As record crowds converged on the Ft. Myers Boat Show last weekend, its success ratified two observations that virtually every other fall show has also confirmed: First, boaters want shows and they will show up; and second, even with inventory shortages, dealers can find a way to put on good boat displays.
The Ft. Myers show was held in the downtown Historic River District with boat exhibits stretching nearly a half mile on land and in-water, as well as inside the new waterfront Caloosa Sound Convention Center packed with accessory displays. Notably, the attendance was up 52 percent over last year, a tremendous comeback from the 2020 show that bucked Covid and Hurricane Iota in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the show to be closed for one of its four days while negatively impacting the remaining days.
“Our 2020 show was a tough go for us last year,” said John Good, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of Southwest Florida. “Still, our dealers reported good sales. This year, we’ve got a new convention center and an expanded outdoor footprint. Our dealers have done a really great job of getting boats and putting together good exhibits, too.”
Accordingly, if this show is more properly compared with the 2019 show, this year’s record attendance enjoyed a 19 percent increase. But notwithstanding good attendance and exhibitor sales reports, this show also did what the boating industry must now do — go all-out to engage and keep in boating the record number of new boaters sold during the pandemic.
And I can attest these new boaters were at the show. I had the opportunity to man the MIASWF’s display in addition to giving a “Boating Basics” seminar multiple times during the event. The exhibit theme and that of my presentation was “Know Before You Go,” complete with appropriate hand-outs produced by MIASWF aimed primarily at those new boaters.
When I asked who was new to boating, I was amazed by the hands that went up. Stopping at the exhibit, too, were many that said they were new and wanted to learn more. My point: they were at the boat show to learn more.
With the Ft. Myers show the last of the majors on the so-called fall show circuit that began in Michigan in September, all industry eyes should now be turning to the critical winter shows ahead, and recognize from the success of the fall shows. In short, if you stage it, they will come!
The winter show circuit is the ideal way to come face-to-face with big numbers of prospects and customers and keep the boating momentum going. The Covid pandemic was an unexpected bonus, a real gift to the industry. But there should be no doubt the gift has been unwrapped, opened and consumed. The box is empty and it’s time to recognize from now on our industry must get back in the fight for a proper share of recreational spending or be beaten out by competitors.
It's been reconfirmed since our boat shows and the boaters began returning this year, the basics haven’t really changed. The most cost-effective medium for dealers to interact with a large audience of prospects and customers wanting that tactile experience remains our industry’s boat shows.
Moreover, while dealers and builders continue to face inventory difficulties, seeing the Ft. Myers show first-hand confirmed for me that every dealer can assemble a solid exhibit. For example, one large dealer confided he told customers of certain models that while their boat would come in it would be held for the show and delivered immediately after. No customers objected.
Another dealer indicated he’d “borrowed” two models for the show from a fellow dealer in Miami. Still another said he and his manufacturer had worked out, well in advance, a plan for certain models timed for the show.
The point is, dealers who recognize the value and impact of the coming winter boat shows will find ways around inventory problems and continue to make a positive impact, sell products and fill that critical prospect funnel for the sales team. I’ve just witnessed it done in Ft. Myers.