Let’s try to leave the last year-plus in our wake and chart a new course for our favorite boat shows — because they're back, with a few twists.
What a difference a year makes. After the 2020 boat show season was all but torpedoed by COVID-19, an armada of miraculously effective vaccines were distributed across the country in record time, and we've returned to some semblance of "normal" in America. The result? The majority of U.S. boat shows are a go for this season! How close they resemble the boat shows you remember remains to be seen — probably right up until showtime.
You can expect boat show managers to follow the safety protocols of the state or city where it's held. As of press time, though, the protocol landscape could (should?) look significantly different come the fall.
"The swift vaccine rollout has certainly helped to make people feel more confident and experience some semblance of normalcy," Nancy Piffard, director of the Newport International Boat Show in Rhode Island, which kicks off its 50th anniversary show on September 16. "Masks may be a requirement. That protocol will be based on state guidelines at the time of the event. I am confident at this time [in late June] that our show will feel normal to visitors, especially for those who've been vaccinated."
Navigating Boat Shows During COVID
- Plan ahead. Check the show's website and state/local guidelines for any safety protocols that may be in place before attending.
- Familiarize yourself with the companies exhibiting at the show, and make a list of the booths and displays you want to visit. Some exhibitors may choose to show by appointment only, and attendees should be prepared for that — especially for boat tours.
- If you have a boat in mind that you'd like to preview, call the dealer and make an appointment ahead of time.
- Bring a mask and some hand sanitizer, as you would for any outing, just in case.
Not only will the shows go on, but show managers expect substantial attendance.
"We don't anticipate attendance for the fall shows to be down compared to previous years," says Paul Jacobs, president of the Annapolis Boat Shows, to be held in Maryland in October. "In fact, we're confident attendance numbers may be at an all-time high. Our spring show [Bay Bridge Boat Show held in April] saw a 57% increase in attendance compared to the previous record in 2019. This show ran during a time when restrictions were still in place, masks were still mandated, social distancing was highly encouraged, and available vaccinations were limited."
So expect at least normal-sized crowds at whichever shows you attend through fall and winter.
Most people buying new boats at the show do so expecting a spring delivery, which is good because anyone who's shopped at a dealership this year knows the pickings are thin.
"Demand has remained high, though there are still tariffs and supply-chain issues to work through," Piffard says. "The manufacturers we've talked to are very transparent with their customers about delivery times."
One of the pleasant surprises of the pandemic was a skyrocketing demand for boats — new and used. With just about everything shut down for almost a year, consumers quickly figured out that a safe respite from the national gloom could be found out on the water.
New boat sales reached a 13-year high in 2020 with nearly 320,000 units sold, up 13% compared to 2019. Sales remained at elevated levels, with "pandemic" sales through March 2021 ramping up to 30% compared to the 2020 average, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), which represents the recreational boat industry. And just as we saw our own membership rolls grow at BoatUS, NMMA reported data showing 415,000 first-time boat buyers entered the market in 2020.
7 Tips For Making The Most Of A Boat Show
1. Dress comfortably. You'll walk miles, so comfortable slip-on shoes are best for getting on and off a lot of boats. Most dealers ask that you remove shoes before boarding. Wear loose-fitting clothes, avoid dangling jewelry, pack light, and bring water, a hat, and sunscreen — and a mask.
2. Attendance cost. Tickets typically range from $12 to $35, depending on the venue. BoatUS Members receive exclusive discounts at many shows. Most shows host a "VIP Day" before the show opens. These special-admission tickets are a bit more expensive but often well worth it. Crowds are lighter and have more serious buyers. You'll get more attention from dealers on these days, as well as unhurried tours of the boats.
3. Security. Especially at the big Florida shows, expect a screening at the entrance. Your bags will likely be scanned and/or inspected. Lines back up during the opening rush, so leave plenty of time if you have appointments scheduled.
4. Getting around. Most shows divide boats by category — dayboats, cruisers, fishing, sailing, sport, and so on. Every show will have a guide with a detailed floor/dock-layout map. Larger shows have free apps for the specific show.
5. Electronics. Take cellphone pictures of your boat and nav station so the salesperson will have an idea what you're looking for and your installation. If you plan on fitting, say, a new chartplotter into a spare spot on your dash, take a few dimensions along so you'll know if the unit you're considering will fit.
6. Homework. A productive show starts at home. Narrow the list of boats you're most interested in. All shows provide a list of exhibitors and (often free) seminars on their websites. Before you go, dig into the manufacturers' websites to learn boat details. Make a list of questions about the design priorities and accessories you're most interested in, including specifics on warranties, servicing options, and any training options. Be prepared with a good sense of your financial abilities, including what it will cost to insure your new pride and joy.
7. Getting the best deal. "Special boat show price" signs are seen at every show, and the discounted price can be significant. Dealers offer that price "while the show lasts." But the reality is they want to sell boats, so they'll hold that price for serious buyers who are ready to move. As a further show-only incentive, many dealers will include significant "packages" of products you'll need anyway, which could include gear such as electronics, docklines, life jackets, or extended warranties or service contracts.
"Boating has seen an increase in more diverse first-time boat buyers who are helping drive sales of more versatile smaller boats that provide a variety of boating experiences, from fishing to watersports," says Frank Hugelmeyer, NMMA president. That bears out in which vessels are the hottest sellers:
- Sales of personal watercraft (PWCs) were up 8% to 82,500 units in 2020. With accessible entry-level price points, personal watercraft are often considered a gateway to the boating lifestyle.
- Sales of wakesport boats were up 22% to 13,600 units in 2020.
- Sales of freshwater fishing boats and pontoon boats, often sought for their versatility and entry-level price points and accounting for 45% of new powerboats sold in 2020, were up 13% to 144,700 units.
While all boat manufacturing had to shut down for a period early in the pandemic, assembly lines were fired up once the boat-buying frenzy became apparent. Smaller manufacturers may be behind in their production schedules, but builders say they're still working hard to meet demand.
"We aren't catching up from the shutdown or from supply issues. We're playing catch-up because of demand. We can't build boats and engines fast enough!" says Lee Gordon, vice president of communications for Brunswick Corporation, the largest recreational boatbuilder in the country with 16 brands, including Boston Whaler and Sea Ray, as well as Mercury Marine outboard engines. "The shutdowns on our end were minimal, but customers were ordering boats and engines into 2023 , and there's no sign of slowing down anytime soon."