It might sound cliché, but when it comes to boat shows, it's a matter of quality over quantity.
Though attendance was down at winter and spring shows - some by double-digit percentages - organizers say as long as serious buyers come out, the fall shows should meet expectations in this down market. The mood of organizers in early August ranged from apprehensive to cautiously optimistic. Will the consumer show up? That's the question on everyone's mind.
"Given the state of things, everybody's looking forward to the fall season to keep moving inventory," says Ben Wold, executive vice president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which is producing three shows this fall - Norwalk, Conn., Tampa, Fla., and Toronto, all of which take place in September. "While [a show] may be smaller, there's still going to be a lot of great product there, and there'll be business there."
Fall shows, he says, generally bring out more qualified attendees, rather than just those coming to look. "On the attendance side, we would love to hold, to be where we were last year, but it remains to be seen," Wold says. "It's possible the attendance could be off a bit." Success, however, is not measured solely by attendance, but also by how well exhibitors do, he adds.
Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, says he's optimistic that the 50th anniversary of the world's largest boat show will be a good one. "Despite the economy, the signs are positive for a very, very good Fort Lauderdale boat show," he says. "Yes, we have dealers that are retrenching, but ... this is an important international marketplace, second to none. A number of our members report that 30, 40, even possibly 50 percent of their business comes from this one, singular show.
"There's a lot riding on this show," Herhold adds. "There is an element of apprehension [going in] just because our industry lives and dies on consumer confidence and, obviously, we're hoping consumer confidence strengthens as we get closer to the boat show."
Organizers of the Fort Lauderdale show, which runs this year from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2, do not release attendance figures, but they say last year's show was good and they anticipate the same this year. "You're always hoping it stays the same, if not more," says show spokeswoman Emily Taffel-Schaper. "We're anticipating a small drop-off due to the economy, but we're hoping it stays the same."
Nancy Piffard, director of the Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show, scheduled for Sept. 17-20, says it's hard to forecast attendance, but the show has added new features to bring people to the event. These include the Newport for New Products program, which recognizes new 2010 model-year boats, and Whisky Live on the Docks, a whiskey and spirits tasting event.
"Until the gates open, it's hard to predict [attendance]," Piffard says. "I think it's a year that we can't look at history. In times like this, history goes out the window."
Exhibitors signing up
Piffard says what she's noticed with the Newport show is that exhibitors are coming back, but they have downsized their booths, and contracts are coming in slower. "The 11th hour is going to be when I really know what's going to happen," she says. "They're just contracting later than ever. I think it's going to come together right up until the show.
"Usually, right now, we pretty much have a wait list, and we're designing the show," Piffard adds. "A lot of companies are struggling, and it's hard to send a contract with a deposit or even the full amount."
Piffard says the Newport show, which typically has about 600 exhibitors, will likely be condensed this year. "Let's face it, if somebody had brought seven boats in the past and they're bringing five, and everybody's doing that kind of thing, I'm sure we'll condense a bit," she says, noting that the show did not raise its rates to exhibit this year and hasn't for the last five years.
The Fort Lauderdale show, which generally has about 800 total exhibitors, was on par with last year as of mid-July in terms of exhibitors getting in contracts. As of that point, about 500 exhibitors had sent in contracts. "They're not slower to sign up to do the show, but slower to confirm which boats they're bringing," Taffel-Schaper says. "It does appear at this point they're still bringing the same number of boats."
Of course, exhibitors have dropped out of the show, but because there's been a waiting list for Fort Lauderdale, she says finding others to take their place hasn't been a problem. "There's people who wait years to get into it," she says.
Paul Jacobs, spokesman for the U.S. Sailboat Show and U.S. Powerboat Show, both of which take place in Annapolis, Md., in October, says land space for the sailboat show was nearly sold out as of mid-July and that show should be full. The powerboat show, he says, may see fewer land spaces sold, as some smaller manufacturers have gone out of business.
"Not all boat manufacturers are bringing as many boats, but some are bringing more, so there's a variation in the number of boats," Jacobs says. "We're out searching for new manufacturers. We have begun a new business marketing plan that has uncovered several manufacturers of boats and boating accessories not previously represented in the show. We are working to bring in new business to expand our exhibitor base."
The two events brought in about 100,000 people last year, he says. Between the two shows, there are more than 1,200 exhibitors.
Exhibitors' reluctance to commit shut down this year's Racine (Wis.) Boat Show, says spokeswoman Betsey Arvai. The show is managed by Recreational Leadership Company, which took over the event from the NMMA in 2002. RLC is a division of Skipper Marine Holdings.
"Dealers have been very slow to commit or non-committal to confirm their participation. Some dealers just took it out of their budget," she says. "We hope that the economic environment we are in now improves so that we can have the show next year."
Also on hold this fall is the NMMA's Liberty Boat Show, which had been set for October in New Jersey. The show, which the NMMA purchased in May 2008 from Liberty Event Management, was moved to April 29-May 2, 2010. "The time frame was not ideal for launching our first show at Liberty, given the current economic environment," says Ellen Hopkins, spokeswoman for the association.
The Liberty show had been in place for about six years before being acquired by the NMMA. The NMMA did not hold the show in 2008 because of the economic climate. It was postponed to October 2009, and will now take place in April 2010.
The NMMA also discontinued three of its shows - the Virginia In-Water Boat Expo & Sailfest, which had been set for September in Norfolk, Va.; the Schaumburg (Ill.) Boat and Sportshow; and the San Diego Boat Show.
"In an industry with fewer dealers and fewer manufacturers, there will be fewer boat shows," NMMA president Thom Dammrich said at the time of the announcement. "This decision allows NMMA to streamline its show business and focus on providing dynamic shows in markets that are not overserved, which will ultimately deliver stronger shows for the industry in the long run."
While the Liberty show has been pushed back, two new shows are debuting in New Jersey this fall: the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey's Jersey Shore Boat Sale & Expo and the Boat Dealers Fall Clearance Sale, both set for mid-September.
The three-day Jersey Shore show, which takes place Sept. 18-20 at First Energy Park in Lakewood, will feature new and used boats and accessories for sale by MTA/NJ members and other marine retailers. All proceeds go to the association to support its efforts.
"We needed a boat show that was economical for the dealers and the public. It's run by the dealers, for the dealers," says Rick Traber, president of the MTA/NJ. "I'm sure there's some people that weren't able to afford to do the traditional shows and, this being very affordable, they'll probably do it."
The Sept. 17-20 Boat Dealers Fall Clearance Sale is an alternative to conventional boat shows, says show manager Mark Allen. "This is an event which will focus on selling and buying boats only," he says. "Conventional boat shows are marketed to the general public, most of whom will never have the desire, wherewithal or sufficient interest to actually buy a boat. Boat shows are about the 'gate.' Our events are about selling and buying boats."
Allen, who also managed the Strictly Jersey Boat Show, says he expects around 13 to 16 dealer/manufacturers to take part in the vent, which will be held at the South Jersey Marina in Cape May. Traber says he expects around 25 dealers and 20 to 30 booths at the MTA/NJ show. Though the two Jersey events take place at the same time, Traber says they are located far enough apart to draw from different areas of the state.
"I don't look at it as a competing show, even though they are both promoting sales," he says.
Bringing them in
Organizers are introducing new features to this year's shows, hoping to attract more buyers. The NMMA will debut its "NMMA Advantage," which combines the on-site show with an online show. It provides a site where exhibitors can list inventory they will have at the show for up to 90 days before the event. It will stay up for about 30 days after the show, says Wold, and after that, it will flip to boatshows.com, where the exhibitors can list their entire inventories at no cost.
"The consumer today wants to know what products are going to be at the show," Wold says. "The old days of just plunking down your $10 and just coming and looking around are gone. People want to know what model's going to be there, what the horsepower is, they want specifics.
"It's a way to help educate and inform and help push leads and sell product for the exhibitors," Wold says. "They can make appointments if they want." NMMA Advantage will launch with the fall shows and continue with the group's winter shows, he says.
Also this year, the NMMA for the first time is allowing exhibitors to display non-current boats at the Norwalk (Conn.) International In-Water Boat Show. "Our goal as a show producer and an association, right now, is to help people sell product and survive," Wold says. "It's really that simple. So we've relaxed the rules on our shows to allow more non-current product to be brought in. We're also willing to let them bring in boats they might have taken in on trade. That's a new little twist." There will be a separate dock for the used product, he says.
Given that not many 2009 boats have been purchased and some manufacturers won't have introduced 2010 models in time for the September show, it made sense to relax the rules, Wold says. "The fall shows have never been hung up on being new-boat-only shows," he says.
Also at the fall shows, the NMMA plans to continue its Affordability Pavilion and Green Zone, for environmentally friendly products.
The U.S. Sailboat Show, Oct. 8-12, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and special events are planned to mark the milestone, including a dinner cruise on a 109-foot yacht on VIP night. A cocktail area will also be part of the Oct. 15-18 powerboat show, something new this year. Show spokesman Jacobs says organizers also have a sponsorship agreement with BoatU.S. to help drive attendance and get the word out to that organization's 640,000 members.
In addition to the Newport for New Products program, other events at the Newport show include book signings, kids programs, CPR classes, and free sailing lessons courtesy of Sail America's Discover Sailing program. Also, prospective multihull buyers can sign up for an after-show sea trial sail to Cuttyhunk, Mass., with a raft-up and dinner on the island. Participants sleep on board and return to Newport the following day.
The Fort Lauderdale show is premiering its new Demo Docks at Pier 66, where attendees can demo a selection of boats. The C and D Demo Docks will accommodate up to 40 boats from select exhibitors, from center consoles to motoryachts. All sea trials will head south toward Port Everglades.
The newly redesigned yacht builders and designers tent will be divided into two sections for better navigation. One section will be dedicated to builders and shipyards and the other to businesses that support the superyacht industry.
Jacobs says that, despite the challenges, there's a "general tone of optimism" surrounding the upcoming shows. "New and used boat sales have started to rebound slightly in the past month. The stock market is up about 40 percent since its lows in March. The economy is showing signs of stabilizing. The housing market even ticked up slightly last month," he says, ticking off the positives that could be good signs for the boating industry.
Traber, from the MTA/NJ, says as a dealer, he's seen signs of improvement, as well. "Sales the past three or four weeks have been pretty good," he says, speaking to Trade Only in mid-July. "I think it's because the weather's turned around and been good, and also the price of gas is down. The price last summer was over $4 a gallon, and now we're looking at the mid $2s."
Herhold, too, was optimistic about the Fort Lauderdale show and the industry in general. "We'll get through this; we always have," he says. "It's a very resilient industry. We're staying afloat. Clearly this is the toughest period that I've ever experienced, but there's no pity parties here. We're working hard down here."
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.