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Don’t let your boat show layout get stale

After having produced more than 125 boat shows during my career, it should be no surprise I’m never far from the subject. With our important winter show circuit starting Friday in Houston and Denver, today I can’t help but focus on some thoughts for the show management staff.

First, a few years ago the head of a very large boat retailer predicted attendance would soften at shows because the Internet was playing a bigger role in new-product searches. That, he contended, would lessen the importance of boat shows in the minds of consumers.

Happily, evidence has been to the contrary — excluding serious weather problems — with attendance at nearly every major winter show having increased following the “hit” from the Great Recession. And while the Internet does play a significant role in the boat-buying process, it also produces an overload of information (type in “new boats” and see where you get). Further, digital clearly cannot compete with the power of face-to-face selling at a boat show.

But that doesn’t mean boat shows can coast to success. The challenge for every show management team is to keep each event relevant to the consumers. Fact is, shows are not permanent things. Shows once successful in any industry can disappear. It’s happened in our industry, too — New Orleans, Harrisburg, Pa., Rochester, N.Y., Chicago, Racine, Wis., to name just a few.

So is there some cardinal rule? Yes. Every show management team must understand who the customer is. It’s the exhibitor. I remember we had our show procedures and systems, but our key to success was always finding a way to please our customers by doing whatever was necessary to streamline their participation. It was job No. 1.

Overall, it’s also critical to maintain close contact and communication with those customers on a regular basis, not just at show time. And every show staffer should understand their goal is to learn and meet the exhibitor’s needs first.

Finally, it’s human nature to resist change. Making serious changes in a show, such as its floor plan, exhibitor locations, feature spots and so on is a big job. So there’s a natural tendency to keep things as they are. But a survey we conducted showed a large percentage of respondents attended our show only every four to five years. The No. 1 reason cited was: “It’s pretty much same show each year.”

In spite of the new models on display everywhere each year, one respondent really nailed it: “Looked like last year’s models at next year’s prices!” He was right. Our floor plan never changed — same entrance, same aisles, same exhibit spaces, same big exhibitors and features in the same places. Same look.

It also meant the dealers occupied the same spaces. So they effectively set up their boats the same way each year — same placements, same entrance and, again, same look. It clearly negated the image of new models.

To address the problem, we made periodic major changes in the floor plan. We annually moved the feature attractions and entertainment locations around and created new features whenever possible. Most importantly, we worked with dealers to modify their exhibit designs and that really made each show look fresh and new.

The power of boat shows is that they draw to a specific location, for a predictable time, that segment of the local market that has an interest in boats. Just “build it and they will come” alone won’t produce the most success. In good years there might be more and in tough years there might be less. But in all years, the show production team should be committed to making each show new in ways that are relevant to the desired attendees and, therefore, the customers.

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