IBEX: Boating’s cradle of ideas

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes

ibex1You can network and take the pulse of the industry while searching out the next big thing in marine products.

When Dana Russikoff and her team were preparing to launch their new retractable shades for boats in 2007, they came across a link to the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference.

“There are probably not too many people who can say this, but IBEX is basically where our company began,” says Russikoff, business leader and co-founder of SureShade. “When we were doing our research to determine the best way to launch the product, it was more than clear that IBEX was the show to do it at. There was really no need to do market research because our experience at IBEX gave us what we needed to really penetrate the markets. We had interest from several OEMs within the first couple of hours. Our first launch was on the Boston Whaler 370 Outrage, and that was a direct result of IBEX.”

Russikoff’s story encapsulates why many manufacturers, aftermarket sales teams, distributors and suppliers point to IBEX as the go-to business-to-business show for networking, unveiling new product and checking out the next big thing in boating. This year’s show takes place Sept. 17-19 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

“IBEX is all about building relationships and seeing what’s coming in the future,” says Dave Wollard, who heads up North American sales for Germany-based Webasto.

Networking

Connecting with business associates without competing with or focusing on boat buyers is key, says Gaspare Marturano, managing director of digital marketing and social media at Fastlane Communications. “When we go to other big shows, the boating public is walking the floors, and it’s packed with people,” he says. “Those guys are there to sell. They’re at IBEX to sell, too, but they’re also there for networking. It’s a good space to go to get more face time, and I’ve always found people seem to be a bit more relaxed at this show.”

“IBEX is the largest marine industry B2B trade show in North America,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which co-produces the show with Professional BoatBuilder magazine. “It brings suppliers of new boating products and production technologies together with boatbuilders, aftermarket retailers, boatyards, marinas, and other marine businesses and business owners. It provides technical education that can’t be found anywhere else. It advances the industry and helps the industry design and build better boats and better consumer experiences.  If there were no IBEX, we would have to create one.”

ibex2Greg Scholand, business manager at Lighthouse Marine Distributors, says he looks forward to IBEX for new networking opportunities but also to see old friends. “After 29 years in the industry you get to know a lot of people, and for 364 days a year it’s email or telephone,” he says.

When Lighthouse is looking for one or two new companies to deal with, the “wheels are in motion and we’ll consummate those deals down there. That’s the beauty of Kentucky bourbon,” he quips. “There are one or two product lines that I’m excited about, and I’m looking forward to taking care of that when we’re down there. I can’t name specifics at this point, but, yeah, we do have irons in the fire.”

For the Martin-Flory Group, a public relations firm, the importance of a show such as IBEX is face time with many facets of the industry, says general manager Kelly Flory. “Because IBEX is a trade show, a B2B show, you have the ability to focus on business-oriented conversations,” Flory says. “You can talk about distributor pricing or prototype products; it’s a much different environment from consumer shows. IBEX really is one of the most important trade shows in our industry from the perspective of being able to connect so many different segments.”

The show not only facilitates relationship-building, but it also provides a venue to schedule one-on-one meetings, says Ken Smaga, who is with the representatives group ComMar Sales and is president of the National Marine Representatives Association. “It gives [manufacturers] a chance to meet with suppliers, so instead of buying plane tickets to go and see someone, you’re all under one roof,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to touch and meet with all your customers over a two- or three-day period, and I look forward to that. A large part of business depends on relationships, so it’s a good venue to further those relationships.”

It’s also an opportunity for the NMRA to have meetings and organize. The group also has a booth at the show, so it’s a good opportunity for builders and manufacturers to talk to reps. “You’ll have a group of people walking around the show, looking to bring some product to the marine market, and they don’t know how to get there,” Smaga says.

ibex3IBEX organizers are trying to facilitate those meetings through a new website, says show director Anne Dunbar. “All our forward-thinking exhibitors set up appointments before the show, and that can all be done pretty easily through the website,” she says. “New technology just allows you to be more efficient with your time, and this year we’ve invested in a bigger, fancier system.”

New products

The show’s timing makes it an ideal venue for companies to launch new product because builders are just starting to think about the following model year, Smaga says. “This is the first look to see what we can put on a 2015 boat,” he says. “And the decision makers will be there.”

ComMar Sales represents several companies, some large enough to have their own booths. Others are too small or new to the market to warrant buying their own space. “But we want to get their name out and their product out there,” Smaga says.

So ComMar will rent space to feature micro-displays. “It’s really important that the builders and engineers can look at a product and touch it,” Smaga says. “We’re going to introduce a few products there that boatbuilders will say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ ”

Seeing the next big thing coming down the pike is the most exciting part of IBEX for Dunbar. “Every year you see something that makes your eyes bug out of your head and you think, I can’t believe somebody thought of that,” she says.

“There’s always the ‘aha moment’ you have when you see a new product that really blows you away,” Scholand says. “Usually you walk away with one or two of those.”

One of the reasons companies choose to introduce product at IBEX is so they can hear feedback from industry insiders. A client of Fastlane’s is going to debut a “game-changing” product at IBEX, Marturano says, because they can talk to industry people who understand it. If it’s something that’s standard on any vessel, a retail consumer might not understand it entirely, he says. For example, if a tire company unveils new tires, “people who understand rubber might be more excited about it. Those kinds of announcements are safer at IBEX because people really do understand.”

The crystal ball

The exchange of information gives companies such as ComMar a reading of the overall pulse of the industry. “You know who’s planning, what builders are adding engineers and coming out with new designs or need new products,” Smaga says. “You have another group saying, ‘Well, business may be off, so we’re not going to change anything.’ Some might be taking a wait-and-see approach, and you get a handle on that — and the ones who are optimistic and the ones who are a little more pessimistic.”

ibex4For Webasto, a company that makes marine air conditioning and heating units, as well as sunroofs, there is a 10-year business plan, so comparing notes is essential, Wollard says. “We have a lot of things on our radar, and we want to ask our customers, ‘How does this compare to what you’re doing?’ ” he says. “And then we also get to ask ‘What do you need?’ The synergies start to happen at IBEX when you roll up your sleeves with engineers, the COOs and everyone else.”

The builders use the show to ask Wollard and his team how they are addressing some of the feedback they hear from boaters, allowing them to create a product that’s unique and completely customer-driven. “You can’t do that at a retail show,” he says. “You can talk a little bit, but you’re constantly dealing with the retail customers, and let’s face it, that’s what consumer shows are about.”

That extra step in planning is even more vital post-recession, when many companies have right-sized and are sinking more money into R&D to lure customers to buy new boats, Wollard says.

Booth sales up

Booth sales and sponsorships for this year’s show were already tracking ahead of last year by mid-June, Dunbar says. “That’s a beautiful indicator of the overall industry,” she says. “I’m not sure if we’ll sell out, but if we don’t we’re going to come pretty close at this rate.”

Wollard says he doesn’t pay much attention to attendance and the booth space sold at IBEX. “I pay attention to the quality [of attendee], and I think that’s key at IBEX. I don’t care if we have 100,000 people walk through the door. If we have 3,000 walk through the door who take a serious approach, we won,” he says. “You can put a lot of people around your booth, but if you only get to talk to every 10th person, what good is that? I want the quality ones. We did more business there last year than ever before, so if I can replicate that this year, Webasto won. That’s how we see it.”

This year’s industry breakfast keynote speaker will be Rick Pitino, coach of the University of Louisville men’s basketball team, which won the NCAA championship earlier this year. “He’s an incredibly motivating speaker,” Dunbar says.

“It is very easy to get so focused on what we do every day that we forget to look up and see what is going on around us that impacts our business and our customers,” Dammrich says. “Talented people like Rick Pitino offer us an opportunity to pick our head up and look around, to be exposed to thoughts and ideas that can bring a new perspective to our work. Just one inspiration or new idea makes the investment to be at IBEX well worth it.”

The show will feature more boats than ever this year, too, which is “pretty unusual,” Dunbar says. “There will be a lot of boats showcasing new technology and products. That’s another really positive sign because all this costs money. People are feeling better, and IBEX is a big indicator of what’s going on in the overall economy.”

ibex5The social media lounge will return with Josh Chiles, founder of Engage, a firm that helps companies manage social media. “Here’s a chance to go and talk to an expert for free,” Dunbar says. “He’ll be doing live demonstrations.”

The show also will showcase four closed-mold processes producing decks and hulls. “The excitement will be that we will present a demonstration where we build each part, one after the other, on the same mold, showing that closed-mold processes can work on virtually any part and that it all depends on the manufacturer’s need,” says Kate Holden, IBEX sales and marketing director.

The demos will highlight questions about economics, quality and safety. “And this year for the first time we will be showcasing prepreg in our demo, which is an advanced material,” says Holden. “We are trying to draw attention to the benefits of advanced materials like prepreg and carbon fiber to the marine manufacturing industry.”

Flory says this is the No.1 reason she finds IBEX invaluable. “The educational seminars they put on are fantastic,” Flory says. “I give a lot of credit to the IBEX show committee for having evolved this show over its lifetime.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue.

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