Breaking a tired boat show mold

R.I. trade association brings new vitality to its Providence production with a hefty infusion of fresh thinking.
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The Providence Boat Show, which was held Feb. 4-7, is like many smaller, regional shows that rely on the loyalty of local buyers and the hard work of local builders, dealers and vendors.

For years, these shows tended to look and feel the same — same exhibitors, same layout and probably Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel.

Three years ago, the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association bought the then-20-year-old show from the privately held Newport Exhibition Group, which produces the Newport International Boat Show and the Newport Charter Yacht Show.

Now run as a trade association show under the leadership of RIMTA CEO Wendy Mackie, the Providence show has evolved each year as the association tries new and fresh approaches. People who hadn’t been to the show in recent years saw a significantly different event this year than the one they remembered.

“We know that boat shows can’t be run the way they always have been with just a large fleet of boats in a hall, and we pushed our exhibitors this year to rethink their game, to liven up their displays, to make them feel real,” Mackie says.

Last fall RIMTA hired Susan Ratliff, a national trade show expert and the author of “Exhibit Like An Expert,” to talk to about 40 regular exhibitors about standing out from the boat-show crowd.

“We were trying hard to make sure that exhibitors have what they need to succeed,” Mackie says, noting several standout displays this year from local dealers.

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“I feel like it was the best show we ever produced, and I think next year will be even better,” Mackie says.

In 2014 RIMTA had owned the show for only three months before opening day, but the trade association used that time to add interactive seminars and demonstrations, a new pavilion hub with a tiki bar-style demonstration area and a big-screen monitor to add a video splash.

The changes paid off immediately with sold-out exhibitor space, a 15 percent increase in exhibition space sales and a 20 percent boost in ticket revenue.

New England winter weather, in the form of snow, dampened turnout in 2015 and again this year. A Friday snowstorm, a rarity during this mild winter in the Northeast, was a big factor in an 11 percent attendance drop this year.

Still, Mackie says the success of a show is not just measured in foot traffic.

“We had a strong show,” Mackie says. “We’ve received so many comments from both exhibitors and attendees on how open and welcoming the show is.”

The layout was reorganized to get away from supermarket-type aisles, providing a more open feel with better traffic flow. The hub, now called the Anchor Bar, was moved from the far side of the Rhode Island Convention Center to the center of the floor because it had been skewing traffic to that one side of the hall. The entire floor was carpeted for the first time this year.

Special activities, “the kinds that get folks more inspired to go boating and give them more reason to stay at the show longer,” Mackie says, were held throughout the venue.

In addition to sportfishing and boating seminars run by expert anglers and sailors, visitors could sample sea-to-table demos from top chefs who demonstrated on a hot grill how to cook your catch.

Organizers added an indoor pool this year to the 110,000 square feet of exhibition space and added Island Time, which served as a platform for visitors to learn about Caribbean charter getaways and destinations (to the sounds of a steel drummer working the show).

An outside-the-box idea launched this year was the recruitment of a team of millennial-age consultants to help make the show more appealing to younger and tech-savvy boaters — an offshoot of a summer marketing internship for millennials that RIMTA created last summer.

The eight college-student interns came up with ideas to appeal to younger buyers, many of which show organizers are embracing. Most prominent among the innovations was an app that enabled exhibitors and show officials to display specific social media postings on a giant JumboTron hanging from the rafters.

Following the millennial lead, this year organizers “went very heavy on social media,” Mackie says, which enabled exhibitors to post messages on the big screens to promote themselves live during the show.

The pool and heavy social media aspect played to the strengths of Guy Gauvin, who owns the two-year-old, locally based East Coast Paddle Sports, which conducted pool demonstrations throughout the show.

Gauvin said he was surprised he sold all of the 15 paddleboards he brought and another seven from leads captured at the show.

“As a young company, we rely heavily on social media to get our brand out there, both leading up to the show and at the show,” Gauvin says. “We kept posting on the JumboTron every time we made a sale and inviting people to come by for great deals.”

Gauvin says his start-up initially focused on rentals and lessons, but opened a brick-and-mortar store in Wakefield, R.I., last year to sell boards.

“Our goal going in was getting our brand out there, but having the pool there to give demonstrations really stopped people in their tracks and got them interested,” he says.

Ten of the 15 boats he sold at the show were inflatables, which are easier to stow on a boat.

Traditional boat dealers such as Russell Lemieux, co-owner of Inland Marine, a Chepachet, R.I., dealer that carries the diverse Sea Hunt, Tahoe, G3, SunCatcher and Yamaha brands, also fared well.

“We sold five boats at the show, and another four in the weeks after from leads gained at the show,” Lemieux says. “We found people coming in were in buying mode. We told ourselves during the show, ‘It’s going to be another good year; we can see it coming.’ ”

Al Addessi of South Attleboro Marine, a Stingray, Mercury and Volvo dealer in Massachusetts, says he sold three new Stingrays at the show. “The show is always good for us. We always write up some boats at the show and write several more after,” he says.

The new layout and appearance of the show was a hit with him, and even several customers commented on the look. What hurt the show this year, he says, was snow at the start and Super Bowl Sunday at the finish.

Unfortunately the show schedule has that same conflict with the big game for the next several years. With a little luck, however, maybe there will be no snow.

Mackie says show organizers at RIMTA will hold focus group meetings during the coming weeks to get advice from exhibitors about how to make the 2017 show even better.

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