No business like show business

Boat shows have long been the lifeblood of the recreational marine industry. They’ve been the premier vehicle for showcasing and selling new boats. And they’ve been the most popular venue for both manufacturers and dealers to achieve mass consumer exposure, touch base with existing customers, recruit new prospects and offer up their best financial incentives to purchase the latest products, accessories and services.

But the current economic recession has significantly impacted our industry, and boat shows are no exception. The dramatic slowdown in new boat sales has caused many manufacturers and dealers to speculate on the continued relevance and importance of shows, and whether they’re worth the time, effort and money required to participate.

“This is an interesting point in time for shows,” says Ben Wold, executive vice president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the largest producer of consumer boat shows in the world. “Every show has suffered in the last year. Shows shrank in size, attendance was off and some were cancelled or suspended.”

Boat shows as we know them are changing. Shows of years’ past are giving way to new models for success that better reflect the current social and financial times. Markets saturated with boat shows are seeing weaker events fall by the wayside. Reliance on the Internet for ticket purchases and as a means of pre-show consumer research and show promotion is increasing dramatically. Show duration and hours of operation are being scaled back.

And, with these changes, it becomes vitally important for dealers to adjust their boat show strategies accordingly to maximize return on their boat show participation investment.

State of the shows
Sales at boat shows are not the virtual slam dunk they once were. Gone are the days of 30 and 40 new boat sales inked right at the booth, a consequence of the current economy, more thorough and drawn out consumer planning and research efforts (primarily on the Internet) and a failure of “boat-show-only specials” to prove all that unique.

“Dealers used to know when they left a show if it had been successful simply by counting the contracts completed at the show,” says Jeff Haughton, V.P. of Affinity Events, producer of 10 annual boat shows, and sister company to Boating Industry magazine. “Actual purchasing decisions may be made many months after the show, however, face-to-face interaction with multiple dealers and boat lines on the show floor has proven to be a deal maker with many sales.”

Dave Geoffroy, executive director of the Southern California Marine Association — which produces five boat shows annually — agrees that today’s boat buyers are not making decisions as spontaneously. “The buying process is much longer than it used to be,” he maintains. “For one, people are more careful with their money, but also it’s more difficult to obtain financing.”

“People are thinking about their purchase decisions longer,” echoes Nancy Piffard, show director for the Newport Exhibition Group in Rhode Island, which produces a total of three annual shows in Newport and Providence. “They’re not as impulsive.”

Piffard says drawn-out decisionmaking has a lot to do with buyer preparedness, thanks to the plethora of information available on the Internet. “I see people come through the gate with a notebook,” she says. “They know exactly what they want, who they want to see and who they want to talk to. But they may not write the check right away. It’s a process for big-ticket items these days.”

“Consumer shopping methodology has changed and continues to evolve,” Haughton says. “They are making far more educated buying decisions today.”

Times are changing
Haughton began working around boat shows in the late 1960s. He recalls that back then the boat shows were a major event in the community with very little competition for the consumer’s time. Aisles were full of buyers and those looking for entertainment.

“At that time, it was not unusual to have to wait or schedule time at the closing table,” he says. “Boat shows have evolved over the years as extremely vertical sales events, catering largely to the new boat buyer.”

“In the past, when business was healthy, standalone boat shows used to be plenty for consumers to see and exhibitors to be successful,” explains Geoffroy. “With the downturn, producers now need to be more innovative and responsive to current market conditions.”

A prime example is SCMA’s Spring Boat Show, held this June in Pomona, Calif. Geoffroy says the association decided to shift the event’s traditional dates to Father’s Day weekend and changed its name to “Summer Fest.” In addition to the boats on display, the show also incorporated several different general interest elements, including RVs, home and garden, computers and golf, while providing food, entertainment and educational seminars.

“The idea is to give people a place to go on Father’s Day,” Geoffroy says. “The show will feature very interactive elements, as opposed to a building filled with boats and boat sales people. It’s a much different concept than a standard boat show would have been three years ago.”

Wold agrees it’s likely traditional boat shows will evolve into more general, recreational product shows that include things like golf equipment, ATVs, motorcycles and bicycles, to name just a few. He also sees partnerships with “fest” events, marrying boat shows with summer and seasonal festivals.

The Lake Erie Marine Trades Association is making an effort to incorporate more of a lifestyle element into its boat shows, which is why President Ken Alvey says the association changed the name of the long-standing Cleveland Boat Show to the Cleveland Boat & Waterfront Lifestyle Expo. “We wanted to try and bring in the waterfront living segment,” Alvey explains.

“Shows need to deliver a unique experience to a unique demographic group,” says Wold. “The vanilla, one-size-fits-all days are gone.”

Emerging trends
As a result of these changing times, several trends have begun to emerge. They include:

  • Interest in partnership: Show producers point to an increasing interest in partnerships as one new trend in the evolution of the boat show.

    “We’re looking at one or two markets, talking to our competitors,” Wold admits. He says, where appropriate, NMMA will consider the possibility of combining one of its shows with a competitor’s show and making one large, strong show. “We’re looking at it, and I think other show producers are, as well.”

    “We’re examining the possibility, too, with our shows,” Piffard admits. “If it’s something that’s going to work for everyone involved, then I’m open to it.”
    The boating industry can also learn by studying how other industries produce their respective consumer shows and perhaps create opportunities to cross promote.

    Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America and founding director of the Tulsa Boat, Sport & Travel Show, agrees with Geoffroy and Wold, saying the “pure” boat shows of 15 to 20 years ago have given way to increased cooperation between similar recreational industries, including RVs, ATVs and motorcycles. Industries joining forces to combine the best of their recreational products is becoming the norm.

    “Today, 80,000 square feet of our show is RVs; years ago, we didn’t allow RVs in at all,” Keeter explains. “I think you’re going to see a lot more of that.”

  • Increased consolidation/contraction: Producers agree there are too many boat shows. As a result of the economic downturn, many shows are disappearing in markets where multiple, similar events have caused a diluting effect. NMMA announced earlier this year it was discontinuing shows in San Diego, Virginia and Schaumburg, Ill., a Chicago suburb, in 2010, and in 2009 the association stopped producing an annual boat show in Des Moines.

    “Too many boat shows in a region is a large issue,” Haughton says. He points to his home market of Richmond, Va., as an example of oversaturation. “Instead of one major regional show in the market, there were three in Richmond alone and as many as six within a two-hour drive of Richmond.”

    Steve Hedlund, president of Affinity Events in Maple Grove, Minn., which purchased the Richmond shows in 2005, decided to merge two of the three events in the area. “It took some of the burden off the local dealer base to get the most bang for the buck in local shows,” he explains.

    So far, Hedlund says Affinity has not been forced to cancel any of its shows; however, he maintains, “We’re watching it very closely.”

    In the future, the proliferation of shows will force exhibitors to be more discerning about which events they choose to attend, says Andrew Doole, senior vice president and COO of Fort Lauderdale-based Show Management, producer of five boat shows throughout Florida including the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. “They won’t just participate willy-nilly in any show,” he says. And as a direct consequence, he points out, “Some of the more marginal events are going to go away.”

    “The market will drive the future number of shows,” Haughton reiterates. “Fewer quality regional shows may be the best option for dealers, manufacturers and consumers.”

  • Shorter duration: There’s also a growing industry trend toward reducing the number of days a boat show runs, as well as the number of hours the show floor is open.

    NMMA shows are scaling back the number of days they’re open for business. “There are fewer two-weekend shows,” Wold admits. Only one of NMMA’s 19 consumer boat shows, in Toronto, is open two weekends; all other association-produced shows last four or five days, or are one-weekend events.

    SCMA has also shortened the duration of its shows. “Ten years ago, all our shows were nine days long; now, except for L.A., all our shows are three- and four-day events,” Geoffroy explains. In Los Angeles this year, the show opened on a Saturday, went “dark” Monday and Tuesday, then re-opened Wednesday through Sunday.

    Wold says it’s the direct influence of exhibitors that led to a shorter cycle for NMMA shows. “There was a desire among our dealer base to keep costs down and bring in an increased number of quality buyers,” he explains.

    This year, Doole says Show Management’s Sarasota event was cut from four days to three. He says the reduction was well received, drawing stronger crowds on Friday and helping exhibitors reduce costs for expenses such as hotel rooms, food and other incidentals. “It was a win-win for everybody,” he says.

    The Seattle Boat Show has been a 10-day event for decades, says Northwest Marine Trade Association President and CEO George Harris, but in 2009 a difficult decision was made by NMTA members to cut back to nine days.

    Show hours are also being reduced, Wold says. “It used to be shows were open until 10 or 11 p.m.; now, most shows close by 8 p.m. Exhibitors want to be home at night.”

    Doole agrees, saying most of Show Management’s events, including the Fort Lauderdale show, wrap up by 7 p.m. Late evening hours are “truly counterproductive for everybody,” he says.

  • More e-ticket sales: E-ticket purchases have increased dramatically since their initial offering on boat show Web sites. People like the convenience, avoiding long ticket lines and purchasing tickets for friends and family. Most producers also say they offer discounts for tickets purchased online.

    “We’ve had great success with that,” Wold says of e-ticket sales. “Five or six years ago, as opposed to now, we’ve seen sales numbers increase every year. In 2008, e-tickets accounted for eight percent of overall ticket sales, and we expect that number to continue growing a couple of percentage points per year.”

    E-tickets also allow show producers to collect valuable consumer e-mail addresses and help them build a strong database of attendees. “The direct marketing benefits are huge,” Wold points out.

    Show Management has likewise seen a huge increase in the number of people buying tickets online, particularly if a price discount is offered, says Doole. “Anytime you offer a discount on the ticket, people are going to take you up on it,” he maintains.

    E-tickets now account for between 26 percent and 28 percent of total NMTA ticket sales for its three boat shows, says Harris. NMTA offers enticing incentives for consumers to purchase their tickets online, he says, including free parking, a magazine subscription and a free cup of clam chowder at the show. “It’s almost like we’re paying them to come to the boat show.”

  • Jump in Internet usage: Many producers are becoming increasingly creative with the Internet and using it to help promote their respective shows. In 2008, Piffard says the Newport show provided live footage online so people could get a feel for the city and the event.

    NMMA announced this May it would bring a lead-generation component to its consumer boat show Web site,, where dealers can display inventory they plan to exhibit at a particular show for consumers to browse in advance. The tool also lets consumers request and schedule individual appointments with specific dealers, and those real-time leads are delivered directly to exhibitors — all free of charge for show participants.

    “This adds a tremendous value for both attendees and dealers,” Wold points out. “There’s a clear shift toward improving the consumer experience, how you communicate what’s available at the show and provide a good value for families.”

    Hedlund sees a shift toward boat show producers using e-mail and the Internet to complement traditional boat show media buys. Capturing consumer e-mail addresses is valuable information; it allows producers to reach out to potential showgoers directly and entice them to attend with free tickets, discount coupons, etc.

    “Producers are hungry for these kinds of alternatives,” he explains.

    Creating strategies for success
    To be successful at boat shows, today’s exhibitors must proactively develop boat show-specific sales strategies, says Wold. Exhibitors should head into a show expecting to work hard and not rely solely on boat show producers for results.

    “Everything can’t be 100 percent on the producer,” Harris explains. “Exhibitors need to take some responsibility for their success at the shows.”

    “You have to really work it,” Wold says of dealer participation at shows. “The days of just flopping down carpet and saying, ‘Hey, we’re open,’ are over.”

    Hedlund agrees. “It’s really easy to set up a booth at a show, sit back and wait for someone to rattle your cage,” he says. “Boats don’t sell themselves anymore.”

    Planning as early as three to four months in advance, Keeter suggests, can help a dealer gain a strong foothold on what he or she wants to accomplish at a particular show. Having a structured business plan that outlines what they’re planning to sell, how much the products are selling for, and how much money they’d like to earn, are all important factors in the boat show preparation process.

    Another strategy: Work your leads in advance, says Wold. At the 2009 Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show, one dealer outlined 80 potential sales leads in his “hot lead” book, including specific notes detailing where they were in the buying process, according to Wold. The dealer had also confirmed 60 of those 80 leads were planning to attend the show and visit his display.

    And all’s not lost if interested show goers fail to ink deals onsite at the event. “Dealers need to accept the fact that they may not close the sale by the end of the show,” says Geoffroy. “Some sales take months to complete. You can’t be frustrated if you go to a show and don’t sell 15 boats. We used to have dealers come to the L.A. show years ago and sell 200 boats. That’s not going to happen anymore.”

    Ongoing exhibitor education is also important for success at boat shows, Wold explains. He says it’s time to teach boat show best practices and beef up educational efforts. He recommends producers work closely with exhibitors and local marine trade associations to help dealers better prepare for their respective events.

    Piffard urges dealers to make use of marketing materials show producers offer and says exhibitors should take full advantage of all free and low-cost pre-show marketing such as postcards, “see us at the show” stickers, branding opportunities, etc. “All they have to do is pay for the postage,” she says.

    Still worth it
    Despite the slowdown, boat-show producers across the country — both privately held and as part of an association, in markets large and small — agree that boat shows remain an important part of our industry. Annual participation in shows is a key ingredient in the health of today’s dealers, boatbuilders and accessory manufacturers, they maintain, estimating boat shows still account for anywhere between 30 and 70 percent of a dealer’s annual sales.

    “The genesis of sales is at shows,” Geoffroy says. “Store traffic is very, very light, and boat shows are down. But relative to showrooms, boat shows are the best opportunity to get in front of consumers.”

    12 tips for boat show success

    The following are techniques employed by some of the highest performing boat show exhibitors in the industry.

    1. PLAN AHEAD: Boat show success is strongly tied to preparation: taking the time to plan ahead, deciding which approach best fits your company’s style, paying attention to the details, and making the most out of the time you spend at the show. Many of the best exhibitors have a standard form or check sheet they use for show prep that can be customized for individual events, saving them time and stress. One dealer created a master checklist for preparing for its boat shows. The master list is amended one to two months before each show with specifics for that event and relevant to the strategy the dealership lays out. Another credits its checklist with consistently getting the dealership in and out of shows faster than any other dealer of its size. As part of its planning, a third dealership uses a computer layout program, along with data from past shows, to create a floor layout tailored to each show it attends.

    2. GUIDE YOUR STAFF: Many exhibitors create a boat show manual. Although adaptable for individual events, a manual can document an entire series of standard operating procedures personnel should follow when planning and participating in any show. For example, one dealership’s manual covers everything from show meeting times and topics to pre-boat show preparation requirements, from uniform regulations to pricing policies and from follow-up procedure reminders to a full run down of the dealership’s show selling process.

    3. TAKE GOOD NOTES: Successful exhibitors typically make the time to take good notes at the show. In fact, one dealership holds a staff meeting on the last day of the shows it attends to discuss potential changes and best practices, competitor pricing and displays, and to record all facets of its production.

    4. TRAIN YOUR SALESPEOPLE Another facet of the preparation process involves working with salespeople to make sure they are ready and able. Some dealerships have their sales team watch sales training videos, brush up on selling techniques, review pricing and strategy, and conduct role playing in the weeks leading up to show season.

    5. HOLD MEETINGS Daily sales meetings during the show are good motivators. One dealer holds meetings an hour before the show opens each morning to cover the previous day’s performance, as well as any issues that came up, and to give goal, spiff and contest updates.

    6. GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR SHOW Given the expense of participating in boat shows, some of the best exhibitors put plans in place to make sure they get the most out of the show in all areas. For example, most dealerships use co-op funds from the manufacturers they work with to offset the cost of boat shows. Booth space is one of the top-cited beneficiaries of these programs. But some dealers make sure items such as flags, shirts, bags and other accessories get thrown into the mix and are covered by those funds.

    7. TRACK YOUR ROI While it’s difficult to track the true return on boat show investment, some dealerships are making headway in the area, conducting show cost analyses after every show, taking into account all sales made at the show and separating those made at the dealership as a direct result of the show. In addition to initial boat show costs, the analysis should include overtime payroll, hotel expenses, meals, parking, special signage, fuel expense and the cost of radio advertising.

    8. CONSIDER STAFFING The best exhibitors consider how the people representing their business at shows will determine visitors’ impressions of how their business is run. Many dealers call in extra sales support for shows, including professional sales help. Some turn instead to seasoned customers, while others have strict policies barring the practice. Regardless, the most successful exhibitors ensure the people representing them are well prepared, want to work as a team and uphold the image they want to project at the show. One dealership, for example, starts its boat show staff lineup out with a full-time team of set-up experts, which manages the company’s show presentation and leaves no detail unchecked, even down to how boat lines and cords are presented. Staffing greeters (or designating someone from your staff to be the greeter) is a worthwhile move many top dealers make. They can ensure that all visitors are given a friendly “Hello,” can help control traffic flow and are a useful source for pre-qualifying potential buyers. Some multi-location dealers draw on all the salespeople from their locations to form boat show teams to properly serve customers, especially during peak times. Another tactic for growing the salesperson pool is working with other dealers across the country.

    9. CONTROL THE TRAFFIC The best show strategies typically involve good planning in regard to booth location and traffic flow. After a disappointing show, one dealership decided to move its booth from one end of the show hall to the other to be closer to its main competitor and found success. Another planned its boat show marketing and display around the Discover Boating campaign and opted to move entry-level boats to a booth across from the Discover Boating display. Accessibility is another ever-present issue to consider. Many dealers have developed dock or step systems to allow their visitors easy access to their products.

    10. ENTERTAIN VISITORS Taking extra care of visitors is a successful tactic for many exhibitors, from creating a video game area for kids and teens to play wakeboard games to setting up a visitors’ tent with plants, a cooling fan and water to entice customers (and shopping parents) to stick around their booths longer. In short, the more interactive a booth becomes, the more traffic dealers can attract. And of course, the more traffic, the better the opportunities for making additional sales.

    11. PICK A THEME Many exhibitors find success developing a theme for their booth to get attendees excited about what’s happening there. One dealer uses 2,000 pounds of sand and a replica of a local bridge to remind passers-by of the dealership’s most popular boating destination. Being the literal giant in the room certainly doesn’t detract attention. Another dealership uses an archway entrance to its show booth that stands more than 12-feet tall. A third uses a rocket launcher to display a boat vertically. Truss systems featuring graphics or elevated boats also stand out. Set the tone of your booth according to the sensibilities of your client base and the message you want to send. The energetic atmosphere a watersports dealer might project with music, lighting, video and a spinning boat wouldn’t jibe with those visiting a high-end yacht dealer, for example.

    12. PROMOTE YOURSELF Many dealers have found promotions have the ability to drive traffic to a booth in droves, generate leads and create a sense of urgency to buy right then and there. Branded giveaways make subtle advertisements, from apparel and fishing rods and reels to temporary tattoos. It also makes sense to note what consumers need and want at the time of the show when deciding on a promotion. One dealership, for example, launched a “Boat Free this Summer” campaign with a free gas card, three months free of payment and “Trade Up Sale” promotions to entice buyers. Another dealership has a “Wheel of Boating.” After purchasing a boat at the show, a customer spins the wheel and wins whatever prize in the envelope they select. Prizes range from depth finders to water toys to dinner gift certificates. Other dealers partner with suppliers to give away everything from televisions to diamonds.

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