The boat show’s role is evolving and sales await those who adapt

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

sisson_billThe old boat show model is undergoing a transformation. Given what we’ve just been through, that’s to be expected. And welcomed. It’s an old unbroken story: change, adapt, evolve – or shuffle off to the tar pits.

In this immediate post-recession landscape, there certainly are fewer boat shows, and their footprints are smaller. Beyond that, there are still plenty of questions and opinions about just how the show business will emerge from the trough we’re working our way out of. Reagan Haynes addresses those issues in her Page 1 story on the changing boat show environment.

Opine as we all do, this much I can say with certainty: Boat shows are not going away. They will remain an integral part of our industry as they morph and evolve. To wit, I recently spent three days at the Essex (Conn.) Spring Boat Show, a brand-spanking-new event held in April on the lower Connecticut River. The Essex gathering is one of the new generation of “boatique” shows: small, local and with plenty of chances to meet one-on-one with brokers and dealers in a more intimate, unhurried setting.

“It’s an opportunity to see boats on a small scale and to really converse with the brokers,” says organizer Doug Domenie, vice president and general manager of Brewer Dauntless Shipyard & Marina, which hosted the event. “It’s a small industry. We all need to help each other and do what we can to make the consumer feel really, really good about where they’re spending their money. We have to make the experience as positive as possible in every aspect.”

This first-time event showcased more than 50 boats – sail and power, new and used, 25 to 72 feet – from six local dealers and brokers. The participants have every reason to believe the show has a bright future: good brands, smart dealers with a solid understanding of the consumer and a lovely, river-town setting.

Why start a new show now? The organizers felt the timing was right. Remember, it’s from the remains of economic collapses that opportunities emerge for those in a position to take advantage of them.

“I think it could be a very successful local show,” Domenie says. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Soundings Publications was a sponsor of the Essex Spring Boat Show.)

Longtime dealer Larry Russo Sr. of Russo Marine in Medford, Mass., approaches a boat show with the focus, preparation and mindset of someone getting ready for a full-

contact sport.

“Dealers who are on their game see it as a selling event and not a show,” says Russo, a Sea Ray and Boston Whaler dealer with three locations in Massachusetts. They set goals and projections and develop an effective strategy for reaching them.

“Everything matters,” says Russo. “It’s retail detail. The dealer who hits on more positive points earns more business.”

For his sales force, Russo likens the period leading up to a show to spring training for baseball players – you shake off the rust and get back into game shape before taking the field. “We teach, we train, we retrain,” he says. “We still go to a show on a mission.”

Russo deploys a well-oiled team with a coordinated approach to selling; the “coach” keeps an eye on everything from the timing and density of foot traffic patterns to presentation, incentives and follow-ups, to helping “load the lips” of his sales folks with effective, consistent messages.

The professional approach has paid off. Traditionally, the four shows that Russo Marine attends have represented about 25 percent of the company’s annual business, although that figure has dipped in the recession.

Consider this: Russo Marine in 2006 sold 96 boats (with bankable deposits) during the nine-day New England Boat Show. “We’ve always been boat show savvy,” he says.

Russo, too, senses the shifting breeze blowing through today’s shows. “The boat show landscape is changing,” he says. “Shows are never going away. They’re just going to take on a different look and feel.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.

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