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New look pays off at Hartford show

Held in early February, the show avoided conflicts with other regional events and the turnout pleased organizers.

Held in early February, the show avoided conflicts with other regional events and the turnout pleased organizers.

The annual Hartford Boat Show launched into its 46th year with new dates and a new look.

The Connecticut show was held Feb. 5-8 after years of January date conflicts with the nearby New York Boat Show, and the change seemed to pay off with a solid turnout despite challenging winter weather.

And after many years with the same layout and look, the show brought a new floor plan and a new energy to the Connecticut Convention Center.

“We wanted to deliver a fresh product this year with a completely new layout, far more interactive displays, guided tours for new buyers, live remotes and a revitalized social media reach,” says Kathleen Burns, executive director of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, the owner and producer of the show, which drew about 13,000 visitors this year.

Burns replaced retiring longtime executive director Grant Westerson last August. Despite a short time window, the complete makeover of a venerable show was a challenge Burns says needed to be faced.

“We’re pulling out of a very difficult period of years, so if we’re finally in an uptick, why wait?” Burns asks. “We took such a big hit since 2008, so we need to re-energize the public about our industry and the boating lifestyle.”

In December, Burns led exhibitors through the convention center to tour a mocked-up show display. Collaboration with CMTA members was integral to the changes, she says. The revamped look is part of a three-year plan to remake the show — a plan that will create larger sail and paddle components, she adds.

The new look began with a center-out layout that led visitors to a central hub featuring a tiki bar beneath a massive four-sided multimedia screen showing dynamic images of people enjoying themselves on boats, personal watercraft, water skis and paddlecraft.

“We’re looking to give them a sense of summer, even if it’s the middle of winter,” Burns says.

Individual displays featured more screens showing video loops of their products being put through their paces and enjoyed.

Michael O’Hara, vice president of Candlewood East Marina, a Cobalt, Nautique and Malibu dealer in Brookfield, Conn., invested in creating an enormous showpiece featuring a wakeboard boat trailed by an inflatable wave with a mounted wakeboard. Visitors could stand atop the board and be photographed in front of a mural depicting a sunny backdrop.

“Will it help sell boats? I don’t know — we’ll see — but it invites people to come in, meet our staff, have some fun and go home with a nice present,” O’Hara says.

O’Hara was optimistic going into the show and about the year ahead.

“We had two sit-downs before 1:30 today,” he said just 90 minutes after the gate opened on the second day of the show, a Friday. “We’re finding customers wanting to talk numbers and take it to the next level.”

O’Hara says selling a high-end brand such as Cobalt has been a benefit to his dealership in weathering the recession.

“With the products we sell, we feel our guy was the last one to go away and the first one back,” he says.

Mark Passeri, owner of A&S Boats, a Chaparral, Moomba and Supra dealer in South Windsor, Conn., says he sold a Chaparral Vortex 203 jetboat just three hours into the show.

“They were a well-qualified couple who did their research and came just to see it. They had never been to our store, but they came in ready to sign,” he says. “The customers are so educated now, and I love this because it’s a good conversation from the start because we’re all on the same page.”

Tom Krivickas, president of service-based Boat Works of South Windsor, Conn., was on hand displaying several models of Canadian-built MirroCraft aluminum boats.

“We’d love to sell product at the show, but for us it’s more important to set an impression with the customers and then follow up afterward,” he says.

Scott Sundholm, owner of marine service provider S&S Marine in Old Saybrook, Conn., says his business has improved year over year.

“I think we keep seeing it climb up the hill,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.

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