After last year’s Southampton Internatonal Boat Show was canceled because of the pandemic, show presenters British Marine announced that Boats 2020 would replace it in late September. But on the evening before Boats 2020 was slated to begin, as exhibitors and staff were on-site preparing for opening day, the Southampton City Council said it could not go on, fearing a super-spreader event.

This year’s Southampton International Boat Show is scheduled for Sept. 10-19. Plans are being made as the United Kingdom loosens restictions, with 70 percent of the adult population having received one dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Soundings Trade Only caught up with British Marine president Ian Cooke to talk about the outlook for this fall’s show, the pandemic-fueled surge in boating, the need to incorporate training for new boaters and more.

With boating more popular than ever in the U.K., organizers are expecting an uptick in visitors to the Southampton show.

With boating more popular than ever in the U.K., organizers are expecting an uptick in visitors to the Southampton show.

In recent weeks, the U.K. dropped nearly all pandemic restrictions imposed last year. How is this affecting the planning of the Southampton show?

We’re starting to build really strong confidence that Southampton boat show is going to be a go this year. And we know that some other events of a similar size have been canceled in the autumn, but they’re all indoor events. We’re an outdoor event, where we know transmission is a much-reduced problem.

Last year, the repercussions for the industry, of course, were pretty painful, and for British Marine. But we can talk about that forever and a day. We’re working very closely with a much more educated City Council now … to see what kind of provision we need to put in place. At the moment, it’s looking like to gain entry to the show, you will either have to show a Covid passport … that [proves] you’ve had two vaccinations or that you’ve had a [negative] test within 48 hours of coming to the show. Gaining access to the show is going to be around being healthy and having two vaccinations already. For the indoor elements of the show, we’re having to open the walkways a bit wider.

We may, if it gets really sort of busy, have to look at limiting the number of people that go in and out. We’ve certainly put more doorways in to let more airflow through, but the majority of the show is all outside. And I think with the provision of hand sanitizers on stands and a little bit of common sense, we should be good to go with a really healthy show.

There’s no restrictions in the U.K. now on events and numbers outside. So barring anything unpredictable by way of a new variant or something that we have absolutely no control over, we should be good.

How will the show be different in terms of spacing?

For this year, we’ve got a whole new entrance. We’ve got a long walkway down the old city walls in Southampton into the show. The first two sections of the show are completely different, which we’re now zoning. So rather than focus purely on large-boat sales, we’re now looking at a water sports zone, and dinghy zone, a classic boat zone, and then into what we more traditionally recognize as the boat show.

Will there be a mask mandate?

At the moment, from a legal point of view, it’s a personal choice. We will, near the time, probably look at it; there could well be a request to wear masks inside.

We’ve got one large tent, and I think there’s likely to be a request to wear masks when you’re walking around. But if you were to get onto a stand and sit down, a bit like being in a restaurant, you can take it off. That’s the anticipation at this stage, but we would probably have to make a final call on that near the time.

For individual companies, if you wanted to bring people onto a boat and sit down below or inside in a saloon, then I think that would probably be down to them to make that call, to decide whether they’re happy or not. It does come down to what you’re comfortable with as an exhibitor.

Let’s talk about the boom in boating that swept across the U.K. last year.

It has been a rather interesting 18 months or so. We saw a massive uplift in interest in water sports last summer when we had the first loosening of rules after the first round of the pandemic. And of course, we couldn’t travel very far … so people took to the water with pretty much anything they could find that floats. Everybody ran out of paddleboards, kayaks, dinghies. Secondhand boats were selling like wildfire.

We’ve been looking at how to increase participation for many years — we have an aging group of boat owners, and where do we replace those aging boat owners as time goes on? And who knew all we needed was a global pandemic and everybody under the sun to go boating? It’s an amazing opportunity that we’ve had to find ways of continuing with.

There … is this new generation of people coming into water sports. It might be that their lifestyle choices, they want to go paddleboarding or kayaking. They may not have any aspirations to buy a dinghy or a superyacht. All they want to do is, part of their mix of activities, have the opportunity to stick a paddleboard on the roof of their car or their camper van and get on the water. So it’s a lifestyle choice that we need to nurture as much as anything else.

And naturally, a portion of those people will progress to want to get a bigger boat and go farther afield and do something else. And that’s where we see the future of boat ownership coming from.

Ian Cooke

Ian Cooke

Do you expect an uptick in new visitors to the show this year?

We really hope so. Eighty percent of our visitors are return visitors — they come back every year. What we’d like to see is that the percentage [of new visitors] starts to increase. We’ve got to provide for them. We’ve got to make sure that they have something to come and see. Everybody likes to come and look at a massive Sunseeker or a Princess and dream, but that’s not what makes them come back every year and feeling like they’re welcome.

If we’ve got a zone dedicated to water sports enthusiasts, whether it be paddleboarders or kayakers or dinghy or windsurfers, whatever it might be, but something that’s specifically for them, it’s not just a transition or a token gesture. It’s going to be something for them where they can come and spend the time, meet some friends, have a coffee, have a beer. And it becomes a really exciting day out.

There’s been a lot of talk in the United States about the need for the industry to educate these new boaters. What steps is British Marine taking in this regard?

This year, we’ve launched a website. So if you, as a novice water sports participant, go on to the website and you say, “Right, I’m going to holiday down to the west country. Where can I go and rent a paddleboard? Where can I rent a dinghy? Where can I go and have a boat trip?” It’ll give you a list of people in that area or list of suppliers, companies within that area that can provide you with an on-water experience of some description. It’s early days, but it’s proving quite popular. We’ve got several hundred companies logged on there already.

I think safety has to be part of that. There’s all sorts of qualifications you can take to increase your knowledge and improve safety, but we’ve got room to grow with paddleboarding and kayaking, and there’s elements that still need to be improved upon.

There’s a demand for it. I’ve got a friend who works for a training company and joined our local Facebook page for paddleboarders. It’s on the River Hamble, a very highly densely populated boating area in the U.K. and the South Coast. And he was slightly horrified at the lack of understanding for all these guys wanting to get on the water. And he simply said, “Would anybody be interested in a half-hour online talk about tides and general on-water etiquette?” And the guy was inundated. Huge amounts of interest. Very happy people to come and be taught which side of the river they ought to be on. How do they accommodate tides? And where do they go for the information to work out where they’re going to be trudging through mud or stepping calmly onto water?

We know there’s interest there. We just have to now sort of develop this on-water campaign, develop an understanding of how we train people and give them a little bit of information to keep them safe. That could be the point of sale. As you buy a paddleboard, it might just be a card that is automatically handed to you saying, “Right, these are training centers. This is the hardware. This is where you get some information. And very simply, you drive on the right on the water and not on the left.” And a few very simple bits of information to help keep people safe.

A new Watersports Zone looks to capture the younger generation of enthusiasts.

A new Watersports Zone looks to capture the younger generation of enthusiasts.

Do you think some of these people will eventually move up and be boat owners? If they get confidence in their abilities?

That’s the hope, isn’t it? I mean, proportionally, you’re going to get some. The number of people out on the water at the moment is phenomenal. If we had 3 percent of them who went on to buy boats, we’d be in good shape.

How is the show shaping up as many exhibitors are facing historically low inventory levels?

Everything is in such enormous demand. Boatbuilders are busy for the foreseeable future; being able to build them at the rate they’re able to sell them is a problem. Not only with [labor], but getting raw materials and equipment in — to build is a challenge at the moment. The supply chain is under severe pressure, and I think that’s translating in what people are able to bring to the show. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of fluctuation at the moment, which is a challenge for [us] and the exhibitors.

But the level of interest in coming to the show is huge. Shoreside, we’re virtually full. Water side, we’re working out exactly what size marina we’re going to fill, not through a lack of demand but through an availability of boats. Which is a nice problem to have, I guess, in some ways. But it’s a challenge we didn’t expect.

We know we’re in close proximity to Cannes. So there’s always a decision for a lot of boatbuilders whether they take boats to Cannes or Southampton or try and do both. We don’t know. Cannes at the moment is still happening. It might not. Who knows? But that’s the challenge, when they say, “Well, we want to come to the show. We want to bring 12 boats, but at the moment we’ve only got eight boats.”

Anything else to add?

None of us expected to be challenged like we have been in the last 18 months, two years, but out of challenge comes opportunity. We’ve had plans for a long time, but I think because of everything that’s happened last year, it’s sort of driven us down this route of reimagining the Southampton boat show. And this is a fantastic opportunity. And I honestly believe that if, assuming nothing disastrous happens between now and then, this will be the greatest modernization of the boat show I’ve ever seen in 30 years of being involved with it one way or another. And I think it provides huge amounts of opportunity, not only for our traditional boating companies and boaters, but for a whole new raft of, excuse the pun, new raft of potential boaters and water sports enthusiasts. And if we can nurture that over the next few years, then I think we’re on a winner. 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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