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Buyer’s Market: Mobile Boat Show Indicates Hot Spot

By John Sharp
Buyer’s Market
Three years ago, when there was no boat show in Mobile during the pandemic, dealers were in the middle of an unexpected boom in their businesses.

For dealers like Forrest Long of Bluewater Yacht Sales and George Nall of George’s Water Sales, the inventory didn’t last long. “We sold everything we could get our hands on,” said Nall, who has been selling boats in Mobile for 45 years.

Business is now normalizing following the pandemic, but it’s far from collapsing as illustrated by a steady crowd of marine industry and boating recreational enthusiasts — and families looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon — in downtown Mobile for the 72nd annual Mobile Boat Show.

Nall and Long said the shoppers were likely to find a deal amid what they described as a “buyer’s market” within an industry that has seen a downswing in sales that began in 2022.

“Some of the dealers, including myself, have leftover industry, and we are looking to (move the boats) out,” said Long, whose Bluewater Yacht Sales operates in Mobile and Orange Beach. “This year has been down compared to previous years, but it’s starting to come back.”

Indeed, boat sales are trending toward a 10-year low following a boom period where “everyone bought a boat,” according to Bob Wood, professor of finance at the University of South Alabama.

“A majority of people finance purchases,” Wood said. “The prices are still high, and the inflation impacts with labor and transportation are there. They are still having supply chain issues. High interest rates.”

The industry estimates there were 800,000 newcomers to boat purchases in the U.S. from 2020-2021, as Americans sought solace and safety on the waters inside a boat.

Economists said the softening began about two years ago. Affluent buyers were still active in the market, but the boats for sale in Mobile were aimed at the families: Center consoles and pontoon boats were plentiful within the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, where the show has long been held.

Nall has 18 boats on display, including pontoon boats which he said are taking “off pretty good” sales wise.

Long said the smaller-sized family boats are popular and represent a general shift in the attendees at a boat show over the past 20 years.

“It’s gone from a guy coming over here saying, ‘this is what I want,’ to the family (spending the day at a boat show),” he said. “Boating is very family orientated, and there are so many brands of boats that husbands and wives like to involve their children in the purchase. It’s a big purchase and people will spend a lot of time on it.”

The Mobile show might be one of the oldest, evolving from a combination boat/RV show to a solely marine industry event.

Melissa Miller, who has been the show manager for approximately 30 years, said the show draws 17 boat dealers from Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Approximately 70 brands are represented. The entire Convention Center was full — well over 130,000-square-feet of exhibit space inside and out of the building was filled with parked boats.

“It’s a good variety,” she said. “It’s mostly the center console boats, but we have pontoons, kayaks to 40-foot offshore boats. For any kind of budget, there will be something here in your category.”

She said approximately 12,000 people will visit the boat show, which runs through Sunday. It’s been a steady number of attendees over the past couple of years, she said.

Boats are only part of the show. The event is filled with family events such as fishing seminars, “touch tanks” filled with marine animals, and the main attraction — “Twiggy the Skiing Squirrel.”

Chuck Best Jr., and his fiancee Toni Tedesco, hosted popular demonstrations with their pet squirrel – Twiggy, a 6-year-old squirrel that water skis in a motorized toy boat to the delight of children and adults.

The 72nd annual Mobile Boat Show took place on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in downtown Mobile, Ala. The show draws around 12,000 people during its days. The show, which has long been held at the Convention Center, is considered one of the oldest boat shows in the United States. One of the show’s more popular attractions was “Twiggy the Skiing Squirrel” who skis in a pool in an effort to teach kids the importance of water safety.John Sharp/jsharp@al.com

The Twiggy shows have occurred since 1979. The current Twiggy is the 10th one to serve as the main performer for teaching kids about the importance of water safety and wearing life jackets.

“It’s just like training a dog,” said Tedesco. “First you earn their love and trust. You have the same words and commands and positive reinforcement and give (Twiggy) hugs and kisses at the end.”

Twiggy was also an attraction for the adults who were not necessarily shopping for a boat.

“We live downtown and love our squirrels in Bienville Square,” said Tyger Bullock, who came to the boat show with good friend Tracey Taylor of Mobile.

“We definitely have to see a water skiing squirrel,” Bullock said.

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