ST. PETERSBURG — A year ago, Scott Roberton didn't have much to smile about. The economy was in a nosedive, and nobody wanted to buy boats, let alone multimillion dollar luxury yachts.
What a difference 12 months can make.
"There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel," said Roberton, a salesman with Clearwater-based Marine Max. "We are moving boats again. The worst is behind us."
Thursday morning, opening day of the 33rd annual St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show, Roberton had a steady stream of people coming to see the new 72-foot motor yacht from Hatteras.
This floating condo, complete with four staterooms, three bathrooms, salon and galley, normally sells for $5,176,450. But this weekend only, you can buy the North Carolina-built luxury yacht for $4,599,000.
"People know that these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," said Roberton, who has worked for Marine Max for nearly 20 years. "People who have been waiting and watching are finally getting the courage up to start buying. I am really optimistic about the way the market is going."
The past two years have been rough on Florida's marine industry. Dozens of manufacturers, both large and small, have gone out of business or severely cut back on production. The luxury yacht market — boats costing $1 million or more — ground to a virtual standstill.
Manufacturers with long, storied histories such as Hatteras, Boston Whaler, Cabo and Sea Ray suddenly found themselves flush with inventory. Heading into the 2009 Fort Lauderdale Boat Show, which generally kicks off the new boating year, Roberton had the unenviable task of trying to sell 13 multimillion dollar boats built by Hatteras.
"But this October, at the same show, we only had two," he said. "Business was great. Sales were up 40 percent."
In the past month, Roberton has sold four big boats — 50-, 54-, 58- and 60-feet long — out of his company's main dealership on U.S. Highway 19 in Clearwater.
"The history and quality is always consistent," he said. "But what I think is motivating people now is the price. People are thinking that now is probably the best time ever to buy a boat."
Galati Yacht Sales' Brian Dekkinga agrees.
"People who buy these types of boats tend to be pretty conservative," he said. "They have been sitting on their money for the past two years trying not to lose it."
Galati, which has dealerships throughout Florida, also sells well-known, high-end brands such as Tiara, Viking and Grand Banks, which run anywhere from $750,000 to $4 million.
"We've had a good election, the stock market is stable and the conservative yachtsman is ready to buy," Dekkinga said. "The manufacturers — and only the strongest have survived — are ready to sell. So I think you will see a lot of deals being made this weekend."
While the luxury market may be the most obvious beneficiary of the improved economic climate, the sale of more affordable boats is also starting to pick up.
"While the market for boats 60 feet or longer seems to have rebounded faster, we are starting to see manufactures and consumers getting reacquainted with boats that cost less than $75,000," said Dane Graziano, chief operating officer for Show Management, the company that organizes both the St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale boat shows. "This is a really good sign that the boating industry in general is coming back."
Graziano, who has been working with the St. Petersburg show for 25 years, said consumers will be pleasantly surprised by what they will find on the docks at the Mahaffey Theater Yacht Basin this year.
"This show is the cat's meow," he said. "You won't find anything else like it on the west coast of Florida. How else do you think we have survived all these years?"