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J.H. Freeman/MEDILL 

The affordibility pavilion, featuring low-cost cruisers, is new to this year's show.

Smooth sale-ing for recreational boat makers

by J.H. Freeman and Leslie Patton
Jan 14, 2009


Leslie Patton/MEDILL

The Hustler 344 Cheetah can reach speeds up to 100 mph.


Leslie Patton/MEDILL

The 79th annual Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show runs through Jan. 18.

Exhibitors at the 79th annual Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show are confident the dismal economy isn’t going to stem the tide of boat sales, but budget conscious consumers can still find low-cost alternatives in a new section.

The new “affordability pavilion” showcases modestly priced boats that people can own for less than $300 per month.

Catering to the largely middle-class recreational boating population, the pavilion is aimed at the approximately 74 percent of boat owners who have a household income of less than $100,000, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“We’re trying to make it easier for our customer to afford boats,” said Ed De Stefano, a salesman at Munson Marine in Fox Lake, Ill. Munson Marine features three boats in the pavilion – a Crownline, South Bay Pontoon and Stingray. The boats are available with longer loans and reasonably priced payments, De Stefano added.

However, a staple of the boat show is recession proof buyers. De Stefano, while courting consumers with their eyes on the price tag, said he’s still relying on these high-end boat customers.

Kelly Cassa, of Antioch, Ill.-based Sequoit Harbor Marina, echoed De Stefano’s sentiments.

“The economy doesn’t bother the people that buy that boat,” said Cassa, referring to the fastest wave-splitter at the show, the Hustler 344 Cheetah. The boat’s top speed registers just below 100 mph, Cassa said. Fast and furiously expensive, the Cheetah costs $235,886 or $1,567 per month.

Cassa is no stranger to speedy vessels. He owns a high-performance Baja boat and his nickname is “Go Fast,” but his need for speed follows him to the shore. “I actually have a lawnmower that goes over 65 mph,” he said.

For those less inclined to skimming the seas at light speed, pontoons, catamarans and trawlers are on display as well.

“We’ve had several people stop by already,” said Trawlers Midwest President Ken Schuler, who has been coming from Manitowoc, Wis., to the show for 15 years. “[Sales are] slow just like the housing market, but we’re not doing too bad.”

The total number of recreational boats in use dropped about 5 percent from 2005 to 2006. But estimates for the total boats in 2007 are up slightly, according to a report published by the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Despite emphatic claims by boat show exhibitors that the credit crunch will keep out the “lookers,” many attendees weren’t ready to pull out their wallets yet.

Beth Reichert, 48, of Chicago came just to look. “We do a lot of boating. My family has a cottage on a lake,” she said. “If we were going to buy, it would be a pontoon and a wave runner.”

“I’m looking for a boat lift, skis, wakeboard, that kind of stuff,” said Conrad Walker, 40, who came from the southwest suburbs in search of boating accessories for his ski boat.

The green boating zone, also new to the show this year, wasn’t set up early Wednesday afternoon because of snow-related travel issues. “I came to meet the people in charge [of the green boating exhibit],” said Patrick Coveny, president of Arch Construction Management Inc. There are some very nasty chemicals involved in boating – the cleaning solutions are toxic, said Coveny, who is also chairman of the Green Building Taskforce at the Home Builders Association of Illinois.

The show runs from Wednesday through Sunday at McCormick Place Convention Complex. Admission is $10 for adults and $4 for children.