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Boat shows sail through an economic storm

The Baltimore Sun

People in the sailing world know a Tartan 4300 is a pretty fancy boat. And at the recent U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, when a salesman sold a pair of the half-million dollar yachts, heads turned. And that sales guy was grinning.

The salesman "came over to my booth and said he had sold a Tartan," said Susan Zellers, executive director of the state Marine Traders Association. "I said, 'Congratulations. Those are half-million dollar boats.' He said, 'I know. This is my second one.' "

We all know times are tough. Stock prices are way down, and the credit market is drying up. There's talk of another stimulus package. But the past two weekends at City Dock represented a bright spot in the financial crisis of 2008. Two of Annapolis' premier events - the sailing and powerboat shows - may have seen slight dips in attendance, but boaters were still buying.

An estimated 51,000 people attended this year's sailing show, down about 2 percent from last year's record attendance, said Ed Hartman, president of the United States Yacht Shows Inc., who has organized Annapolis' boat shows for the past 37 years. About 33,000 attended the powerboat show, about a 15 percent slip from last year.

Revenue estimates were not available, but boat show organizers said boats were moving, and sellers had promising contacts with likely future buyers, a goal of any boat show.

"I was quite concerned with all the general news about the economy being bad," Hartman said. "But they were upbeat shows. People who were there were smiling and happy. Maybe they were just getting away from reality."

The boat shows at City Dock - held each year in October - are a staple in this boat-loving city, nicknamed "America's Sailing Capital," and soon to be home to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, a planned interactive museum. And the powerboaters are a force, too, in the Annapolis area and on the waters in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

In the months leading up to the boat shows - which featured about 700 sailboats and powerboats - the industry was reeling. High gas costs had dealt a major hit to sales. So the news that the shows had done well was a welcome relief to organizers.

The early indications weren't all bad. At boat shows in September in Rhode Island and Connecticut, attendance was off just slightly.

City officials point to a 2002 study that shows the maritime business is worth an estimated $200 million a year to Annapolis. The boat shows, their own economic engines, bring about $50 million in revenue to the city each year.

"I didn't really see the doom and gloom," Zellers said, acknowledging that both attendance and sales weren't as stellar as in years past. "But a lot of vendors said they had come into it with little or no expectations at all. So we're thrilled."

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said the boat shows helped put Annapolis on the map internationally as a hotbed of boating. The sailboat show completed its 39th year; the powerboat show its 37th. The economy, she said, won't likely keep a boater from the boats.

" 'I want a boat, and this is what I want to do, and doggone it, I'm going to buy it,' " Moyer said, explaining the psychology behind many boat buyers. " 'By golly, I'm not going to let these things get me down.' "

If it were only that simple.

Hartman said all 13 lending institutions that attended the shows processed loans and were pleased with the turnout. "That's another myth, that there's not any money around," Hartman said.

Hartman's company pays $375,000 a year to the city for use of the City Dock.

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