiori agreed and felt that the “lower priced toys” at his store could have an advantage for the upcoming season.
“Gas prices are way better than they were last year, and you can go out and ride a jet ski for the day and not spend that much money, so we think that having products at a lower price point can only help us,” Fiori said.
Still, Denny Sharp, owner of Hi-Tide Marine Construction in Ocean City, came into the weekend bracing for the worst and came out of it with a sense of optimism that things are going to okay, and gave proper kudos to the organizers of the annual event.
“My hat goes off to the Optimist Club boys, they seem to pull it off without a hitch every single year,” he said.