NORTH CHARLESTON — Surging demand for watercraft during the COVID-19 pandemic will buoy sales at the annual Charleston Boat Show over the weekend and into the rest of the year.
But a limited inventory of watercraft means buyers shouldn't expect their play toys immediately from what will be a sales-only event without a lot of the extras from past years such as experts offering fishing tips.
"We are going about it like any other show, except we are selling boats that are not at the show, for the most part, for the future," said Chris Butler, owner of Butler Marine and president of the Tri County Marine Trade Association.
"We will have the information available for buyers about a boat and a model, how many we have and when they are coming," he said.
Butler called sales the best he's seen in his 20 years in business.
"I think most dealers would say that, too," he said. "Sales have been on fire."
Butler doesn't see a let up in demand, pointing to people not traveling for business and pleasure and deciding to buy a boat as a way of enjoying the outdoors away from large crowds.
"No one has a lot of inventory right now," Butler said. "If you want a boat in March or April or May, you need to get that now so that you can secure that boat in time to have it when you want it."
Show attendees will still find plenty of vendors for boats and aquatic-themed products.
More than two dozen dealers representing 70 brands will be set up in and around the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston along with several other marine-related companies in outdoor booths.
The difference this year, in the era of social distancing and face masks, is the show will focus solely on boats to limit crowds from gathering in any one location, said Jacqui McGuinness, president of JBM & Associates, the event's producer.
"This year’s Charleston Boat Show will be run as a retail sales venue only, without any special events like fishing seminars or interactive displays," she said.
Boat sales across the U.S. skyrocketed 12 percent in 2020 to 310,000 units to levels not seen since before the Great Recession started in 2007, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Before the pandemic, the trade group predicted powerboat sales last year would grow about 2 percent.
"2020 was an extraordinary year for new powerboat sales as more Americans took to the water to escape pandemic stress and enjoy the outdoors safely," said Frank Hugelmeyer, the trade group's president.
"For the first time in more than a decade, we saw an increase in first-time boat buyers, who helped spur growth of versatile, smaller boats — less than 26 feet — that are often towed to local waterways and provide a variety of boating experiences, from fishing to watersports," he said.
Last year's sales of boats, marine products and services are estimated at $47 billion in the U.S., up 9 percent over 2019.
Boat sales are expected to remain at historic levels in 2021 as manufacturers continue to fill a backlog of orders from 2020.
Pandemic-related supply chain constraints curbed powerboat production and shipments for several months in 2020, which are expected to subside and restore marine manufacturing to normal levels this year, the trade group said.
"Additionally, social distancing measures are likely to continue well into the latter months of 2021, spurring additional interest in safe outdoor recreation activities, including boating," according to the national organization.
As for safety, McGuinness said she produced a similar event in Wilmington, N.C., in October, under COVID-19 guidelines. She believes the Charleston show will meet the health standards as well.
The indoors portion of the show will adhere to occupancy limits of 50 percent. The displays outdoors will be more spread out than in past years, and a large tent will provide room for social distancing.
"We have eliminated a great deal of booths inside and have dramatically increased outdoor space," McGuinness said.
All exhibitors, staff and attendees will be required to wear masks, stay six feet apart and wash their hands. Staff and exhibitors will have daily temperature checks.
Additional staff has been hired to continuously clean and disinfect all areas of the show to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
"The convention center has successfully run events throughout the pandemic and know what they are doing," McGuinness said.
The typical array of interactive events and seminars will return after the pandemic, she said.