A different Miami boat show

MIAMI – Going into the Miami International Boat Show, which wrapped up yesterday, exhibitors were “extremely hopeful but nervous,” said Show Manager Cathy Rick-Joule in an interview this morning.

“So many exhibitors said to me, ‘We really need a good show here. If we don’t have a good show, I don’t know what the backend will be.’”

As expected, attendance was down, particularly among international attendees and snowbirds reluctant to spend their money on travel, according to Rick-Joule. With 96,736 people in attendance, the gate was down 26 percent.

However, like many of the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s other boat shows this year, “the quality of the customer was exceptional,” said Rick-Joule, who described them as well educated and financially prepared to make a decision.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we want: to get the right customer here for our boat builders,” she said. “It looks like we’re doing that pretty well.”

The most important question for the exhibitors, however, was did those customers buy. And the answer, according to NMMA, is yes, though perhaps not at the same level as years past.

“What they’ve been telling me is, ‘We did sell boats. We’ve had to completely change our expectations. It’s adjusting the mindset of what used to be vs. now. Moving anything is better than nothing. And certainly, I did that here,’” explained Rick-Joule.

A new footprint

For those long familiar with the Miami show, it may have looked a little different this year. There were some exhibitors that simply weren’t there, either because they cancelled their contract or went out of business. In addition, many exhibitors reduced the size of their space.

This allowed some outside exhibitors to move inside the convention center’s main hall for the first time and other exhibitors to expand their booth, according to NMMA. For that reason, there were vacancies outside, which NMMA filled in part through a Miami Board-Up Wake Jam.

In addition, the on-water powerboat display at the Sealine Marina was smaller this year, as was the sailboat portion of the show.

The silver lining to this slowdown has been show producers’ ability to introduce new features for the first time, such as the Affordability Pavilion, which generated lots of interest from attendees and therefore high levels of satisfaction from those exhibitors that participated, according to Rick-Joule. In the past, organizers didn’t have the space for such offerings.

The pavilion featured 16 boat models on display, including pontoon boats, runabouts, waterski boats, party boats, personal watercraft and inflatables, she stated. Attendees not only commented on the signage, which displayed the price per month of those models, but seemed to appreciate the ability to browse the section without any sales pressure, she added.

The shift in space this year will have an impact for years to come. Those that invested in expanding their booth this year will have the first right of refusal on the space for next year.

One other factor will change as well, according to Rick-Joule. NMMA’s Show Committee recommended and was able to pass a new provision that ties NMMA membership into the seniority calculation that determines the price of space for exhibitors and the ability to improve that space. Starting in 2010, those that have dropped their NMMA membership will be at a significant disadvantage. Thus far, there have not been many nonmembers on the main floor of the convention center.

As Rick-Joule pointed out, NMMA members pay into the Grow Boating fund and generally contribute to the industry at a higher level. “If you’re not, there has to be a penalty attached to that,” she added.

A glimmer of hope

The Miami International Boat Show is more than a big selling opportunity for the industry. It is often used as a barometer for the coming season.

The message for the industry this year is that “we’re starting to see a little glimmer of hope about people’s optimism,” said Rick-Joule.

“They’re starting to feel a little more comfortable,” she said. “With the signing of the Obama stimulus package, they’re starting to feel more optimistic about their money. However, there is still a lot of concern about financing from consumers and the industry.”

Rick-Joule suggested now is the time for the industry to pay close attention to what consumers are asking for.

“Be available. Take their calls. Answer their e-mails. Be sympathetic to any challenges or changes they have,” she recommended. “What customers want now is very specific. They e-mail us with, ‘Will this model be at the show with this color and this electronics package?’ If we can’t get that info from our exhibitors, we can’t pass it along. Focus on what consumers want and deliver it in their language.”

Gauging success

When NMMA looks back and analyzes whether the show was a success, there are several different perspectives it will consider.

“If we got buyers through the door and everybody sold something, that’s a successful show,” said Rick-Joule. “And we still delivered a lot of people to South Beach, which is critical to us as a show producer as it helps us keep the show viable and keep prices down. That’s another way we gauge success.”

Then, there is the show’s profitability to consider.

“For NMMA, we delivered money to the bottom line, though not as much as we wanted to,” Rick-Joule explained. “But that’s all money that goes back to the industry. It’s really important to us to finance the industry.”

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