10/04/2010 11:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Ebbs & Flows of the Economy

As the co-owner and editor of a niche publication focusing on the Long Island boating lifestyle, attending regional boat shows is a great way to attract new readers. We started our publication in 2007, just before gas prices rose and the industry ran aground, so the majority of the shows we've attended have been less than heartening.

In fact, at various boat shows vendors talked among themselves just to break the tedium, and I could consume a giant doughy pretzel without any fear a passerby would catch me with my mouth full. Yet things seemed different at the 2010 New York Boat Show in the dead of the winter. The Javits Convention Center was packed with people expressing enthusiasm to begin boating once the weather turned warm. After that show, I felt slightly encouraged that things might be improving, sooner than later.

The summer of 2010 came and went, and while our readership grew, I gather the season didn't turn out the way many recreational boaters wanted. At least, that's the tales some of them told me recently at the boat show in Norwalk, Connecticut. They didn't trade up for new boats, or outfit present boats with upgraded maritime gadgets. Boaters didn't fill up their gas tanks often and they didn't go as far. Every time they ventured out, they felt they had to justify the expense.

One attendee shared: "My wife and I decided that at the end of every week, we'd see if we had the slightest balance left in our checking account. That's the only time we went boating." Another aisle stroller confessed to me that he loved to go boating, but had to "quit inviting buddies" to go along "because it cost a fortune for sandwiches and Coronas." A woman pushing a stroller disclosed that her family's reduced income this past year meant "we sat on the boat a lot more than ever."

For every melancholy mariner, though, there were two cheerful captains. Would-be boat buyers picked up copies of the magazine, wanting to learn more about places to take their new vessels. A positively bubbly couple felt confident that the stock market's recent uptick meant they could buy more at the show. Chatting with some people revealed positivity about their own personal prospects, and one financial prophet told me that she knew the economy "was definitely getting better" because lots of her friends were planning to spend more this coming holiday season.

Charting the economy by talking to boat show attendees is far from scientific. Like the tides, the mood rose and fell depending on who stopped and talked to a stranger handing them a free magazine. While the depressing recession has taken a mighty toll, I read the tea leaves of strolling swarms and the occasional flash of a wallet as indicating a definite drift towards some consumers abandoning their thrift-anchors. Proclaimed one particularly prosperous-looking woman who floated past our table on the way to raise some boat dealer's bottom line, "It's about time we spent on ourselves again... being miserly is no fun at all!"