Miami Boat Show 2009: Catamarans, Express Cruisers…and Bad Karma

Talk about bad karma.

I visited the Miami International Boat Show last week on behalf of several clients.  As the world’s largest boat show, the event attracts hundreds of journalists, and with them throngs of PR guys…like me.

Though the weather was sunny, the show operated under a very dark cloud. Literally every conversation I had touched on industry people being laid off, boat companies going under, magazines cutting staff and dealers sitting on inventory.  Certainly, none of this was surprisingly; hell, few product categories are more discretionary – or expensive – than recreational boating.  In reality, the boat business was reeling from high gas prices and consumer unease even before the housing/banking crisis of last fall. The Wall Street meltdown just turned that downward trajectory into an out-and-out nose dive.

The gloom was noticeable on the show floor, where consumers were few and far between, and in the media room, where many long-attending writers were conspicuous in their absence. It was also noticeable in the press conference schedule (there were few); the corporate hospitality bashes and splashy magazine events (there were none); and even in the area restaurants, which sat mostly empty.

Despite the bad vibes, I ended up having a productive trip, meeting with a dozen journalists over two days and getting tentative commitments for at least three articles – a cruising feature in Door County, a destination piece on Eagle River, and a musky fishing/bow-hunting “two-fer” in a national outdoor magazine. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There was also a great deal of interest in Great Lakes shipwreck diving; the refilling of Lake Delton; and fly-fishing for musky (three line-class world records in one year!) Needless to say, the editorial exposure ultimately coming out of these meetings could be huge…

So, for me, personally, Miami Show ’09 wasn’t bad experience.  And of course the weird, fascinating alternate reality of South Beach is always fun to experience.  The last time I was there, my vintage art deco district hotel was beyond horrible, so this time I booked a place further north. Located at 28th and Collins, the Indian River Hotel is about 10 blocks from the convention center and 20 blocks from the Ocean Drive glitterati, which made it walking distance to both. As with most South Beach properties, the building was old and funky, with small rooms and thin walls. And it had lots of eccentricities. My TV reception was lousy. The sink dripped. The staff spoke in Spanglish. And then there was the old school key… no electronic swipe cards here; this was an actual key attached to an eight-inch long alligator.  (Try forgetting that in your pocket.)

Despite all of that, I liked the place.  I mean, c’mon…you don’t go to South Beach to stay in a Holiday Inn. Plus, it was at least reasonably clean and had a charming little tropical courtyard. And I really didn’t mind being a mile or two removed from the Ocean Drive parade of supermodels, muscle men, Speedo-wearing Europeans and dudes with pythons.  What I did miss was the robust Miami Boat Show scene of years past, with its customer-filled aisles, “Can You Top This?” press conferences, and party-all-night-while-doing-business ethos.  But then, that would be asking too much, wouldn’t it?  Even in Miami’s South Beach – which is about as far removed from mainstream America as anyplace on US soil can be – there’s no going back in time.  Reality is reality; the economy sucks.  Hola, 2009.

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WEIRDEST PRODUCT I SAW: Centurion’s new personal parasailing boat.  (This is just a really bad idea, I think…)

WEIRDEST PERSON: A toga-wearing, Rastafarian woman painted completely white and crouching – motionless – along the Lincoln Road Mall.

BEST FOOD: Mahi mahi sandwich at Finnegan’s Way on Ocean Drive.

BEST DRINK: Myers dark rum and tonic, with a lime.  (Mojitos are for tourists)

BEST TRANSPORTATION: Cabs are everywhere, but so are city buses. South Beach to North Beach for $2? Can’t beat it…