The Wilmington Boat Show drew about 65 exhibitors, numerous boat dealers and an estimated 6,000 attendees to the Wilmington Convention Center and nearby Cape Fear Community College parking lot this weekend, according to event organizers.
Until the watercraft actually rolled into the site, Jacqui McGuinness, owner of JBM & Associates, which produces the event, didn’t know just how many display models the show would feature. High consumer demand and limited inventory have meant near-empty showrooms and widespread waiting lists. Boat dealers, like auto dealers, are preselling many models weeks or months before they are built.
“Four to five months ago, people got upset at having to wait for a boat, but [supply-chain delays] have been going on so long now that people expect it,” said Dwayne DeHart, owner of Bellhart Marine in Wilmington. “I’ve got one boat in stock, and 95% of my stock coming in is preordered. In the winter, demand will be slow, so spring might see some advantages.”
The upside for customers who order a boat months before it’s ready is that they can get exactly the features they want, DeHart added.
Nearby in the convention center’s expo hall was Atlantic Marine’s display, complete with two whiteboards logging orders. Only a handful of watercraft was in stock. As orders piled up, staffers updated the boards, flipping a boat’s status from “available” to “sold”.
“It’s a good visual for people to see where we are,” said Atlantic Marine’s business manager Jordan Davis.
What features were favored by prospective boat buyers?
“Twenty-one to 28-feet is our sweet spot,” he said. “The dual console product is very popular. It’s a family-friendly boat that still has all the features, like the cover for cooler weather. It used to be that a boat was something for Dad but now it’s for the family.”
The dual-console design enables boaters to use their craft for a wider range of activities and often creates a more social setup.
And that’s an important trend in boating, according to David Ittner, manager of fleet logistics for Yamaha’s Marine Group, the Wilmington Boat Show’s presenting sponsor.
“People realize life is short and they should enjoy today,” he said, reflecting on the change in consumer priorities that the pandemic has wrought. “Boating creates instant family, and many families have come together again through boating.”
Ittner said Saturday he and his colleagues at the Yamaha Marine exhibit were “stunned” at the number of people who had come by their display. Although the level of boat show attendance seemed back to a normal level, he predicted that it will take at least another year before Yamaha would have pre-COVID levels of outboard motors and be able to meet demand.
“My orders have been filled up, and we’ve been peacemealing it, distributing a few motors to each dealer just to keep them alive,” he said. “All our engines are manufactured in Japan. Those manufacturing plants shut down for about 45 days at the beginning of COVID.”
“Now production is up and running, but the supply chain isn’t,” he continued. “We’ve got 10,000 [engines] sitting in containers on ships outside ports all up and down the West Coast. There’s a shortage of dockworkers to unload the ships. Where ports have hired inexperienced people to unload the ships, the amount of damage has gone way up. And now we don’t have the trucks and drivers to transport the engines from the ports. It’s a domino effect.”
Like DeHart, Ittner is upbeat and finds would-be customers have learned patience and perspective as a result of COVID-related inventory problems.
Perhaps planning for next summer’s boating adventures, show attendees crowded around the booths of vendors, getting information on everything from boating education to insurance to financing.
Show founder McGuinness agreed that the pandemic has created pent-up demand for activities that can be done safely and near home. Boating is an enduring lifestyle, she said.