Numbers are at pre-Great Recession levels, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

SARASOTA — From a distance, the crown jewel of this year's Suncoast Boat Show doesn't look much like a boat at all. When you approach it, it looks more like a two-story restaurant with sliding doors on the main floor, a luxurious outdoor lounge area and a roof deck up top.

You might also forget that it's a boat once you're standing on it, because the floor literally does not move.

The three-story, 84-foot long, 9,100-square foot yacht has five staterooms, each with its own king-sized bed and bathroom, a roof deck, a downstairs with plenty of space for a TV area and game room, and a chef's kitchen in a living room where there's more than enough space for big parties. There's 4,700 square feet of air-conditioned space, it's made of stainless steel, and the yacht plus all the furniture and accoutrements you see on it can be yours for just $12 million. 

The Rendezvous 2018, a "mansion yacht" also known as the "cube" made by Cubic Yachts, debuted on Friday at the 37th annual Suncoast Boat Show. The event, which continues at Marina Jack through Sunday, will feature up to 400 power boats ranging in price from $30,000 to $12 million.

Last year, the show featured more than 300 boats and in 2017 it was around 250, according to Herald-Tribune archives. About 15,000 guests are expected to attend the show this weekend.

The show organizer, Informa Exhibitions, and several vendors reported feeling optimistic about sales at this year's show because of the strength of the economy. Still, some boat manufacturers have been affected by tariffs implemented last year by the Trump administration.

Jason LeFevre, general manager of MarineMax Sarasota, said that last year's red tide bloom led to pent-up demand this year. For five months, business was the slowest it had been in five years, he said.

"With about five months of that, where people really weren't boating, now it's kind of like everybody is ready to roll again," LeFevre said. "Our thought process is, it's been a little bit slow at the beginning of the year, and now we're cranking back up. That's what we're hoping for."

MarineMax had several boats and yachts on display on Friday, including the roughly $3.8 million Ocean Alexander 70e and the Boston Whaler 380 Realm, which can cost anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million. Around 11 a.m. on Friday, the first day of the show, the company already had sold three boats, LeFevre said.

"I expect we'll do at least 30 deals. Our target is usually between 30 and 35. We're off to a good start, so I'm hoping for 35," he said.

Statistics point toward a strong sales market for the boating industry. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents recreational boat, engine and marine accessory manufacturers in the U.S., retail unit sales of new powerboats were up about 4% in 2018 to 280,000 units, the highest total since 2007, before the Great Recession. The association predicted that growth will continue into 2019, when sales are expected to increase by 3% to 4%.

Nearly all powerboat categories experienced growth in 2018, the National Marine Manufacturers Association found. Sales of freshwater fishing boats are estimated to be up 2% to 4% in 2018, personal watercraft sales are estimated to increase by 6% to 8%, pontoon sales were expected to grow 4% to 6%, sales of wake sport boats were expected to be up 9% to 11% and cruiser sales are expected to grow 2% to 4%.

Pre-owned boat sales also reached roughly $9.7 billion in 2018. The association estimates that 998,000 pre-owned boats, including powerboats, personal watercraft and sailboats, sold in 2018, the highest pre-owned boat unit sales since 2006.

LeFevre said that Sarasota has a robust used boating market. Many buyers like to trade in their boats every year or every two years in exchange for a newer model. Boaters in Venice, just 30 miles south, tend to hold onto their boats for longer, he said.

Most boats in U.S. waters — 95% — are less than 26 feet in length, and 62% of boat owners have a household income less than $100,000, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The average retail price of a 19- to 20-foot outdoor boat package — which includes a boat, engine and trailer — has increased by about $10,000 between 2007 and 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. The average price was $30,082 in 2015, $31,457 in 2016 and $32,316 in 2017, data show.

The cost of materials and tariffs can all factor into price increases. LeFevre said the tariffs implemented last year have had an impact on some of the brands MarineMax sells.

"Certain brands have been affected, depending on what country they're coming from. That can be a pretty significant impact on pricing," he said. "I believe the Aquila brand, those were affected the greatest. The boats are made in China, so by the time they get here, the tariff unfortunately gets passed on to the customer."

Kelly Kaylor, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said that while most manufacturers have been able to absorb aluminum and steel price increases resulting from that round of tariffs, resulting retaliatory measures from Canada, the European Union and Mexico continue to impact the industry. Those three countries account for 70 percent of U.S. boat exports each year, she said. 

"These punitive tariffs have essentially closed off markets that purchased a combined $2 billion in U.S. boats and marine engines last year. Several manufacturers have seen millions of dollars of orders canceled because of retaliatory tariffs," she said. "Even though we are not seeing boat price increases at this time, it’s impossible to predict what will happen if the trade war persists."

In addition to the Suncoast Boat Show, Informa Exhibitions U.S. Boat Shows division produces the Palm Beach International Boat Show, the Miami Yacht Show, the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show and the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

Chris Fleming, show director and business development director for Informa, U.S. Boat Shows, said that this year's Suncoast show features more boats than ever in the water. There are several new vendors, and others have added more boats than in the past.

"All of our shows — Palm Beach — had great sales. It kind of carries from one show to the next," Fleming said. "This show just has been a proven selling show, so when you have a good sales show, then you get more boat lines being represented than you do in other shows."

Steve Gale, location manager for Tampa Bay at Galati Yacht Sales, which has local offices in Sarasota, Tampa Bay and Anna Maria Island, said that Galati has had a strong boat show season this year. This past year's shows included Fort Lauderdale in November, Miami in February and Palm Beach in March.

"We've had very optimistic buyers and positive results at the shows. We're excited — we're pumped for the (Sarasota) show. We hope to continue the results seen in previous shows," he said.

Galati is showing 16 yachts this year — they typically have between 12 and 18, depending on inventory levels, Gale said. And since it's the last show of the season, buyers won't have to wait to walk away with their new purchases.

"The beauty of this show is we're at the end of the season and these are some of the last of our remaining inventory. Usually, you wait a year or 18 months to get one of the largest yachts," he said. A fantastic show for Galati would mean selling six or seven boats, Gale said.

Up until this point, the $12 million Rendezvous 2018 has been used by the family of Charlie Beech, the director of operations for Cubic Yachts, the builder of the boat. The family has held all kinds of get-togethers on it — birthday parties, volleyball parties, holidays, you name it.

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"Price-wise, hasn't been determined yet. But it, too, will come with the furniture, its own lawn chair, whatever you want," he joked.

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