FLIBS attendance in question

FORT LAUDERDALE – While show producers continues to prepare for the postponed Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, South Florida remains entrenched in clean-up mode after Hurricane Wilma caused an estimated $6–$9 billion in damage there last week.

Originally scheduled to open this past week, the show has been postponed to Nov. 3–6. But with millions of Floridians still without power and Florida Power & Light estimating that some could remain without it for a month, many throughout the industry are questioning whether or not the show should go on.

One member of Power & Motoryacht magazine’s discussion board wrote that “it does not set a great example by our industry to hold a ‘luxury yacht’ show during a national tragedy, while most of our co-patriots are fighting to keep their homes together.”

To be sure, Wilma, which blew through last Monday, just days after the industry concluded its International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference, caused heavy damage to the infrastructure of South Florida. Many people reported that it was comparable to the damage sustained by Hurricane Andrew, which was considered the worst South Florida storm of the century. The damage estimate from Wilma trails only the total damage caused by Andrew and Hurricane Katrina, which is still being cleaned up after slamming into New Orleans two months ago.

But Kaye Pearson, president of Yachting Promotions, Inc., which produces the event, noted in an interview today the progress being made to restoring power and water to the area and has a different view on the comparisons to past storms.

“I’m not insensitive in any way,” he said. “I live here. While we sustained significant damage in this community, the part that has caught the most attention and the things everyone is talking about are all these commercial and office buildings where the glass has been blown out. It is not in any way the destruction of thousands of homes as occurred in Hurricane Andrew or as occurred in some of the storms last year or occurred in this last year in New Orleans and Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. There are not thousands of homes destroyed where people are totally homeless. We’ve got some homes that suffered significant damage, but it’s not widespread, and we’re not walking around here in four feet of water.”

Others in the industry have not been as optimistic about the show. There has been a shortage of fuel, and lines at those stations that do have it have reportedly grown to be miles in length. Roads are closed and some are impassable. Many people remain without power, water and food.

“Having the show would be thoughtless to manufacturers and dealers in the area,” said Joanne Johnson, VP of Operations at Sunrise, Fla.-based Digital Antenna, which sustained “minimal damage” from Wilma. “Why would customers want to come to a devastated area? With so many citizens needing basic resources, it would be a shame to ignore their needs to try to accommodate the needs of visitors to the area.”

“We are very, very skeptical of the success of the show, based on all the conditions and hurdles facing Fort Lauderdale right now,” added Julie Johnson on behalf of BRP, Inc. “We have been in a holding pattern with two semi-trucks sitting idle since last Sunday, and our crew in a hotel in Miami without power. And, most importantly, it just doesn’t seem prudent to be holding a boat show in light of everything that has happened in this community.

“However, we have to respect the decisions of the show management and we will try and make the best of a bad situation. Our trucks remain in Fort Lauderdale today, but we are monitoring the day-to-day activities leading up to Nov. 3. I question the viability of a major event being held in the convention center of a city with no running water, ice, power, fuel, hotels, etc. If the show does happen, I can assure you the people that are traveling 150 miles and more to get 10 gallons of fuel are probably not going to pay $16 a person to attend a boat show.”

“We’ve had some people that are negative,” Pearson said. “There are always some people out there who are concerned about the show being too soon, but it wasn’t our choice to go immediately. We simply had to do that or have no show at all. And so the decision was made we’d go forward.”

Moving forward

Meanwhile, the show is “full-steam ahead,” according to show officials. As of this morning, the Radisson Bahia Mar hotel, headquarters for the show, had restored power and water, and boats were being moved in to slips.

At the same time, Pearson was in meetings all morning with local government officials. Minutes before we spoke, the show gained access to the convention center, which had had a scheduling conflict.

“Our outlook is excellent,” said Pearson. “The infrastructure is in great shape. The docks are all back in order and boats are moving in right now. Electric is on in all areas (of the show). Each hour that goes by, as you can imagine, more power is restored to various areas of the city. As that power is restored, we have more hotel rooms available, restaurants available and that sort of thing.”

The impact of this — “the mother of all fall shows,” according to Lake Erie Marine Trades Association (LEMTA) President Norm Schultz — on both the marine industry and the South Florida economy has never been questioned. The show typically generates $600 million dollars in sales for the industry, and an additional $600 million for the local economy.

Underscoring the importance of the show’s impact is Schultz’s cry from as far away as Ohio. “Without [the show], preparing for the coming months would be like driving blind,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Besides the obvious loss in sales at the show itself, there’s too much else at stake for it not to go forward next week.

“LEMTA has an experienced staff of in-water show personnel that is at Kaye’s disposal. All he has to do is say the word and we’ll send them down there with equipment at LEMTA’s expense.”

Despite this offer, the one unknown is whether customers will be delivered to the show. Of the 1,000 boats that were scheduled to be on display in the water, an estimated 850 have confirmed that they’ll still be there. While that represents a 15-percent drop, that total, Pearson noted, is still twice as big as any other show in the world.

The effect the hurricane and subsequent damage has on show attendance may not be apparent until well after the show begins, but Pearson is optimistic that those who do attend will be quality buyers.

“The thing that is most significant in that regard is the enthusiastic support from a huge number of exhibitors has included their commitment to contact their client base all over the world,” he said. “That’s always been one of the strongest qualities of the attendance at any show when the exhibitor invites people to come because they are obviously the ones interested in buying boats. If your attendance goes down 25 percent or 50 percent and the people who come are quality people who are here to buy, it’s still a home run.

“While we don’t expect to be setting any records, we think we’ll generate a significant attendance of high-quality buyers.”

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