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A Report from Ohio’s Hybrid Boat Show

As the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association on Sunday wrapped up what’s believed to be the most extensive digital boat show yet, an initial analysis of the 2021 Progressive Cleveland Boat Show and Fishing Expo effort reveals some notable findings.

The 64th annual edition of Ohio’s oldest and largest boat and fishing show was supposed to be held as an in-person event in January. When Covid scuttled it, LEMTA opted to produce a hybrid event that took months to create, ran for 10 days, and was designed to drive traffic into member-dealer showrooms.

“We were in uncharted waters but inspired by what the Northwest Marine Trade Association accomplished at Anacortes last summer,” said Michelle Burke, LEMTA president. “So we opted to heavily invest time and resources to carry on our Cleveland show tradition with an event that could generate dealership traffic and sell boats. We assembled a team and created a hybrid event that simultaneously took place online and live in the showrooms of participating dealers.”

The online show displayed hundreds of boats in nine categories, from PWC to motoryachts, including a preowned boat section. Other sections included accessories and lifestyle displays, places to boat, how to get started, clubs and marinas, boating history and owner’s groups.

Overall, the online show drew 21,163 unique visitors that accounted for more than 101,000 page views. Like the in-person show, weekends were busiest. Aside from the boats, the heart of this hybrid show was the 337 special events spread throughout the 10-day run.

The most-visited events were a series of eight live stage presentations (9.48 percent), followed by 65 live dealer special events (9.18 percent) and 28 live Zoom Rooms (3.68 percent) featuring experts on a variety of topics, from inventory availability to boating with pets. The show also included live broadcasts from eight different dealer showrooms. One unexpectedly caught and interviewed avid boater and TV personality Geraldo Rivera, who was attending an event at South Shore Marine in Huron, Ohio. The live broadcasts attracted 6,991 viewers.

Participating dealers created hundreds of in-showroom events, virtual and live, all listed daily in the online show and emphasizing safety protocols, where applicable. These events ranged from the premieres of new models to boating and fishing seminars. Among Ohio’s leaders in the fishing arena is Vic’s Sport Center in Kent.

“During the 10 days, we scheduled a variety of live fishing seminars in our showroom,” Vic Vitaro said. “Our boat lines appeal to a broad cross-section of Ohio fishing, so our seminar lineup included sessions on walleye, muskie, bass and panfish, each presented by recognized fishing pros and captains.

“Most important,” he continued, “the boat show delivered some people to us in January, and we sold many of them new boats. So, no question, we’re happy we participated in this event.”

Vitaro added that while he and his staff sold boats, they missed a critical benefit of exhibiting in an in-person show.

“At the regular show,” he said, “not only do we sell some boats, but we meet and get a large list of prospects that we’d follow up, and they provided much of our April, May and even June sales. We don’t have that from this hybrid event, so there’s no doubt we want to get back to the big in-person show.”

Gary Tennefoss of Ravenna Marine in Ravenna, Ohio, assessed the effort this way: “Fortunately, with the technology and personnel that were in place, we were able to hit the goals that we set. Our in-person traffic was truly of the ‘I'm boating come spring,’ with details and questions from the commitment mindset. Browsing for something to do was non-existent. That said, however, to think a virtual show could replace an in-person show would be foolish for me to say.”

To build excitement, many dealers offered prize giveaways with an average value of $500, such as a day’s pontoon rental with a lakeside restaurant dinner and a water sports equipment gift card. Visitors could register at the showroom or while visiting the dealer’s online exhibit.

According to Burke, developing and producing the hybrid show required a six-figure budget. In addition, LEMTA bought extensive social and digital media promotional packages and backed that with traditional radio and print advertising.

While they are pleased that the online show attracted 21,163 visitors and drove traffic to showrooms, Burke acknowledged that the traditional show typically would have seen double the attendees.

“So if it hasn’t been clear to us before, it is now,” Burke said. “Even though a long-run, detailed digital show like ours can draw attention, it just can’t deliver everything that our traditional boat show produces. Still, we took the best action available to us.”

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