Annual conference offers social media tools, networking opportunities and new-product innovation
Organizers of the International Boatbuilders’ Exhibition & Conference have expanded the scope of the upcoming show and added new software and a social media lounge to its offerings.
“IBEX continues to evolve throughout its 22 years,” says Carl Cramer, IBEX co-director and the publisher of Professional BoatBuilder magazine. “This year we’ll have a heightened focus on social media, networking and the boatbuilding industry.”
Scheduled for Oct. 2-4 at the Kentucky Exhibition Center in Louisville, IBEX 2012 was at 86 percent capacity in early July and bookings were still rolling in, marketing director Anne Dunbar says. “It’s really not your grandpa’s IBEX show,” Dunbar says. “It has evolved to be an all-industry networking event. It’s in your best interest to get there.”
That doesn’t mean the focus hasn’t remained on what IBEX has always done. As the strongest technical education track on boating in the world, there is something for everyone, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which co-produces the show with Professional BoatBuilder. “I think IBEX offers several things for dealers but also for everyone in the industry,” Dammrich says. “There are tracks for builders, for dealers, for marinas, for boatyards, for vendors,” among others.
Some of the seminars give industry players an insight into what’s coming in terms of technology, Dammrich says. For example, two years ago there was a heavy emphasis on the new evaporative emission systems that builders were to incorporate into boats. “Two years ago, dealers didn’t have to worry about evaporative emissions, but now boats are being sold with [those systems] and dealers have to know about them,” he says. “If you want to know what’s coming down the road and have some vision into the future, IBEX is the place to get it.”
There’s a massive amount of product at IBEX, and an expansion of aftermarket exhibits gives all segments of the industry a first look at what’s new, Dammrich says. “It certainly could provide for more opportunity for collaboration on new products,” he says. “You get to see all the possibilities while products are still in the development stage.”
The new social media lounge is a buzz-worthy topic. “It’s never been done before, and that will be very exciting for exhibitors and attendees,” says Josh Chiles, CEO of Engaged and a board member of the Marine Marketers of America. “The lounge is going to be so full of information, plus everything that’s kind of happening at IBEX can be displayed [there].”
Chiles, who is helping organize the lounge, says he’ll use his IBEX presentation to emphasize that manufacturers can create content for dealers to share on their own social media channels. “That way they’re spreading the same message across social media everywhere,” he says. “Whether people look at a [manufacturer ’s] Facebook page or the dealer’s website, they see the same message.” That consistency is key to keeping consumers confident in a brand, he says.
People stuck in the mindset that IBEX is only for manufacturers just need to be educated about what they can learn there and what they can gain from going in as a team, Chiles says.
The lounge will provide participants with live demonstrations of the ways they can use social media to their benefit, Dammrich says. “Social media is about building community; boating is a community,” he says. “They are so linked together that it’s almost like social media was built for boating.”
“Word-of-mouth marketing has always been the most powerful way to grow … and word-of-Internet is a bazillion times faster,” Chiles says.
Boating has a lot of unrealized opportunities in social media, says Joe Lewis, owner of the Mount Dora Boating Center in Florida. As chairman of the NMMA’s Grow Boating campaign, Lewis says the focus for the next six months is to hammer away at dealers and manufacturers to make use of the social media tools that are there for them. “We need to get our stakeholders to start engaging this group, and we’re going to focus on ways they can [do that],” Lewis says. “We’ve got a big hurdle to overcome.” Lewis hopes the social media lounge will clearly demonstrate how crucial those tools are for sales.
As important as online networking is, a key element of IBEX is building on those relationships formed initially online but in a face-to-face venue where consumers aren’t involved, says Gaspare Marturano, president of Gaspare.Me, a marketing firm that helps marine businesses maximize their online potential. “We need to remember that this is one of the places that you can have face-to-face conversations with people when we’re allowed to bring the networking that is online to an offline atmosphere,” Marturano says.
“I loved kind of mapping out who folks were,” he says. “I would go through contacts and send an email ahead of time and I always found that to be an exciting part of it. It’s taking from the stuff that we learned over the year about social media and using that in a real way and going out of the 140-character box and having real conversations with people and applying that networking … to real-world situations.”
An advantage to working a trade show is that companies aren’t trying to answer consumer questions, so they’re available to talk without customers demanding attention, says Jim Rhodes, president of Rhodes Communication, the agency handling IBEX public relations. “It’s an unrushed, uncluttered environment when you really can talk business without consumers crashing in all around you.”
The IBEX exhibitors and attendees are in Marturano’s target market. “These folks are all over the country and, as a small-biz owner, it would cost me thousands of dollars to travel around and meet everyone, so this is an opportunity for me to visit everyone in one location,” he says.
Many exhibitors haven’t realized that the days of setting up a booth and sitting in wait are over, Rhodes emphasizes. “Some sit there instead of setting up networking opportunities,” he says.
Dunbar agrees that trade shows aren’t what they used to be. Savvy entrepreneurs now set up appointments beforehand and new IBEX software can help with that process, she says. “It’s kind of a Match.com for trade shows,” she says. “We’re trying to get buyers and sellers together. This is a big new thing with trade shows and all of it’s done in advance.”
IBEX participants can register at IBEXshow.com and will be asked pointed questions. Then the information is circulated. Buyers and sellers who appear to be good matches will be sent to an email template enabling them to make appointments prior to the show. “So people arrive and have several scheduled appointments,” Dunbar says. “It makes it a much more focused buying experience, so exhibitors are happy, as well as attendees.”
Some dealers and others in the industry still don’t realize that IBEX is open to everyone. Last year a dealer asked Dunbar whether he was “allowed to go,” Dammrich says. “He thought it was only for builders, so part of our challenge is to help the dealers understand they’re welcome.”
That doesn’t mean IBEX is a substitute for the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo [Nov. 11-14 in Orlando, Fla.], Dammrich says. “They’re two very different experiences,” he emphasizes.
The collaborative possibilities between manufacturer and dealer make IBEX enticing, as well, Chiles says. “Dealers are getting firsthand experience with consumers saying we want this, we don’t want this,” and at IBEX they can convey that information to manufacturers. That dealer/manufacturer feedback is valuable, Chiles says, and saves money for both in the long run.
A lively city
Louisville might not be a boating mecca, but there are about 8,000 marine companies within a 500-mile radius, Rhodes says, and those familiar with the city say it’s fast becoming a happening place. “It’s a fun, affordable city that has great food and a good night life,” Dunbar says.
Louisville has earned recent acclaim as a destination city and gets high marks for both its cuisine and liquid refreshment. Zagat lists it as one of the top food getaways in the country, “with top-notch restaurants featuring both rustic and city-fied food.”
“Being on lists like this is not only a lot of fun,” Mayor Greg Fischer says on the city’s website, “it’s another indication of the growing strength of the food and beverage sector in the city’s economy. Louisville has worked hard to enhance our already strong reputation for great food.”
As for drink, Louisville’s urban Bourbon Trail is a major draw, and Kentucky’s distilleries are some of the oldest in the country, with 95 percent corn-based liquor.
At the end of the day it’s product innovation that is the biggest IBEX draw. “This is where all the new product gets shown,” Dammrich says. “There will be hundreds of new products … and our research shows that one of the reasons people go to IBEX is to see new product. One of the reasons we do the Innovation Awards at IBEX is to highlight companies bringing out new and innovative products.”
The show also draws an international audience, so people can get a global perspective about what’s coming, he says. “New vendors who come into the industry, this is where they get their exposure,” he says. “It actually encourages change and innovation in the industry. And let’s face it, if we want to sell more new boats we’ve got to offer something new to the boater because if nothing is new, what’s the motivation to buy a new boat?”
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue. It was updated to reflect that Josh Chiles is a board member of the Marine Marketers of America.