Their boating season is now

Ahoy: For many dealers, the annual Chesapeake Bay Boat Show here is the premier selling event of the year.

January 23, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

David Baumgartner paused amid the tumult of boat parking, positioning and polishing in the Baltimore Convention Center and noted that the next nine days will determine how well his business does this year.

The Chesapeake Bay Boat Show, which opens tomorrow and runs through Feb. 1, generally means more than 100 immediate sales for him -- and an introduction to hundreds of people who will later show up at Riverside Marine Inc. to sign a contract. He figures that he meets half his buyers at the convention center.

"Most folks who want to buy a boat in this market come to this boat show," said Baumgartner, whose White Marsh company has been at the show since 1977.

Unlike automobile events, boat shows are about making a deal -- though admittedly some people pay the admission fee just to ogle watercraft as costly as a house.

The appeal for businesses that want to sell and people who want to buy is convenience. Boat dealers aren't as numerous as auto dealers, so a potential customer would normally have to drive a fair distance to compare brands and prices.

Dealers who participate in shows make 70 percent to 80 percent of their sales there or from leads generated at the events, said Dan Rea, who manages the Chesapeake Bay show for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

"We sell easily in the tens of millions of dollars at this show," he said.

Locals are clearly willing to shell out a lot of money on the pastime.

Consumers spent at least $1.9 billion on boating in the state in 2002, up from a little more than $1 billion in 1993, according to the most recent University of Maryland Sea Grant Study.

About 209,000 boats were registered in the state in 2002, supporting more than 25,200 jobs, the study found.

"It's a significant recreational activity and contributor to the state economy," said Doug Lipton, head of the university's Sea Grant Extension Program.

About 71.6 million Americans participated in recreational boating in 2002, down a few million from the beginning of the last decade, according to the marine manufacturers association. But that hasn't worked out too badly for the industry because the remaining people have more boats between them, and they're spending a great deal more.

Americans owned 17.4 million boats in 2002, up more than a million from the previous decade. They spent in excess of $30 billion on boating that year -- one-and-a-half times as much as in 1990, even accounting for inflation.

The business generally rises and falls along with the economy because it depends on people's discretionary income. But spending remained steady in Maryland over the past few years, and Rea said the industry nationwide wasn't buffeted nearly as hard as usual in a recession.

He attributes that to Americans' post-Sept. 11 desire to spend their leisure dollars close to home and their time with relatives. The number of boaters, though down from the early 1990s, is up from 2001, and the demographics are changing.

"More and more families are buying boats," Rea said.

Richard Lippincott, president of Lippincott Marine in the Kent Narrows area, said low interest rates and tax cuts have also helped.

The Chesapeake Bay show, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, generally draws at least 25,000 people to see several hundred power boats and a raft of accessories from sonar to fishing rods.

"This is the biggest winter show in Baltimore," Rea said.

Boating paraphernalia is being packed into 185,000 square feet of floor space -- as big as a warehouse, but not nearly as much as Rea could use. He has a waiting list for exhibitors.

Riverside Marine workers have spent the past few days getting 46 boats arranged and shined, from 17-foot Bayliner Bowriders -- $9,995 for the boat, motor and trailer -- to a 37-foot Four Winds yacht that costs about $240,000.

Dave Bair, a Riverside detailer, spent Wednesday climbing under and over the Bayliners, making sure nothing was out of place and no fingerprints marred the surfaces.

"They gotta look good for the customers because it's a lot of money sitting there," he said.

Chesapeake Bay Boat Show

Where: Baltimore Convention Center

When: Saturday through Feb. 1

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. both Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. this Sunday; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 1

Admission: $8 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 through 12 and free for children under 6. Adults can purchase a two-day pass for $12.

Parking: Free in Lot C at Camden Yards

Information: 410-649-7360

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