Fort Myers Boat Show opens Friday with hundreds of boats as demand surges
The 48th Annual Fort Myers Boat Show could not have taken place at a better time considering the global coronavirus pandemic and what it has done to the recreational boating industry.
The pandemic both disrupted and encouraged the buying of boats, industry experts said, leading to record sales and depleted inventories at Southwest Florida boat dealers.
As boating aficionados prepare to flock Friday through Sunday to the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and parts of Centennial Park in the Fort Myers River District, they will be encouraged to wear medical masks and keep six feet apart from one another.
The start of the show was pushed back from Thursday to Friday because of Hurricane Eta, which was downgraded to a tropical storm at 1 p.m. Wednesday but drenched Southwest Florida and brought gusts of more than 50 mph in some places.
The protocols for boat-buying and convention-going have changed, said John Good, Marine Industries Association of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay, which puts on the show.
Admission costs $16, with children under 16 free with a paid adult admission. This year, the boat show is encouraging to purchase tickets in advance with no service fees to limit further person-to-person contact. There will be hand sanitizer stations, a mask requirement to go inside the convention center and the encouragement to wear them outside. There also will be social distancing markers.
The entrance will be at the corner of Bay and Heitman streets.
“I think we’re going to have a good show,” Good said. “Between COVID and all the other things, and of course this week the weather. We’re going to have not quite as many boats as we have had in the past.”
That’s because the pandemic shut down boat manufacturers for two-to-three months, then caused a glut of boat buying as consumers found fewer things to do during the summer months. These same trends have been seen in the realm of bicycle and recreational vehicle markets.
After boat sales plummeted in March and April, they surged thereafter.
Through October, new boat registrations have risen 5.8% from one year prior, according to Statistical Surveys shared by Norm Schultz, a blogger for Soundings Trade Only magazine and the president emeritus of the Ohio-based Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, which he led for 34 years.
Powerboat sales have risen 34% year over year.
Bowriders were up 47%. Ski and wakeboard boats rose by 37.5%. The data was compiled from 29 states that account for almost 60% of the U.S. market, Schultz said.
“No one would have predicted boat sales would be up during a pandemic, but without the options of vacation travel, summer camps and so many other typical summer activities, families turned to boating as their safe place to enjoy life in unexpected numbers,” he said. “Healthy demand is expected to continue into the new year.”
In Pine Island, York Road Marine ran out of boats in June, July, August and part of September. Otherwise, sales could have been even better, said Tom Papesh, who has worked at the dealership for 21 years.
“We sold what we had,” Papesh said. “That’s the problem. We couldn’t get any more. Just like almost all boat builders. They’re running out of boats. It’s been a surge of sales. Bayliner closed down for almost three months. Their suppliers shut down, too. That affected delivery of engines. It put everybody into a tailspin for four or five months.
“At one point, we only had three boats on the lot.”
Asked if supply trickled in, Papesh said that for a time, no.
“No trickle,” he said. “Zero.”
In the fall, the supply finally did begin to trickle. There will be about 600 boats on display at the show.
Bob Schmid, president and owner of Marker 5 Financial, which finances boats across Southwest Florida, said interest rates have stayed low, which has further boosted demand for boats.
“All of my dealers are having record years,” Schmid said. “Dealer inventory is at the lowest it’s ever been. The industry is very, very strong. The interest rates remain fairly low. Not as low as mortgage rates.
“People are just taking their families out because they couldn’t go to sporting events. They couldn’t do this. They couldn’t do that.”
Instead, they’re looking at purchasing $25,000 boats with loan terms of seven to 12 years, Schmid said.
“That gets your payment, instead of $500 a month, it’s $200 or $250, and you’re out on the water,” said Schmid, who has been in the business for 17 years.
“It’s a different deal for the positive side,” he said. “We’ve never seen this before. If you go drive by any local boat dealer, they have a quarter of the inventory they normally have. People who have never bought boats before were going out and buying boats.”