Boat show producers expect strong winter

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With just one major fall in-water show left this year — the Dec. 4-7 St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show — discussions centered on expectations for the industry’s winter shows at the meeting of the National Marine Trades Council last weekend in Orlando, Fla.

The unanimous conclusion: The pendulum has swung the other way. While some in the industry seriously questioned the continuing value of boat shows after the Great Recession depressed show attendance and sales results, no one is voicing that now. To the contrary, most of the 39 shows produced by the marine associations attending the NMTC meetings experienced a turnaround last winter and are building on that success.

Fueling the upbeat outlook are increased exhibit-space sales for shows around the country. The Northwest Marine Trade Association, for example, is seeing dealers gobbling up more display space for January’s Seattle Boat Show, reflecting both a proliferation of new boats and an expectation of more show sales, reported NMTA president George Harris.

“Sellout” isn’t a term that’s been heard much the last few years, but it is very evident this year. New York Marine Trades Association’s Chris Squeri reported its show is sold out of exhibit space, as is the MTA of New Jersey’s show in February. That comes on the heels of a stellar 45 percent increase at its fall outdoor show, says Melissa Danko, executive director.

Other major shows that have increased the available exhibit space and are joining the sold out club include Los Angeles, Cleveland, Charleston (S.C.), Providence (R.I.), Houston and Detroit.

The Detroit Boat Show may be the biggest turnaround story in the industry, roaring back from 200,000 square feet to 350,000 square feet in just two years. The Motor City may have its problems, but it’s not slowing the recovery of Michigan’s boating, said an enthusiastic Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association.

The New England Boat Show in Boston expanded space at the nine-day show by 20 percent — 10,000 square feet —– to accommodate increase in demand.

The good news doesn’t end there, either. The granddaddy, the New York Boat Show, is expecting a great turnaround with its new dates, Jan. 21-25. Jon Pritko, NMMA’s Northeast regional manager, is seeing a 20 percent increase in exhibit space and anticipates a 20-plus-percent rise in attendance after last year’s show was hit by a double whammy: terrible weather and unfavorably early dates. He’s also expecting 15 percent growth in NMMA’s Atlantic City and Baltimore shows.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Marine Trades Association expects its Hartford Boat Show to sell out again, and an attendance boost should come from a big new NBC/Super Bowl partnership, according to Kathleen Burns, CMTA executive director. Likewise, Barb Caster, executive director of the Boating Industries Association of Upstate New York, anticipates a boost in attendance as they invest in more feature attractions, such as the popular Swamp Masters Show.

Meanwhile, the recent Fort Myers show chalked up increased space and attendance as high as 25 percent on weekend days, according to Hans Wilson, president of the Southwest Florida Marine Industry Association. And in Orlando, David Ray, executive director of the Marine Industry Association of Central Florida, reported their coming show has already increased more than 50 percent in exhibit space, with virtually every dealer in the show expanding. He is also projecting that word of the larger show will boost attendance by 20 percent.

Looking at some show firsts, NMMA-West’s vice president Dave Geoffroy is adding an all-new SailFest to the Los Angeles Boat Show. SailFest will be located at Marina del Rey, with shuttles running between sites. Similarly, in Chicago, the NMMA will expand by more than 30 percent its longstanding Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show at McCormick Place by bringing over its Strictly Sail Chicago Show from Navy Pier. The combined shows will create the Midwest’s largest boating and outdoors event. It’s been renamed the Progressive Chicago Boat, RV & Strictly Sail Show, with combined attendance more than 50,000.

And speaking of sail events, Sail America, led by manager Peter Durant, will have a full plate this winter participating in the Strictly Sail shows across the country from Miami to San Francisco. Durant reports seeing sail exhibitors increasing space to introduce new models, particularly from Asian builders.

Finally, if there is any weakness in the winter boat show picture it’s accessories booths. Nearly all shows indicated they still have space — or would find a way to make space — for accessories displays. Show exit surveys indicate that attendees want to see more accessories. Clearly, with rising attendance at all major shows, there is increased opportunity for accessory exhibitors of all kinds to again find solid sales at boat shows.

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