Building a better boat show

It may have been as “goofy as a three dollar bill,” but construction of a 10-foot Lego model of the Chris-Craft Speedster proved to be a showstopper at this year’s Seattle Boat Show. Not only did it draw throngs of boat show attendees, the media dropped in more than once during the 10-day January show to report on Lego sculptor Nathan Sawaya’s progress.

“You need to give the media a hook beyond the boats,” said Michael Campbell, president of the Seattle-based Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), producer of the show. Even if it that hook is “goofy,” as he put it.

“We’ve done some fun things, but the Lego boat has been the best, because there was some intrigue for the media to come back down and see it when it was done,” he said.

Generating media interest is vital for pulling off a successful boat show these days. While the shows continue to be the best marketing tool dealers and manufacturers have, and total sales tend to be up, overall attendance has been in decline for the past few years.

A drop in attendance can often be blamed on weather, and that is especially true this year. From the torrential rainfall in southern California to the unrelenting snowstorms in the Northeast and the hurricanes in Florida, some show producers just couldn’t catch a break. But the bigger reason behind the decline is more fundamental.

“Boat shows reflect the interest in boats in the marketplace,” said Norm Schultz, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trade Association (LEMTA). “If the demand for boats has been declining over the years, which we know it has because our unit sales have dropped although our dollar volume has increased, why would we expect the boat show attendance to increase? It’s illogical.”

Show producers consider the Grow Boating initiative crucial to turning the industry tide. In the meantime, they are taking steps of their own to build a better boat show.

One size doesn’t fit all

A strategy many producers are taking is to target particular buyers. This May, for example, LEMTA launched its first show in years. The VIP Yacht Show, held at an exclusive club on Lake Erie, was an invitation-only weekend show targeting a high-income audience. At press time, Schultz expected attendance to range from 1,000 to 1,200.

“In a normal year, our Mid-America Boat Show in Cleveland draws 30,000 on a weekend, so the shows aren’t comparable,” he said. “What we are trying to do with the VIP show is to take the same approach we use for a traditional boat show and fine-tune it. If we sell some boats, we’ll continue to do the show; if not, we won’t do it again.”

The world’s largest boat show producer, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, is also zeroing in on particular consumer groups, in this case within the context of the traditional boat shows themselves, as a part of its initiative to improve consumers’ experience.

“One of the things we’ve done,” explains Ben Wold, NMMA’s executive vice president of shows, “is acknowledge that there are different types of people who come to the shows and to create different types of experiences for each.”

For instance, the organization is looking at ways to make boat shows more affordable for young families via admission discounts and special promotions. Providing daycare and special activities for children are also on the agenda.

In addition, NMMA launched the Elite Fleet Club this year to improve the experience of the more affluent buyer. For a higher ticket price, show goers have access to a lounge serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. In Miami, for instance, NMMA created an oasis of sorts in the botanical garden adjacent to the outdoor display area.

“It became a very nice outdoor club where people could get away from it all,” Wold said. “It was very well received because it created a very different type of experience.”

In addition to improving consumer experience, NMMA has two other show initiatives under way: to increase quality attendance by 25 percent by the end of 2008 and to improve the retail environment to help exhibitors sell more boats.

To jump-start its attendance drive, NMMA set the goal of a 10-percent increase for last season. “We were up 7 percent across the board, and we would have hit 10 percent, but we had three shows hit by bad weather,” said Wold.

This year has been another story altogether. Battered by bad weather, attendance for the organization is off by 8 percent. Still, it remains a relatively successful season for exhibitors.

“What happens in cases like this is that it is the quality attendees who turn out, so sales have been mixed, but better than one might think given the attendance shortfall,” Wold said. “But we aren’t seeing as many new people as we would like to see.”

A highlight for NMMA is the success of its advanced tickets sales sold online. E-tickets represented 5 percent of the paid gate sales across the board this year. The percentage is much higher for some of the individual shows. For instance, 11 percent of the 145,355 attendees of the Miami International Boat Show bought their tickets online. People simply go online, purchase and print out their tickets, and off they go.

In Seattle, the NMTA pioneered online ticket sales five years ago and still promotes them with free parking and other incentives.

“We now have a database of 35,000 names,” said Campbell. “Everyone who bought a ticket online gets an e-mail from me after a show thanking them for coming and asking what they like best and where they think we could do better.”

He pays attention to their feedback. For example, attendees repeatedly asked that NMTA work more closely with the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, which schedules its in-water show at the same time as the Seattle Boat Show. It took awhile, but, for the first time last year, a single ticket gets consumers into both shows, and there is a free shuttle bus running between them.

Too many shows

A common complaint is that the number of shows now produced is diluting the market and decreasing buyers’ sense of urgency. If they happen to miss one show, they know they can go to another in a few weeks’ time. The number of shows is also blamed for diluting the credibility of show incentives.

Some markets are relatively unaffected by competition, and attendance is still flat. For example, Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America and owner of the Tulsa Boat, Sport and Travel Show, has no competing show in the area. “We’re just shy of 50,000 people and have been that way the past two or three years,” he said.

Other regions are inundated with boat shows, RV and boat shows, sports shows and more.

NMMA, which produces 23 consumer boat shows a year, as well as two trade events, is unequivocal when it comes to the impact of too many shows.

“Our perspective is that manufacturers and dealers should support shows that are successful and strong, and, frankly, should stop participating in those that are weaker,” Wold said. “Because all they do is dilute the market, postpone sales and remove the sense of urgency. At some point, people just have to say no.”

Still, circumstances can dictate otherwise. Although David Geoffroy, executive director of the Southern California Marine Association, agrees that there are too many shows, his organization added new shows last year, one in San Diego and one in Newport Beach, Calif.

A summer show, the San Diego event was added at the request of SCMA’s members. “The NMMA has a very good show in January, but it has limited capabilities as far as in-water potential for exhibitors,” Geoffroy explains, “so our brokerage boat and new boat members down there were not able to display everything they wanted to.”

The Newport Beach show was added because the venue, the Newport Dunes, was too good to pass up. “We feel that this is the very best venue for a yacht show in southern California,” he said. “When it became available, the board of directors looked at it very cautiously, and at the end of the day, decided that it was too good to let it slip away.”

Both shows did very well in 2004, according to Geoffroy, while attendance has been relatively flat at the other four shows produced by the SCMA. The 700,000-square-foot Los Angeles Boat Show, held in February at the LA Convention Center, was up by about 3 percent, in part, said Geoffroy, because of an aggressive discount coupon promotion the SCMA did with Dairy Queen, reducing the ticket price even on the weekend.

“There are so many choices in southern California for consumers on any given weekend that you really have to be aggressive to get your share,” said Geoffroy.

To that end, many dealers are missing the boat by not capitalizing on the show producer’s marketing plan, according to Keeter.

“Within a month of the show, dealers should start tying in their advertising, maybe adding a line to ‘Come see me at the boat show’ on their billboards, or running a trailer along the bottom of their television ads,” he said.

Room to shop

Given the amount of competition for leisure dollars, it bodes well for exhibitors to cast a critical eye on their displays. Most will find many opportunities for improvement.

To help its members upgrade their retail show space, NMMA hired the Maude Group, an experiential exhibit design firm based in Glen Ellen, Ill., to evaluate its shows, as well as rate specific exhibitors on their booths.

“We want to challenge ourselves and our exhibitors to do better,” Wold said. “The boat shows have remained the same for a long time.”

Over the last several months, the Maude Group has rated between 400 and 500 different exhibitors.

“The biggest thing that stands out is that those who sell the boating lifestyle tend to have a better story to tell,” said Joe Maude, principal of the Maude Group.

US Marine, for one, has taken the group’s recommendations to heart and totally revamped its show exhibits for its Bayliner, Maxum and Trophy brands. The new Trophy exhibit, for instance, is a larger-than-life fishing pier with 20-foot beams, lights and flat-screen panels, while the Bayliner exhibit features two 20-foot tall lifeguard chairs supporting a 40-foot arch. Clowns on stilts, face painters and artists add color, while a Kid Zone underneath the exhibits offers a series of tunnels, complete with Etch-A-Sketches, board games and other activities.

All in all, the revamped exhibits represent a total investment of more than a $500,000, but US Marine is already reaping the benefit.

“We had all three new exhibits at the Miami show,” said Matt Guilford, US Marine Division, Brunswick Boat Group. “Sales were good for everybody at that show, but for us they were up by more than 60 percent over last year. It was an enormous gain.”

The Maude Group’s recommendations for exhibitors range from using vertical space and making pricing readily available to avoiding the “parking lot syndrome,” in which boats are packed in as tight as can be.

“We recommend that people have more of a showroom type of display,” said Maude. “More people seem to go into those types of exhibits and spend more time there.”

Not all dealers agree, of course. Crystal-Pierz Marine, headquartered in Crystal, Minn., has had success both ways. “At some shows, we’ve kept the display more open with fewer boats, at others we felt that it is more important to show as much product as possible,” said Luke Kujawa, vice president of marketing, Crystal-Pierz Marine. “It just depends on the type of show it is, the venue, which of our stores are participating and so on.”

Wold is quick to emphasize that NMMA isn’t trying to dictate the “correct” way to exhibit but rather is simply trying to expose its members to new ideas.

“There are a lot of different types of products, and people come to market very differently,” he said. “Our role as a trade association is to help educate our members. So we’re saying, ‘here are some things you should consider.’ ”

Crystal-Pierz, a 13-store chain across the upper Midwest, participates in 15 shows a year. Kujawa doesn’t believe there are too many shows, although there are more than six in Minnesota from January through April. He points to weather and world events as having a bigger influence on consumer behavior.

“At the Northwest Sports Show, for example, attendance was good until Sunday, then the numbers went down,” he said. “I think it was because of the Pope’s passing, as well as the fact that it was the first 70-degree day in the Twin Cities.”

Keep them engaged

Once inside, buyers need a reason — besides the boats — to stay.

“Some people say that you shouldn’t bring in Twiggy and other entertainment, but the fact is, if you don’t build in multiple reasons for people to come to the show, you won’t get as many people,” LEMTA’s Schultz said. “The shows need to be as entertaining and as comprehensive, in terms of drawing families, as we can make them.”

The longer families stay on the premises, he points out, the more likely they will buy something, whether that be a boat or a piece of clothing.

Interactive displays, seminars and promotions all keep people engaged, but Maude cautions exhibitors not to overlook the obvious.

“When we ask show attendees what was the most memorable aspect of their show experience, time and time again it comes down to an individual they spoke with,” he said. “The trust and communication they get from person-to-person interaction carries a lot of value.”

The Maude Group evaluates consumer shows in various industries, and in this regard, the boating industry is ahead of the game.

“What stood out for me almost immediately is that people in the boating industry, as a rule, are much more engaging and friendlier than those in other industries,” he explains. “I think it has something to do with the fact that they love boating.”

In addition to offering a mix of educational events and entertainment, MAC Events, a private show producer based in Spring Lake, N.J., limits competing exhibitors to give its dealers more opportunity to engage with consumers.

“When you have two or three dealers going head-to-head to sell the same boat, they end up dropping their drawers to sell the boat, consumers get confused, and in the end, it doesn’t grab more marketshare for the manufacturer,” said Kevin McLaughlin, vice president of marketing for MAC Events.

Some say that industry players, by their very nature, will put on a better boat show for consumers, but McLaughlin and other private promoters contend that they add as much, or more, value.

“When we add a boat show, it is almost always at the request of dealers,” said David Posner, president of Royal Productions, a private show producer based in Richmond, Va. By 2007, six of the company’s 13 consumer shows will be boat shows.

“As in any industry, there are companies that, once they dominate a market, they don’t feel a need to treat their customers right,” he added. “We’re a small company with low overhead; we work hard for our customers and they appreciate it.”

In 2005, Posner said, their highest cost-per-square-foot for a boat show was $3.50.

No matter who produces the boat shows, all agree that the demand will continue.

“The value of boat shows will never diminish,” said Posner. “People will always want to touch the boats and see the quality for themselves. When they can go to one location and see a variety of dealers and products, it saves them time and money.”

That’s Entertainment!

Years ago, Norm Schultz, executive director of the Cleveland-based Lake Erie Marine Trade Association, hired a rock-and-roll band to play on the Friday and Saturday nights of the boat show. While the band drew a crowd at its first appearance, it also drew complaints from exhibitors who couldn’t do business over the loud music.

When Schultz asked the band to take longer breaks, the members said no. When he told them he wanted to cancel the second night of the contract, they said no again.

In a tight spot, Schultz did what he could to mitigate the problem. He relocated the stage to the other side of the hall for the second day’s concert. “At least that way I treated all of the exhibitors the same—they were all angry,” he said.

Bringing in loud rock-and-roll bands isn’t the best way to draw crowds to a boat show, but entertainment is still a must. Some of the ideas show producers have tried in recent years include:

Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel
Rudy Boesch from the “Survivor” television show
Building the largest indoor sand sculpture in the world
Building a boat, to scale, with Legos
Live sharks
Duck races
Kiss-the-boat contests
Water-ski on land contests
Antique boats
Antique motorcycles
Kids’ fishing contests
Stunt dogs
Treasure hunts
Trip giveaways
The Hot Dog Boat
Pig races
NASCAR tickets drawing
Cooking demonstrations
Tupolev N007, the Russian rescue boat
The Hawg Trough, a see-through semi trailer full of
water and fish
Photo contests
Pirate ships
New boat design contests
Model boat building for kids
Canoe construction
Shopping spheres
Vaults full of money

Is It the Right Show for YOU?

While some producers say dealers need to be more discriminating about the shows they participate in, others report a growing trend among exhibitors to base their participation on their return on investment.

“Exhibitors are looking for value,” said Kevin McLaughlin, partner in MAC Events, a Spring Lake, N.J., private show producer offering five boat shows in 2005. “In the past, they would be in a show just because everybody else was there. Now they are looking at the numbers. How many boats do they have to sell to cover their show expenses? Is there an alternative event that would offer them more?”

Cathy Johnston, southern regional manager of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, recommends that dealers forget about what their competition is doing and focus on what the show offers.

“They need to ask the right questions to know if a show is the best show for them,” she said.

For instance:
• What type of audience can the producer draw? What are the demographics?
• How large is the market? What’s the regional draw?
• How big is the show?
• What’s the product mix?
• How large is the marketing budget? How will they spend their advertising dollars?
• How will they draw people new
to boating?
• What incentives and promotions are planned? — Kristine Ellis

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