It’s pretty common to advertise an event that draws crowds as "bigger than ever," but this weekend’s Charleston Boat Show actually fits the bill.
The displays will fill the Charleston Area Convention Center and much of the parking lot outside. In fact, it’s 20,000 square feet bigger than last year, according to organizer Jacqui Bomar of JBM & Associates of Greenville.
"This year we had a higher demand," she said. "This is a very sought-after market in the marine industry."
She said four new dealers are setting up displays this year, including a couple from outside Charleston.
The ticketed event, which runs Friday through Sunday, typically attracts more than 10,000 visitors. It’s a chance not only to check out the latest watercraft but also fishing and boating seminars.
The show started in 1981 in the cold parking lot outside Northwoods Mall. The exhibits moved into the North Charleston Coliseum, with plywood covering the ice floors, after it opened in 1993. The venue switched to the convention center after it opened in 1999 and has been spilling over into more of the parking lot each year.
Bomar counts 125 exhibitors this year, including 35 boat dealerships offering 85 different brands.
Those interested in a boat are promised the best deals of the season. For dealers, it’s a key barometer of the year to come.
Boat sales have been improving each year for the last several years, both nationally and in Charleston.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates that 260,000 new powerboats were sold in 2017, a 6 percent increase over 2016 and the sixth consecutive year of growth. The Chicago-based trade group predicts another 5 percent to 6 percent increase this year and possibly beyond.
"On the horizon, if economic indicators remain favorable to the recreational boating market with strong consumer confidence, a healthy housing market, rising disposable income and consumer spending, and historically low interest rates, the outlook is good for boat sales," association president Thom Dammrich said in his annual outlook earlier this month.
Local dealers are optimistic.
"We’re expecting this to be equal to last year if not even better," said Chris Butler of Butler Marine in Charleston and president of the Tri County Marine Trade Association, a sponsor of the show. "We’ve been busier than we ever have been for those two months."
In fact, demand is so strong, buyers who wait until spring to put in their orders might miss the season because of production delays, he said.
"I would tell you to order now for a May delivery,” Butler said.
Rick Hall of MarineMax Hall Marine said winter is when manufacturers offer the biggest discounts.
"This is the single greatest opportunity for our customers to get a great deal on a boat," he said. "It’s the best deal of the year."
Tim Clark of Longshore Boats is also optimistic it will be worth the trouble of putting 29 boats on trailers and hiring drivers to take them from the dealership on Clements Ferry Road near Daniel Island to the convention center and back.
"It’s like moving your house in a weekend and then moving back out again," he said. "But this sets the tone for the whole year. This is a big deal."
Clark said he's seen an increasing demand over the last few years for bigger and more expensive boats, even in the mid-range market.
"It used to be that 17 and 18 feet were our bread and butter," he said. "Now it’s 24 feet."
The high-end market has also continued to move upscale.
Scout Boats of Summerville, which makes boats for dealers around the country, broke ground in November for a $10.9 million expansion for a bigger luxury yacht. A 53-foot 530 LXF is expected to debut this spring to the tune of $2 million, according to sales director Alan Lang.
This is Scout’s second expansion in recent years. In 2014, the company announced it was spending $2.5 million on a new building to produce the 42-foot 420 LXF, a speedy $1 million vessel with four outboard motors.
The luxury yachts won't be on display at the boat show, although there will be literature about them, Lang said.
For those just getting into boating, a "Get on the Water" promotion starts at $22,995 for the 17-foot center console 177 Sport Fish, motor and trailer.
JBM & Associates also puts on the Charleston In-Water Show, which is set for April 20-22 at Brittlebank Park and Bristol Marina.