Fort Lauderdale boat show kicks off Wednesday. Its most important cargo: local jobs

Rob Wile
·5 min read

Each year, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat show brings in hundreds of souped-up yacht and watercraft models from the world’s most renowned marine designers.

This year, the show is bringing something much more important: jobs.

Faced with the prospect of losing out on all of the show’s estimated $386.8 million annual economic impact on Broward County — and depriving the state of any of its total estimated $1.3 billion impact and 8,000 jobs it supports — officials decided in September to green-light the annual show, with kicks off Wednesday and will run through Nov. 1.

Numerous safety procedures have been put in place this year, including social distancing markers, temperature checks and hygiene stations. Mask-wearing is required and will be enforced, say organizers. Food and beverage consumption will be confined to designated areas.

Phil Purcell, president and CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, the non-profit trade group that owns the show, said show organizers were reassured that the event could be produced safely after the opening of Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando did not appear to lead to outbreaks. With international travel still constrained, there will be fewer exhibitors, and maximum daily capacity is being limited to observe safety protocols.

“[The boat show’s economic impact] is bigger than two Super Bowls’,” Purcell said. “We had to find a way to host this event, even if we knew it was going to be different...So many people depend on this.”

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said putting on this year’s show was a difficult call — but that officials ultimately decided a balance could be struck between safety and economic concerns.

“It’s important that we continue trying to save lives,” Trantalis said, “but it’s also important that we protect livelihoods, from sellers to workers on boats to restaurants and hotels to give them a chance to get on their feet, pay the rent and the mortgage and put food on the table for their families. It’s one step forward to bringing Fort Lauderdale and Broward to some level of normalcy as we try to coexist with this virus.”

Local businesses are grateful.

For properties like the Bahia Mar Fort Lauderdale Beach that have been crushed by COVID, anything that shores up losses is welcome. James Tate of Tate Capital, which owns the hotel, said the resort has been operating since the summer with just 31 of its usual 151 employees. The show is allowing him to bring back as many 70 more. Occupancy is expected to be as high as 96% this week, Tate said.

“It’s a great boost in the arm,” he said. The show has boosted the average daily rate for most hotels along Fort Lauderdale beach, he noted; Bahia Mar’s rate is topping out at $450 per night this week, compared with $121 for much of the year.

“Everyone is feeling good right now,” Tate continued. “Morale is up, people are excited. Hopeful it’s the beginning of an increase in occupancy as people realize they can stay and be safe.”

The disruption in the usual rhythm of the boating season severely impacted 2020 revenues for boat servicing companies like Ward’s Marine Electric in Fort Lauderdale.

“Boats weren’t being used,” said Ward’s COO Kristina Hebert. “And if there’s uncertainty about summer charters, or owners are not using their vessels, they tend to just sit.”

The boat show is giving Ward’s two months’ worth of additional demand for work, Hebert said: one month of prep beforehand as owners ready their boats for display and sale, and then the next month helping new owners with vessel surveys and refittings.

“I do believe people visiting will be qualified, ready to buy and spend, or start a project, and ready to do business,” she said.

That sentiment is backed up by rebounding sales: year to date, fishing boat sales are up 10%; pontoons, 9%; power boats, 8%; and personal watercraft 2% according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Tim Petrillo, co-founder and CEO of The Restaurant People, which owns 12 restaurants in South Florida, said that even with a diminished show — meaning fewer large bookings by executives looking to wine and dine clients — he still plans to boost staffing by as much as 25%.

“People are longing for normalcy in life, and having the boat show move forward signifies that,” he said. “We are looking for a busier week than we’ve had in a while.”

Hosting the show also carries symbolic importance, Hebert said: It demonstrates that South Florida is resilient. The absence of the show even for one year would have set a dangerous precedent.

“It would have been devastating for many small businesses and many of my colleagues in the industry here” to not have it, she said. “It [would take] South Florida off the map for this time of year.”


61st Annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show

Time: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed-Sat, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday

Date: Wednesday, Oct. 28-Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020

Address: 801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316

Ticket info: Adult: $35.00; Child (age 6-15): $15.00; Children under 6: FREE

COVID safety: Mask requirements and 6-feet social distancing will be strictly enforced. Regular deep cleanings of exhibitions will take place throughout the show.