Sail boat show stays afloat in recession


The last time Bob Kisko came to the annual United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, he sailed from his home in Cherry Hill, N.J. This time, having sold his boat, he had to drive.

But now that he's in the market for a new craft, Mr. Kisko knew this show would be the one to attend.

"I think this is recognized as being the queen of the boat shows for sailors," he said.

Show organizers hope many more people keep the Annapolis show's vaunted status in mind. And while the diminishing size of the last several shows could be an indication of the recession's impact on the retail boat business, not all the indicators agree.

To start with, the nearest available hotel room is near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"We're sending a lot of people up there," said Herman Schieke, executive director of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some rooms are available in Glen Burnie, "but in Annapolis, there's nothing. Every bed and breakfast is jammed."

Yesterday, only people in the boat trade and others who wanted to pay $20 for a sneak preview of the show were admitted, but several exhibitors said that even this crowd was larger than years past.

"You wouldn't know things were slow down here," observed Thomas Collins, a salesman with Van Breemsholland Yachts in Westport, Conn. "In the Northeast, things are really tight."

said he has gotten fewer leads for prospective customers at recent shows, "but the leads we get are a lot better."

The people here, they're not just hull kickers," Gil Costa, sales manager of Hans Christian Yachts of Annapolis, said as he stood on the deck of a 41-foot custom-built yacht that sells for a cool $249,500. "We feel we've had a couple very good inquiries so far."

Not even the weather forecast of showers today could dampen organizers' enthusiasm. When it rains, "it really doesn't have a great effect," said Jeffrey Holland, spokesman for the boat show. "I think that has to do with the nature of the activity. It's an outdoor sport, so the people into it don't mind a little weather. "So if it is raining, you'll see a sea of yellow and red," he predicted.

Downtown traffic this weekend, and for next weekend's United States Powerboat Show, should prove to be the standard Downtown Annapolis big-event nightmare. City police suggest parking at the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium on Rowe Boulevard and taking the shuttle in.

And don't even think about parking in a restricted zone.

"It would be advisable for people to adhere to those signs, because they will be towed in the twinkle of an eye," said Officer Dermott Hickey, an Annapolis Police spokesman.

In addition to the 400 exhibitors, this year's 23rd annual show features 165 sailboats moored both to the city dock and a half-mile of floating dock temporarily placed in the harbor. That's the same number as last year, Mr. Holland said. But the show is much smaller than it was in its peak year of 1986, 500 boats were displayed.

The recession has not been the only culprit. Many blame the federal luxury tax, instituted in January 1991, on boats valued at more than $100,000. "All of these things have taken their toll," Mr. Holland said.

Boat sellers and buyers heard some good news on the luxury tax front yesterday, albeit probably short-lived. As part of a $27 billion tax bill passed by the Senate yesterday, the hated luxury tax on yachts will be repealed.

But they'll have to hold off any major celebrations; President Bush is expected to veto the bill because it contains tax increases. And because Congress is due to adjourn this week, there will be no opportunity to override the veto.

Just the prospect of the luxury tax repeal cheered boat salespeople. Sales on new boats has dropped 85 percent since the luxury tax went into effect, said Jerry Cann, vice president of Crusader Yacht Sales in Annapolis.

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