Making the most of Metstrade

Exhibitors explain strategies for navigating the world’s largest marine-equipment trade show
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Is Metstrade right for your company? Some longtime exhibitors say go, while others advise caution. 

Is Metstrade right for your company? Some longtime exhibitors say go, while others advise caution. 

The stats are impressive, some slightly mind-boggling. Metstrade has 48 nationalities among its 1,600 exhibiting companies, and the show attracts visitors from more than 105 countries. The 721,000 square feet of exhibit space has 357,577 square feet — 8.2 acres — of blue carpet in the aisles that connect the 11 large halls.  

Any first-time U.S. visitor to the Amsterdam event marvels at the oceans of exhibitor booths, from components distributors with thousands of SKUs to custom electronics manufacturers in the Superyacht Pavilion.

The event, showcasing the diversity of the global boating industry Nov. 13-15, can be a wonderland of opportunity. “We first went in 1999, and I was blown away by the size,” says Barry Berhoff, CEO of Shurhold Industries, a manufacturer of specialized maintenance equipment in Palm City, Fla. “I’d been to boat shows all my life but have never seen so much variety in one industry event.”

Ernie Ellis, president of Sea-Fire Marine, had a similar impression when he first attended, in 1998. “I was fairly green since it was only the second time I had traveled outside the country,” Ellis says. “I was going to meet with the U.K. builder Princess Yachts because we were installing Sea-Fire systems in boats they were building for Viking in the U.S. At Mets, I realized there was a whole new market out there.”

Metstrade’s international reach led Ellis to establish Sea-Fire Europe in the United Kingdom two years later. “The show let me meet distributors and move my product into Europe in a serious way,” he says, noting that half of Sea-Fire’s business is now international. “It’s still our main avenue of export because you meet distributors from small places like Trinidad or Mauritius that you wouldn’t know existed otherwise.”

Two decades later, both Ellis and Berhoff remain true believers, saying Metstrade has been the primary driver of their international sales. “If you’re looking for growth, Mets is a great way to test the waters,” Ellis says. “The potential customer base is so much larger. It’s a high-traffic show, so you get all sorts of people coming to your booth.”

About 178 U.S. equipment companies are expected to be represented at this year’s Metstrade, compared with 161 three years ago.

The USA Pavilion is the fourth largest (behind Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) with 100 companies this year — 15 more than in 2015. Canada is planning to have 20 companies at the show.

“We’ll have a record number of U.S. exhibitors at our pavilion,” says Julie Balzano, senior director of export development for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “We’re seeing numbers rising because everyone is riding high across the industry right now.”

Several government agencies provide state and federal grants for marine equipment companies to attend. “We’ll be sponsoring three companies this year,” says Norris Thigpen, international trade manager with the South Carolina Department of Commerce. “We provide financial assistance with booth rental, shipping equipment and even translating their websites into other languages. We want to make them look as professional as possible.”

Two of the South Carolina equipment manufacturers are longtime exhibitors, while one — Dock Blocks, a manufacturer of modular plastic docks — will be a newbie at the show. “We wanted to see how our product is received in the European market,” says Doug Edwards, Dock Blocks’ vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ve dabbled in international but don’t do much business there.”

Edwards says his company plans to sign distributors at Metstrade but doesn’t have any “hard sales goals” for the first year. “If the show doesn’t meet expectations, we’ll need to re-evaluate,” he says. “It’s not the cheapest on the list, but we also know that people don’t always engage the first year. They need to see you coming back to know your company has staying power.”

Some U.S. firms attend for a year or two and never come back. Delta T Systems in Riviera Beach, Fla., exhibited in 2010 and 2011 before pulling out. “We couldn’t justify the costs for what we were getting,” says Lynn Oien, president. “At the time, the U.S. Pavilion didn’t have the clout it has today. We were at the back of a hall. Nobody came. We also have a large competitor based in the Netherlands, so we decided to focus instead on our primary markets in the Americas.”

Jon Kushner, president of Taco Metals, sees exhibiting at Metstrade as valuable to maintaining an international profile. “Once you pull out of the show, it’s hard to get back in,” he says. “Plus, it takes time to establish relationships in Europe. It’s not uncommon to talk to customers for several years before you see any results.”

Kushner has seen small marine companies go to Metstrade and leave empty-handed. “People don’t seem to realize how niche-oriented the marine industry is,” he says. “If you’ve got a large catalog of products, Metstrade might make sense. But if you’re making, say, sportfishing equipment for a U.S. regional market, it probably doesn’t. Mets is a great show if you have an applicable product. If you don’t, it’s not.”

Tony Barber of SmartPlug Systems says his Seattle-based company attended the event before he joined as CEO but had no clear strategy for international business. “We were over there and saw some interest but didn’t do much business,” Barber says. “Then we used Mets as the platform to establish exclusive European distributors in different countries. We found three initially and more the following year. We’re still signing new ones each year to fill in holes of distribution.”

SmartPlug uses Metstrade to launch products and train distributors. “This year, we’ll be sitting with the distributors and doing a lot of listening,” Barber says. “It’s all about building better relationships and seeing what we can do to help.”

Like Kushner, Barber says exhibitors need to be sure their products fit an international market. “The first year, you might go and learn their technical needs,” he says. “The second year, create the right product. That sounds obvious, but we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have if we hadn’t immediately modified ours for Europe.”

Berhoff also says Metstrade is about product differentiation. “Nobody was doing the higher-quality maintenance category when we got there, so it gave us an immediate entry,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about getting your products in front of the right people in one place. Metstrade is a lot more cost-effective than traveling around the world.”

The Metstrade Difference

Beyond its size, the difference between Metstrade and every other marine trade show is a focus on emerging trends. Metstrade has primary exhibitors in the main halls, along with a Superyacht Pavilion, Marina & Yard Pavilion and Construction & Material Pavilion. It also has areas like the E-nnovationLab (electric and hybrid technology), I-nnovationLab (innovations and lectures on new technologies) and a MaterialDistrict Pop-Up focusing on high-end materials for boats.

The show also has been proactive on sustainability issues, with conferences about end-of-life recycling for boats that included members of the industry and European Commission. “That has become a big issue in Europe,” says Peter Franklin, environmental sustainability coordinator for Metstrade. “The boating industry has a big stake in the problem since more marinas are getting clogged up. We’ve been successful in getting the stakeholders engaged. Now it’s a question of funding to get things moving.”

This year’s event includes the discussions “How Green is Green in the Leisure Marine World” and “Toward Cleaner, Healthier Oceans and Waterways.” The former will discuss sustainability measures and their long-term environmental impact, and the latter will explore how marinas, nonprofits and sailing organizations are contributing to ocean conservation.

“The first discussion could be controversial but will provide a life-cycle assessment of our products. The second will include experts discussing how the industry is supporting ocean conservation,” Franklin says. “They’re both hot issues that could impact boat usage over the next 10 years.” — M.V.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.

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