Boat shows: They’re where the buyers are

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

There’s a cliché that’s grown up around the infamous bank robber Willie Sutton that just might serve as a metaphor for boat shows. Asked why he robbed banks, Sutton reportedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

It’s the same with shows. Why participate in a boat show? That’s where the buyers are. I used the Sutton reference while introducing two panelists in October at an IBEX seminar on boat show success. I may be biased, given my role in organizing this talk, but Norm Schultz and Larry Russo Sr. know as much about squeezing the last drop of business out of a show as anyone. They don’t believe in leaving anything on the table.

The recession, the Web, social media, search engines and a host of other transformative technologies and trends have led some to conclude that the best days of boat shows are in the rearview mirror. Although shows continue to evolve, news of their imminent demise, as Mark Twain once said of reports of his own passing, are greatly exaggerated.

Powerful as they are, none of the new technologies can replace face-to-face marketing, says Schultz, president emeritus of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association and producer of more than 125 major expositions in four states, including the two largest in-water boat shows on the Great Lakes.

“It’s been the case since medieval times,” says Schultz, an author, lecturer, columnist and longtime TradeOnlyToday blogger for whom boat shows are almost a religious experience. “Boat shows have been the single most effective marketing medium in our industry and they still are. … Admission is the great qualifier.”

None of the alternatives, Schultz says, have the “emotional contagion” of a show, where would-be buyers can clamber aboard boats and do side-by-side comparisons of competing brands, all of which help shorten the selling cycle.

Why do some dealers and builders not fare as well as others? “They don’t have quantifiable objectives,” Schultz says. Instead, he contends, they exhibit by hope. “Boat shows are a contact sport and a numbers game.”

Few know that as well as Russo, president and CEO of Russo Marine of Medford, Mass., a third-generation, family-owned business and one of the leading powerboat dealerships in the country. “We’re always on our game,” says Russo, who laid out a detailed eight-point template to boat show success. “Always.”

Russo presented data from the NMMA’s boat show purchase influence study, which was done by the Foresight Research Group and published in the industry’s spring Boat Show Exhibitor magazine:

• 95 percent of show attendees visited the display of the brand they ultimately purchased.

• 88 percent spoke with a salesperson.

• 84 percent viewed boat information online before attending the show.

• 73 percent used a show to compare brands and prices.

• 56 percent of purchasers attended a show in the prior year.

• 36 percent purchased a boat from an exhibitor that they did not intend to visit.

• 30 percent either purchased a boat or made an offer to purchase at the show.

A Brunswick dealer, Russo used the 2007 New England Boat Show — his dealership’s best ever — as an example of what can be accomplished when you’re really on top of all aspects of your game. The show also is an example of successful “partnering” (one of Russo’s eight points), which he defines as “going big without going broke.” For that 2007 show, Russo teamed with five other dealers who sell and service the same brands in different geographic areas. They pooled their money, people, products, trucks and expertise.

Six dealers brought in a total of 60 boats — 30 Boston Whalers and 30 Sea Rays. The combined sales force totaled 30 professionals. (“We don’t use our brother-in-law at boat shows,” Russo says). The display covered 31,500 square feet and the budget was $400,000.

The goal was to sell all 60 boats, at an average price of $100,000 a unit, for a total of $6 million. Of the estimated 52,000 people who attended, Russo says, roughly 43,000 passed through the display. Wow! “It’s all about the numbers,” he says.

The result? The group sold 92 boats at an average sales price of $139,500, for a total of $12.8 million. The return on investment went like this: Minus co-ops and sponsorships, the actual cost of the show for the group was $175,000, which broke down to $29,000 a dealer, or $1,902 for each boat sold.

“We left no sales on the table at that boat show,” Russo told the audience. He ended with this bit of wisdom: “It’s not a boat show. It’s a selling event.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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