The symptoms of the current recession in the recreational marine industry are evident at IBEX. Traffic is clearly down, although the promoters may deny it. Few people, except perhaps your best and longest standing friends, venture to ask how things are going, clearly for fear they will receive a truthful rather than a polite answer.
True, some present are voicing optimism about a turnaround coming soon. But for the most part, these are people at, what I would call, the secondary and tertiary levels of the industry, the marketers, the organizational promoters, the consultants, and the marine media people (the last of whom have finally come to realize that their fascination with running an endless string of stories about business failures and bankruptcies is nailing shut their own career coffins).
However, what’s evident to anyone who takes the time to look around, is that budgets have been cut to the bone; and a paltry number of companies spent any money to send their usual delegations of engineers, production managers, purchasing agents, and assorted tech geeks to walk the show and look for new and exciting materials, processes, or tools. Mostly, the intercourse is between exhibitors. Indeed, one friend of mine said that he was yet to talk to anyone who was not wearing an exhibitor’s badge. Somewhat of an overstatement, but it makes the point.
Hopefully, the current dip, more like a crater, will move a significant segment of the industry to re-evaluate the direction taken over the past 10 or so years. Missteps like adopting the automotive model (now itself a proven model of failure) of producing a huge multiplicity of models and making annual model changes. And missteps like taking more and more recreational marine companies public.
Production boatbuilding never has, and never will achieve the sought after economies of mass production. Building boats on a multi-station line is not mass production. Instead, what we’ve seen is a geometric growth in engineering and development overhead, not to mention marketing and sales costs, to the point where small to medium size production boats are no longer readily affordable. So when economic times in general get tough, the market evaporates.
Beyond that, public companies are generally driven by stock share price and the focus on continually seeking new capital influx, often creating massive debt. The decision makers in publicly owned companies have little or no emotional ties to the company or its employees or vendors or the industry itself. So the result is that when economic times in general get tough, they start cutting at the drop of a hat, which actions frequently produce self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
The recreational marine sector should not style itself as a junior version of the automotive industry. Boatbuilding should remain a privately owned endeavor, in which company principals have a grounding in and commitment to, what 20 or 30 years ago I would have termed, a subculture. Only then will the industry retain the underpinnings necessary to weather the kind of economic downturn we’re now experiencing.