Boat dealers power ahead as economy picks up

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Dealers at the Houston Boat Show anticipate stronger local sales this year as oil prices stabilize and buyers look to replace vessels damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

Hundreds of dealers showcased more than 1,000 boats at the 63rd annual expo, which occupied the entire showroom floor at NRG Center. Many sold boats to buyers cheered by recent economic gains and fielded questions from those assessing replacement options after receiving their insurance checks.


The interest builds on last year’s sales momentum, which picked up after a plunge during the oil bust. Daniel McCormick, general manager of SMG Wake in Conroe, said he at last feels comfortable forecasting a positive year after months of uncertainty.

“We’re excited,” he said. “It was a hard-hit segment.”


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Business


Though local dealers saw sales drop as oil prices bottomed out in 2015, many recorded increases last year amid slow-but-steady economic improvements that benefited the entire retail industry.

Locally, rising oil prices coincided with a decline in the state unemployment rate, which settled at a record low last month. Chill Pillsbury, a sales associate at MarineMax in Seabrook, said sales at his dealership rose steadily for the first eight months of the year. Then Hurricane Harvey slammed the coast and hovered over Houston, destroying or damaging an estimated 13,500 boats worth $155 million, according to data from the U.S. Boat Owners Association.

Unlike auto dealers, who saw an immediate spike in sales as Houstonians rushed to replace flooded cars, boat dealers anticipate a latent uptick as Harvey-affected residents complete home repairs and other priorities.

Pillsbury, whose dealership serviced as many as 50 Harvey-damaged boats, already received some interest at the show from buyers whose vessels were totaled. He said he expects to see replacement sales begin in earnest during the second quarter, before the summer boating season.

“There will be a lot of pent-up demand,” he said.

The show, which began on Friday, had a high attendance last weekend. As many as 75,000 people are expected to attend the show, which runs through Sunday.

“Dealers have had strong sales,” said Ken Lovell, the show’s longtime president.

The boats on the floor modeled improvements in fuel economy, steering and horsepower. The latest technology, Lovell said, is vastly different from the basic equipment aboard the boats at the show in 1988, when he first took the helm.

Pontoon boats, once considered clunky, squarish cruisers for the sunset years, have seen a spike in sales driven in part by more streamlined designs, updated features and major improvements in speed. The National Marine Manufacturers Associations estimates sales in that segment increased last year by as much as 8 percent, slightly more than other types of boats.

Lynn Kirkpatrick and his son walked the exhibits at the show Wednesday afternoon, a tradition they’ve shared for more than 10 years. But this year, for the first time, they considered buying a boat.

Kirkpatick’s wife can no longer ride the jet skis they used to haul to their house on Canyon Lake, so they plan to replace them with a boat fit for cruising. He and his son left with a photo of a 22-foot NauticStar model to show her.

“We want something she can enjoy,” he said.

Martin Borrego came to the show in search of a picnic boat, a sort of cruiser more common in New England and Florida than in Texas. He wants to start a charter business out of Clear Lake with his wife, who lives with him on a sailboat they recently took from New Jersey to Galveston on a 40-day adventure at sea.

“We’re thinking of doing a sunset cruise,” he said.

McCormick of SMG Wake doubled his floor space at the show last year, anticipating a pickup in sales.

His dealership sells Bennington pontoon boats, a popular manufacturer, as well as boats specially designed for wakeboarding and other sports.

This year is looking even better than last, he said. He anticipates the dealership will sell 30 percent more boats during the show.

“Everything is firing,” he said. “It’s fun.”


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