Success on Virginia Key

NMMA silences skeptics by successfully reinventing its big show in a new location with only a few ‘easy-to-fix’ glitches.
The walk from the tents to the docks at Virginia Key was pleasant, and the view of the Miami skyline was spectacular.

The walk from the tents to the docks at Virginia Key was pleasant, and the view of the Miami skyline was spectacular; the NMMA promised giant tents (right) and delivered on that promise.

MIAMI — It was an epic undertaking.When the National Marine Manufacturers Association announced in 2015 that it was going to move the million-square-foot Progressive Miami International Boat Show from the Miami Beach Convention Center to an island that had nothing on it except a decrepit marine stadium that hadn’t been used in decades, many seemed quietly nervous. That the NMMA would do all of this in one year was even more startling.

As the neighboring village of Key Biscayne grew increasingly resistant to the show’s move to Miami Marine Stadium Park and Basin, the skepticism intensified. Lawsuits were filed, and a public relations firm was hired to turn public sentiment against the move. Permits were delayed, and roadblocks sprang up regularly. But the NMMA plugged away, determined to deliver a brand-new show — essentially building it from the ground up.

Persistence paid off. Attendance was up 4 percent, at 100,279. The NMMA says exhibitors enjoyed strong sales (many reporting increases of 20 percent and some as much as 400 percent) at the five-day show, which ran Feb. 11-15. Initial data indicate that the show will meet or exceed the $597 million economic impact it has had in previous years, organizers say.

Show visitor Richard Razgaitis spent much of one day with his 42-year-old son at Strictly Sail at Bayside before crossing over on a water taxi to check out powerboats. “I think it’s great,” says Razgaitis, despite a 45-minute wait for a water taxi. “It’s more accessible. You can walk a row and see the powerboats. The display tents are arranged well, and it’s easy to navigate between them.”

“It would be better if it were all in one place,” says his son, also named Richard, a Silicon Valley resident and CEO of a startup called FloWater, which provides chilled, fast-filling refill stations for personal water bottles, something his father pointed out would be a perfect fit on the docks, where disposable plastic bottles are prohibited. Otherwise, father and son, who were enjoying the view at a small table set up near the docks, loved the new venue.

Water taxi woes … and wins

Organizers laid out and largely executed a massive park-and-ride undertaking with water taxis and shuttles. The problem was that despite cries from Key Biscayne that Miamians love their cars and would refuse to park and ride, more than double the expected number of people rode water taxis, says NMMA president Thom Dammrich.

“We had planned to transfer 25,000 people via water taxi, but we wound up transporting almost 53,000,” Dammrich says. That number does not include people who waited in long lines before giving up and choosing another method of transportation (or another activity).

“About 75 to 80 percent of people who attended the show … used water taxis or shuttle buses,” says Dammrich. “So our [preshow]communications were extremely successful. You could say we had too much success in that regard. But the good news is, we have such great data from this show; we know where people parked, we know what time they arrived, and we know how to put the resources in place next year.”

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado later said the show’s water taxi system “started the conversation” around a public water transit system, a “no-brainer” for helping to mitigate the area’s frequent traffic gridlock. “People clearly loved going to the show by water taxi,” Dammrich says. “When given the option to get on a shuttle bus or wait in a long line for a water taxi, most people opted to stay in line and wait for a water taxi.”

There were long lines at the water taxi stands at closing time Friday, but the very longest was completely eliminated after a five-minute wait when a large power catamaran called Thriller Miami loaded 30 to 40 people aboard. The people in that line, at least, seemed in fairly amiable spirits.

Among them, with a beer in hand, was Mark Radak, president of Lauren Mar Builders in Deerfield Beach, Fla., who came looking for fishing gear and accessories for his 2004 23-foot Contender. “I like [the venue] here. I think it’s way better,” Radak says. “Obviously they’ve got kinks to work out, but that’s to be expected the first year. I love that it’s on the water.”

Radak, who had parked at American Airlines Arena, had no qualms about waiting for the water taxi, and he struck up an animated conversation with the captain and a couple of passengers about fishing during the 40-minute ride.

Not everyone had such luck. One exhibitor who didn’t want to be identified says he waited almost two hours for a water taxi one morning before finally giving up and hopping aboard a shuttle bus. He says he heard similar stories from people he spoke to.

The NMMA promised giant tents and delivered on that promise.

The NMMA promised giant tents and delivered on that promise.

Few glitches

Complaints about bathroom lines — strangely more prevalent for men’s rooms than women’s — seemed to subside after the first day, although some people thought the lines lasted throughout the show. “The problem with the bathrooms was signage and location, not the amount of them,” Dammrich says. “The bathrooms that were easier to find and get to were the crowded ones, and that’s easy to fix next year.”

Another complaint centered on food — long lines, expensive food and not enough options. One man cited a $17 sausage sandwich and a $5 can of Coke in the center courtyard, and he says that as the show went on he noticed that some people were bringing their own food.

Among the show features that drew positive comments were the center courtyard, the tent configurations with connecting gangways, the floating docks, bus service and the restrooms.

“Because this was our inaugural event at the Miami Marine Stadium Park and Basin, we kept a close watch on delays and issues as they arose and made adjustments each day, adding more shuttle buses and reallocating water taxis,” says show director Cathy Rick-Joule. “Using the lessons learned this first year we know what we need to do.”

“The glitches we had were all avoidable in hindsight, but we learned so much, and we’ve gotten so much feedback,” Dammrich says. “We will take it all and use it to make next year even better.”

“We’re essentially inviting people to visit a subtropical island in the middle of the winter — many arriving via water taxi — to look at boats and boating equipment,” says Info-Link founder Jack Ellis. “You couldn’t ask for a better venue.”

Upbeat feedback

The show worked out perfectly for Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts, says Bentley Collins, sales and marketing vice president for the brands. The larger models — a Sabre 54 Flybridge and the new Sabre 66 Dirigo — were brought to the concurrently running Yachts Miami Beach (formerly the Yacht & Brokerage Show in Miami Beach). That event is separately owned and operated and continues at its home along Collins Avenue.

Smaller boats — two from Sabre and two from Back Cove — were on display in the water on Virginia Key. “We could not be happier,” says Collins. “We made the right choice to put the smaller boats at Miami Marine Stadium. We were thrilled to have the right amount of attendance at both venues.”

“Once you get there, it’s a nice venue,” says MasterCraft CEO Terry McNew. “It’s fun to have an outside venue, and the weather’s been great. I predict there are even more boats in the water next year.”

“Our crowds seemed very happy,” Cobalt CEO Paxton St. Clair says. “I think they did a great job.”

“This is absolutely awesome,” Capt. Steven Lamp, of Yellowfin Yachts, said on the docks on the opening day of the show. “Once they get the transportation, food and bathroom issues resolved it’s going to be a perfect venue.”

“The layout is nice, too,” says Michael Lemancik, director of software and controls engineering for Mercury Marine. “You can concentrate on specific areas like engines or electronics, and there are connections to other tents.”

Reviving a landmark

Some locals are hoping the boat show will bring more attention to the landmark stadium and spark momentum for its rehabilitation.

“In my opinion it is an abandoned landmark with a rich history that celebrated everything Miami had to offer,” says Ellis. “It served as a world-class powerboat racing stadium and was later a fabulous concert venue for everyone from Ray Charles to Jimmy Buffett. I have great memories of attending concerts there via boat, and I can tell you that most of my friends that own boats would love to see the venue return.”

Ellis was among more than 3,000 show visitors who signed a petition to preserve the stadium. “We had a great booth location right in front of the stadium, and people walked in and were curious, and we had the opportunity to tell them about the history of the stadium,” Christine Rupp, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, told the local Miami newspaper The New Tropic.

During the show a large screen mounted on the stadium’s face showed the structure during its glory days, presenting a stark contrast to the site as it languished after being damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Sea trial variety

The addition of convenient sea trials proved popular. Extremes on both ends of the spectrum were Qwest Pontoon Boats, powered by a Torqeedo electric outboard, and Nor-Tech Hi-Performance Boats, powered by five Mercury Verado 400R engines.

During a sea trial of Apex Marine’s Qwest LS 820 RLS powered by a Torqeedo Cruise 4.0 RL outboard, the ride was so quiet that passengers could hear the lapping of waves against the boat and the sound of a nearly silent drone passing overhead.

Sea trials were equally important to the performance and engine sectors, says David Foulkes, vice president of product development, engineering and racing at Mercury Marine and Brunswick Corp.’s chief technology officer. “If we’re talking to a customer and saying, ‘Oh, you like this feature?’ we can just bring them right down to take them for a ride. Before we had none of that capability.”

“It’s easier for us to close boats here because people can experience them,” says Fritz Harrington, customer service manager for Fort Myers-based Nor-Tech. Though people were lining up to demo the boat, company owner Trond Schou says demos were mainly given to qualified buyers, and in batches, so the boat also would get plenty of exposure at the docks.

The joy of demos

Seakeeper is so sure that firsthand experience will sell its gyroscopic stabilizers that it traveled the East Coast last year with a gyro-equipped Contender to allow customers to experience the roll reduction. So the sea trial capability in the heart of the boat show was a huge plus, says Seakeeper sales and marketing vice president Andrew Semprevivo.

A Contender 35 ST was giving sea trials five times a day, each time at maximum capacity. That was in addition to roughly 300 dockside demos, during which several people would start to rock the boat from side to side before flipping the stabilizer switch and seeing the boat immediately stabilize.

Passing the reins

It was the final show for Rick-Joule, the woman who spearheaded the move. “Cathy has been manager of this show for 21 years,” Dammrich says. “She has built this show, as well as many other NMMA shows, into the successful marine marketplaces they are today. She worked tirelessly on this move to the Miami Marine Stadium Park and Basin.

“Cathy has decided to retire after this show,” Dammrich says. “This is really exciting news for Cathy and her husband, Pete, who have planned for early retirement. If we hadn’t been moving this show in the past year, Cathy would’ve retired already.”

Rick-Joule will remain as a consultant for the next 12 to 18 months; NMMA executive vice president Ben Wold will step into her role while a full-time replacement is sought.

This story was updated to correctly identify the location of the Strictly Sail portion of the show.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.


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