58th Boat Show Drops Anchor

February 7, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although the weather may not inspire many skippers to launch, more than 300 boats were docked at the Grand Center over the past few days because the granddaddy of all consumer shows returns.

The 58th Annual Grand Center Boat Show begins Tuesday and sails through Sunday in downtown Grand Rapids. The show will have a slew of boats for skiing, cruising and sailing, along with pontoons, deck boats, fishing boats and jet boats. Sixteen area dealers will be at the show with an array of crafts, an assortment that has motivated thousands to buy since the first show was held in 1945.

“If I had a dollar for every boat sold under the Grand Center roof over that period, I could probably take a year off and sail around the world,” said Henri Boucher, event manager for Showspan Inc., which produces the show.

Rob Maskill, marketing director for Action Water Sports, which relocated from Holland to Hudsonville a few weeks ago, said boats have been selling well since the holidays despite a less-than-smooth-sailing economy.

“Stock market declines appear to have prompted many people to invest in family activities, such as boating. That’s why our industry has continued to grow during this recession,” he said.

Dealers will be offering special promotions and low interest rates to potential buyers at the show, and marine lenders are financing loans with down payments as low as 10 percent.

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the preliminary wholesale deliveries of boats last November were up by 8.3 percent over the same month the previous year. NMMA also reported the dollar value of the boats sold rose by 23 percent, indicating that dealers were ordering bigger boats with more features.

During 2001, the association estimated that 541,300 boats were sold in America.

As for registrations, the U.S. Coast Guard said 12.9 million recreational boats were registered in the country last year — 94,000 more than in 2001. Michigan continued to lead the nation last year in registrations with slightly over 1 million, nearly 50,000 more than California had and almost 100,000 more than Florida.

Companies that sell boating accessories will be at the show, too. A diving demonstration, various how-to seminars, a boating certification class by the Kent County Sheriff’s office, and two Friday evening fashion shows are other event highlights.

“This show is about the boating lifestyle,” said Boucher, who will be cruising between here and Milwaukee this week as Showspan is producing a boat show there, too.

In fact, Showspan is producing 14 boat, auto, home and sports shows over a 12-week period. One of those, the Michigan International Auto Show held at the Grand Center two weeks ago, had a turnout that nearly topped the record crowd of 60,000 that showed up for the much-anticipated inaugural show in 1999. The 2003 show drew more than 50,000, a number that was 30 percent above the average attendance of the previous three events.

“It was packed in 1999,” said Boucher of the city’s first auto show. “To get even close to that number was startling.”

Showspan expects that 30,000 will attend the boat show, an event with a different purpose than the auto show.

Boucher explained the auto show is held to give manufacturers brand recognition among potential buyers. In contrast, the boat show is a straight-out selling event. A third to half of all the sales that boat dealers will make this year will be done at the show.

“You’ll see a lot of women at the boat show,” said Boucher. “They’re smarter shoppers than men, usually. They understand that instead of just buying the same boat as Uncle Ralph got, they want to go downtown and see what they can get.”           

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