A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

So long, tire-kickers

There is boat show traffic, and then there is qualified traffic. The Palm Beach International Boat Show has a reputation for attracting a strong percentage of serious buyers, which really shouldn’t be a surprise given the surrounding zip codes.

It’s not the kind of thing you can easily quantify with hard numbers, but when you hear it often enough in conversations with builders and dealers, as I did over two days last week, you give it appropriate credence.

Exhibit No. 1 in the hunt for qualified buyers was a conversation at the Cherubini Yachts display, where a well-dressed “local” woman who knew something about boats stood beside me admiring a varnished mahogany runabout and a nifty sport cruiser with a small cabin and a hardtop.

“Stunning,” she said. “Breathtaking.”

To her male companion standing in one of the boats, she advised in a clear tone: “It’s either this or the Maserati.”

I don’t think she was kidding. Speaking to me, she added in a quieter voice, “We’re teaching him the difference between a Viking and a Wellcraft.”

In the spirit of the conversation, I suggested the Viking. She looked at me and said, deadpan, “I want the Rybovich.”

Touché.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The feeling I came away from Palm Beach with is that things are improving. More people told me they were doing well, that business was getting better. Keep in mind, “doing well” is a relative term, especially compared to halcyon days or to 2009 or 2010.

This recovery has been slow and choppy, with some boat categories and builders doing better than others, just as some industries are stronger than others. A rising tide lifts all boats — just not to the same degree and with the same timing.

I spoke with two builders at the show — SeaVee Boats and Sabre Yachts — which produce very different boats at the higher-end of their respective markets and are seeing a turn. Both are benefiting from having new product and catering to a buyer who has weathered the economic storm fully intact.

“It’s definitely better,” said Ariel Pared, the president and head of sales and marketing for SeaVee, which builds sportfishing boats to 43 feet. “We had a record year last year. The economy is coming back.”

But Pared is also realistic. “If we had single-digit growth for the next couple of years I’d be happy,” he said. “I don’t need double-digit.”

At the end of second day of the show, Pared had sold a 32 and a 39, and he said Palm Beach typically produces more sales after the show than other venues. It was a good start. “Nice,” said Pared. “And we’ve got quite a few people sitting down and talking.”

SeaVee has long done a good job of taking market share through new, innovative product and by staying close to its customers. The Miami builder is planning to introduce a new 43-foot fisharound — a cross between a walkaround express and a center console, with a 13-foot, 4-inch beam — at Miami next February.

“It’s a hardcore tournament fishboat,” said Pared. The tooling and engineering represent a seven-figure investment, but that’s sometimes what it takes to “excite” a still-cautious market and pull early adapters off their perches. The new boat, he said, blends luxury and comfort into a serious fishing machine.

“I really think we’re on an upswing,” said Pared, who has hired back 20-some workers in the last 14 months for a total work force of nearly 120. “And it’s not just our industry. It’s luxury items, [and] it’s confidence. I think we’re at an exciting time.”

Like SeaVee, Sabre Yachts — and Back Cove Yachts, too — is finding good traction in a luxury segment of the market with its lineup of new product. “This year is 50 percent better than last year and 100 percent better than two years ago,” said Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing for the Maine-based builder. “This year people are much more inclined to be decisive.”

While he declined to give specific numbers, Collins reported that “this will be a record sales year for Sabre and Back Cove powerboats. This is our best year ever.” The reasons for the uptick: new product, interest in larger boats, pent-up demand and a “ton more” confidence on the part of consumers, Collins said.

As of day two of the show, Collins had sold a 30-foot Back Cove and a 48-foot Sabre. “We do really well here” said Collins, referring to active snowbird boaters with homes in the Palm Beach area and the Northeast. “These are highly qualified customers. Boating is big part of Palm Beach and Martin County. It’s a big part of the lifestyle here. This is boating country.”

And a lot of the people who come to the Palm Beach show, he noted, don’t want the “hassle” of attending either the Lauderdale or Miami events.

I don’t know if the woman with Maseratis and Rybos on her mind bought that day or the next — or whether she’s still narrowing her many options. But I can tell you one thing: She wasn’t kicking tires, not in West Palm.

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