Illinois hunting and fishing

Mechanic Fred Rutherford installs an outboard motor at East Side Marine on Wednesday. Boat dealers are preparing for annual Boat Show in Springfield at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Feb. 26-28. The boat show typically kicks off the boating season.

Springfield readies for boat show

February 20, 2010 at 10:01 AM

While politicians look for solutions to “lift all boats” out of the economic recession, local boat dealers are falling back on their experience, customer base, business relationships and common sense to make it through.

And with the onset of spring just around the river bend, boat dealers are hoping a late-winter trade show helps them kick off a better season than last year.

The Boat Show in Springfield opens a three-day run at the Illinois State Fairgrounds next Friday.

Just like other businesses, boat dealers have felt the effects of the economic downturn.

Terry Taylor, co-owner of The Boat Dock, 4600A Rising Moon Road, with partner Mike Miles, says he hopes for a slight increase in business over last year.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he says. “We feel this year is going to be better than last year. Everybody took a 25 to 30 percent hit across the board — and in some cases larger.

“That’s not just boat dealers; that’s everybody,” Taylor says. “We are all anticipating business to be comparable to last year or to increase slightly. I’d be happy with 10 to 15 percent over last year,”

Jeff Smith of JLS Marine Inc. of Springfield has taken over promoting the boat show this year, and he has a vested interest in helping local dealers do well.

Smith has sold boat docks and lifts locally for 20 years, and his business rises and falls on the success of local dealers.

“I have a great relationship with the boat dealers,” he says. “We refer business back and forth.”

Smith plans to do more advertising, direct mail and promotion. He’s also going to offer door prizes and raffles at this year’s show.

“My hope is to put more into the show, and I feel it is going to be a win-win,” he says. “My goal is to make sure the dealers have every opportunity to be successful and sell more boats.”

Busy season

The show comes at a time when business traditionally picks up for the boating industry.

“We’re just on the cusp of our season kicking off,” Taylor says. Typically, the boat show sets the season into high gear.

“We get a little activity in January and February, but it’s mostly onesies and twosies,” Taylor says. “Our season kicks off when we are selling 20 boats or more — up to 40 a month.”

Taylor says shoppers are smart and know there are deals to be had.

“If there’s anything moving right now, it’s a deal,” he says with a laugh.

Steve Poe, owner of East Side Marine, 2525 E. North Grand Ave., says the boat show might be just the thing for people itching to get out of the house.

“We are getting some walk-through business,” he says. “If the weather would clear a little bit, it would help tremendously. Everybody has cabin fever real bad.”

Poe says his business is riding out the poor economy.

“We’re hanging in,” he says. “We’re hoping for a better year.”

Taylor says his business has adapted to current conditions, but hasn’t had to reduce staff.

“You cut expenses everywhere you can, and you cut your inventory down to the lowest possible level,” Taylor says. “That way your showroom inventory interest doesn’t eat you alive.”

The Boat Dock maintains a staff of 16, including a camper sales division.

Illinois hunting and fishing

What people are buying

The general consensus is that buyers are avoiding higher-end products or especially large boats. Dealers who have adjusted their inventory to match market conditions are doing all right.

“I know the boat dealers are still selling inventory, but it’s changing a little bit,” Smith says.

Boaters normally get what Smith calls “two-footitis,” or a desire to move up to a little bigger boat each time. But in the current economy, consumers are standing pat.

Poe says inquiries are coming in on fishing and pleasure boats.

“Aluminum fishing and pontoon boats are going to be hot items this year — we’re hoping they are going to be real hot,” Poe says. “I think they are the right price. People are somewhat avoiding higher-end models.

“I think people are still cautious, but they still want to get on the water, too.”

Smith says nine dealers are coming to the show, all displaying different products.

“Everybody’s got a different set of lines,” Smith says. “None of them overlap, as far as the ones in the show this year. And that took a little extra effort.”

Smith says that, despite a slow economy, boating remains a popular pastime.

“People are still buying boats — used boats or consignment boats,” he says. “Having the right inventory — having what people are looking for — is important.”

Smith says people still enjoy getting out on the water to boat or fish — almost no matter what.

“You are not going to keep people from having a good time.”