The future of the show

By Adam Quandt

With only a handful of exceptions, the past year has seen one postponement or cancellation after another when it comes to boat shows. However, with an explosion in boating popularity and the world slowly reopening, the recreational marine industry is gearing up to bring boat shows back in full force.

But before we look to the future of boat shows, it’s important to look at the past. More specifically the last 18 months or so and how manufacturers and dealers alike navigated a world with limited to no in-person boat shows.

“To understand the path forward, it is helpful to recall how we arrived at where we are today because the industry was extremely fortunate in multiple ways. First, the pandemic-related shutdowns occurred after the majority of our industry’s major boat shows had been produced. Had the rise of COVID-19 shifted even a month earlier, the impacts on the industry would have been dramatically different,” National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) president Frank Hugelmeyer penned in a letter to the industry. “As luck would have it, dealers and manufacturers entered the crisis with strong order books. Early 2020 sales, along with critical federal assistance and other actions championed by NMMA, allowed the industry to not only survive the shutdowns but re-open boating access and attract new business. So, the late spring rebound our industry realized was largely buoyed by the successful and undisrupted winter boat show season that preceded the crisis.”

As shows began to cancel, manufacturers and dealers were tasked with finding new ways to safely get in front of customers to capitalize on rapidly growing interest in the boating lifestyle.

Virtual reality

One of the obvious and most popular moves for all involved was to quickly move to virtual shows. However virtual boat shows came in many different forms as the industry navigated some mostly uncharted waters. While many large-scale boat shows already had virtual components to accompany in-person shows, moving the entire show and experience online was a completely new animal.

Virtual show efforts were lead by a variety of different segments from dealers to associations.

After cancelling the majority of its in-person boat show schedule, the NMMA pivoted its Northwest Sportshow to an all-virtual show.

“Moving an in-person event to an online only event will always present challenges as some of the unique experiences at an in-person event can’t be replicated,” NMMA senior vice president of shows Jennifer Thompson said. “However, when we put ourselves in the attendee’s shoes we know there are certain elements of our shows that could come to life online. Through our partnership with TRMG we were able to pivot quickly and re-imagine our virtual show guide into an actual virtual sportshow.”

All 465 originally scheduled exhibitors were included in the virtual show, with an additional 31 exhibitors upgrading to their own virtual show booths.

“One of the biggest successes was being able to test a new technology approach and do something positive for our industry during a global pandemic,” Thomspon said. “The results were incredibly encouraging during a time of uncertainty. We saw record traffic and engagement and were able to reach people in a way that provided valuable learning as we think about how we evolve this offering in the future. The engagement we saw told us that the outdoors and boating are still very much of interest to our audience in this environment and potentially even more so.”

The online show has hosted around 75,000 page views, with 50,000 unique page views spending significant time on the site across all of the various exhibitors.

Similarly, the Toronto International Boat Show moved its entire boat show to an online and virtual experience, which took place during the show’s seven-day run in late January.

After announcing the cancellation in September 2020 of its annual indoor event in light of the pandemic, Canadian Boat Shows forged ahead to present a virtual show in response to consumer and exhibitor feedback, record demand for boats, and growing interest in the boating lifestyle.

The Virtual Toronto Boat Show attracted 35,641 registrations made up of returning boat show patrons, new boaters, and first-time show attendees from the Greater Toronto Area, regionally across Ontario, and as far reaching as British Columbia.  Over 26,340 of registered individuals actively attended the show at least once (73% engagement rating); contributing to total visits of 46,938 times.

“We saw an overwhelmingly positive response from our participating exhibitors; and were impressed by their creativity, innovation and resourcefulness to adapt from preparing for an in-person show to a digital environment,” Linda Waddell, director of the Toronto Boat Show said.

On another hand, manufacturers began creating brand-specific virtual boat shows, outside of those put on by industry associations.

Last summer, Brunswick Corporation hosted its own two-day virtual boat show, showcasing its boat group portfolio, engine lineup and its parts & accessories business. Over 30 different brands exhibited during the online event, which allowed attendees to interact with each brand on their own time.

Princecraft also went a similar route, by launching its virtual park in early 2021, which allowed customers to explore the builder’s most popular models in an interactive environment.

“The concept was developed in response to many boat shows across the country switching to a virtual format in 2021,” said Jean-Philippe Martin-Dubois, Director of Marketing. “Our goal was to mirror the in-person boat show experience, virtually, by providing an intuitive and enjoyable experience for our consumers to easily navigate and compare our most popular models.”

Aside from taking part in association-run virtual boat shows, some marine dealers also took virtual boat show producing into their own hands.

Minnesota-based Top 100 dealer River Valley Marine joined a coalition of area dealers — all bringing different brands and segments to the table — to bring forward the online Minnesota Boat Show.

“One of the biggest things that has helped us through this has been an online presence,” owner John Wooden said. “That was the goal of the virtual boat show: to stay in front of our customers, current and prospective, and say ‘hey, we’re still here for you.’”

The return of the show

Across the entire marine industry, it’s easy to tell people from all segments are eager to get back to in-person shows. However, many are also quick to realize that even with shows returning, things are going to be different.

As the industry grapples with continued inventory and supply chain shortages, marine professionals are coming together to plan what the future of in-person shows are going to look like.

“They’re definitely going to look different as we get back to in-person boat shows, especially if we don’t have the inventory to display,” River Valley Marine’s Wooden said. “But I believe that boat shows are still necessary to our industry and will continue to play a crucial role to the boating community.”

As shows return to in-person formats, organizer’s certainly aren’t ignoring the success they found in virtual events by now incorporating hybrid in-person and virtual aspects to most boat shows going into the future.

“Online is obviously a huge component,” said Phil Purcell, president and CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF). “However, you have to acknowledge customers’ desire to go see and touch the products in person. Both in-person and online aspects of boat shows can exist together and help bring shows to a higher level than ever before.”

As the owner of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, MIASF was one of the few associations to actually host an in-person show last year; by far one of the largest industry events to occur and with great success.

“We worked very hard with the team at Informa, elected officials, and so many more to ensure we held a safe and successful event,” Purcell said. “And I think it really paid off for everyone involved in the show. We’re definitely looking forward to a more full-scale FLIBS for this coming year.”

NMMA also has big plans for its 2021-2022 show season as it returns to in-person boat shows, despite current industry challenges.

Understanding there may be inventory challenges in the months ahead, show organizers and exhibitors will need to explore new ways to showcase the variety of boat types, brands and marine products the industry has to offer, and immerse, educate and engage attendees in the boating lifestyle.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for boat shows to play a pivotal role in facilitating the boater’s journey and retaining the millions of American boaters who take to the water each year. We can’t wait to welcome back the industry and attendees to NMMA shows, and bring in the next generation of boaters who have recently entered the market–the future of our industry,” NMMA’s Thompson said. “We’re well underway planning on ways to modernize NMMA boat shows with a focus on education, community participation, exhibitor engagement and the overall boat show experience, from onsite to digital.”

While new display and selling tactics might be needed and explored, the entire industry — from dealers to manufacturers — agree that there’s still a big need for in-person boat shows around the world and together they’re gearing up for possibly the most important show season in modern history, as the industry continues to move forward into the future. “In a post-COVID world, large consumer events, like our industry-owned boat shows, should and must evolve to remain relevant…” Hugelmeyer concluded in his letter. “Make no mistake, boat shows will be back strong and they will be integral in attracting and educating consumers, driving sales and leads, highlighting our advocacy efforts and inviting a larger and more diverse consumer base to Get on Board.”

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