Boating is part of the Florida lifestyle. Unlike other recreational pursuits, such as golf, boating is a family affair. Boaters can float away from the worries on land for a weekend and spend time with the ones they love.
At least that's the story Bill McGill, chief executive of Clearwater-based boat retailer MarineMax, is selling to customers these days, as buyers' economic woes make them leery of shelling out for a brand new boat.
Like cars and homes, purchases of pleasure boats have been slammed by the recession. Many retailers report sales down nearly 35 percent in some sectors, including power boats and outboard boats longer than 17 feet. At MarineMax, for example, revenue for the last quarter of 2008 sank by more than half to $100.2 million, and earnings plunged 50.7 percent.
So as this year's Miami International Boat Show opens this week, vendors say they are doing what they can to offset customer worries and rethink their sales pitches.
In addition to stepping up efforts to sell the lifestyle, they are cutting deals and stressing affordability. Sales of smaller, cheaper boats are faring better than others. Some higher-end dealers are emphasizing their willingness to please the customer by customizing boats to suit buyers' whims.
Some dealers are trying to use the economy to their advantage, describing boating as an escape from the trials of landlocked life.
That philosophy has worked for McGill. "I'm out on the water more than I ever have [been]," he said. "I do it to escape and try to get away from all the bad news you see on TV."
The best-selling models for MarineMax are family boats, McGill said: boats to take out for the weekend or live-aboard models.
"Surprisingly, we're still selling entry-level, 18-foot boats, because people are still buying them," he said.
The need for relief is what keeps Frank Herhold, Marine Industries Association of South Florida executive director, optimistic despite the economy.
"People still want to relax," he said.
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