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In Retrospect: Floating On

by Venice

By Larry Schwingel
Photo courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show

The national economy was solid in 1959, but boat sales in South Florida lagged. In search of a remedy, boat manufacturers and dealers met at War Memorial Auditorium to discuss how to increase sales. The group landed on the idea of hosting a boat show—an idea that blossomed into the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, an international event with global impact.

Among those instrumental in getting the show started was Robert O. Cox, former mayor of Fort Lauderdale. A boating enthusiast, Cox opened Lauderdale Marina in 1948 and helped revive the Marine Advisory Board, a governing body that later morphed into the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns and operates the show today.

The first Fort Lauderdale Boat Show attracted 13 exhibitors and about 2,000 people. There were no exhibitor fees, and admission was free. The second year, Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina hosted the event under the name of the Fort Lauderdale Marine Association Boat Show. To promote it, a motor yacht cruised to and from New England with the message, “Follow me to Ft. Lauderdale.” Twenty exhibitors attended, and one local newspaper called it a “marine wonderland.”

In July 1970 the event, renamed the Marine Industry Association Summer Boat Show, attracted 50,000 people to its new spot at Port Everglades (it would later make more moves before finding its permanent location). The following year, 115 exhibitors displayed their products, and vessel sales topped $1 million. In 1976, the event was renamed the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, its dates moved to the fall and the Bahia Mar Resort and Yachting Center became its new home.

“There used to be spring and fall shows, and the spring show was bigger because it was more local, featuring builders such as Bertram Yachts, Trumpy, Burger Boat Co. and Broward Marine,” says Phil Purcell, CEO and president of Marine Industries Association of South Florida. “They essentially carved out a space that would become the multibillion-dollar marine industry of South Florida.”

Andrew Doole, who is president of the U.S. boat shows division for Informa Markets and is known as the “Boat Show Captain,” describes the marine industry of the late 1950s as “cottage,” but it certainly evolved. “The Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show is the most elaborate and influential yachting event in the world, with nearly $4 billion in products and sales over $508 million,” he says.

According to Purcell, 110,000 people attend the event, with 52 countries represented, 1,500 boats displayed and $857 million flowing into Florida’s economy. “The marine industry generates $8.9 billion to Broward County and $12 billion regionally,” he says. “In South Florida, the industry supports more than 142,000 jobs that typically pay 16% more than the average state wage. Over $100 million changes hands each day at the boat show.” And, if those numbers signify anything, it’s that, yes, Fort Lauderdale is the yachting capital of the world.

The article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue.

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