NMMA President talks boat shows

After a year filled with uncertainty and disruption, including the cancellation and postponement of many boating industry events and shows, NMMA president Frank Hugelmeyer shares his thoughts on the importance and future of boat shows:

The unprecedented disruption from COVID-19 has been a blessing and curse for the recreational boating industry. On one hand, we have witnessed a remarkable shift in consumer spending choices. For many American families, outdoor activities such as recreational boating and fishing are providing one of the safest, socially distanced atmospheres to spend time relaxing and rejuvenating during the pandemic. COVID has reintroduced the unique value of outdoor recreation to Americans, creating a trend we hope lasts long after the crisis is resolved.

On the other hand, we have seen many of our recent and near-term industry gatherings and boat shows either canceled or compromised. Iconic events like IBEX and FLIBS went forward digitally or as a fraction of their normal footprint. Looking to Q1, the Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show, one of the world’s most renowned and impactful boat shows, along with dozens of other events have been canceled. This level of disruption has never happened before, so the natural question to ask is, “what comes next?”

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.

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.

The strong early selling season was shortly followed by unforeseen circumstances that benefited the marine industry. Almost all competition for consumers’ time, mindshare and spending evaporated. Gone were the immediate opportunities for consumers to tour on cruise ships, travel internationally, or attend amusement parks and sporting events. Gone were the overscheduled family calendars with playdates, sports leagues, and music lessons. Instead, families were cooped up at home and researching how they could use their unscheduled time and available dollars to safely recreate.

Fortuitously, the water was open, and the boating industry was ready and willing to embrace a massive wave of first-time and returning boat buyers that headed towards the boating lifestyle. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen many marine companies quickly reinvent themselves to take advantage of the unique market opportunities and conditions. Dealers enhanced their digital showrooms and set up socially distanced VIP tours. Manufacturers and suppliers smartly adapted to address supply chain disruptions.

NMMA was no different. Discover Boating, RBFF and MRAA joined forces to more effectively engage the consumer and drive new customers to our members and stakeholders. Our collective marketing efforts, closely aligned with the industry’s major brands, allowed us to jointly communicate with great breadth and clarity that boating was the ultimate solution to American quarantine life and welcome first-time boat buyers to the boating lifestyle in historical numbers. The past nine months rewarded agility and our industry was one of the winners.

However, there is danger in thinking this performance will be easily duplicated in 2021 and beyond. Yes, we anticipate manufacturing growth in 2021 as we catch up on the current shortages at retail. And, yes, we should expect consumer interest in outdoor activities that enhance social distancing to remain strong and popular throughout next year. But we must be prepared to address new and greater challenges in the months and years ahead.

Without boat shows in Q1 of 2021, dealers and manufacturers will need to rely significantly on direct marketing and virtually generated sales. While heightened interest in recreational boating is certain to return in 2021, it is safe to assume the sectors we normally compete against for consumers’ time and discretionary dollars will mount aggressive multi-year campaigns to rebuild their lost market share. And because resources are scarce, we can expect companies within disrupted industries to combine efforts behind a single message. This means it will only get harder for a brand or industry to stick out of the crowd.

As America’s largest boat show producer, NMMA plans to vigorously defend the recreational market share gains realized this year. With traditional competitors expected to return once the pandemic’s hold weakens, it is important for the industry to unify around a comprehensive strategy that maintains the consumer’s attention on recreational boating. As we all know, there is no better place to attract consumers, highlight our advocacy needs, celebrate the growth in water sports and promote the boating lifestyle than boat shows.

This means that as large consumer events return, Discover Boating and boat shows will play a vital role in protecting and growing the market. NMMA will leverage the millions of dollars we traditionally invest in our boat shows around the country and combine those with the industry’s Discover Boating brand to create one singular consumer-facing brand. This enables us to amplify recreational boating’s voice, drive increased ROI to both Discover Boating and boat shows, and position us to expand the industry for years to come.

While we plan to re-brand our shows under Discover Boating, integrating them goes beyond re-branding. The focus of our strategy is to provide a seamless, consumer-first experience that meets them where they are today and where they will be tomorrow.

This seamless Discover Boating brand encounter will expand the number of consumers engaging with the industry and direct more leads to exhibitors, dealers, and sponsors. What’s more, following NMMA’s investment in connecting our boat shows to Discover Boating, we plan to make it available to non-NMMA boat shows. This will allow the wider industry to have a more direct connection to Discover Boating all while strengthening our collective industry voice and impact through Discover Boating. Expect more details on what the brand integration entails later in 2021.

In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the return of boat shows for two key reasons: they provide a unique opportunity to excite the consumer and allow recreational boating to stand out in a crowded and competitive consumer marketing landscape—the type of landscape we aren’t facing now but will surely face in the months and years ahead.

In a post-COVID world, large consumer events, like our industry-owned boat shows, should and must evolve to remain relevant. We will begin that journey with the integration of Discover Boating across boat shows and a revival of great experiential showcases in major markets. 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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