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Great expectations for winter boat shows

With the industry’s final fall in-water boat show, the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show, set to open next week, attention is already sharply focused on the winter show circuit that will kick off in January, and the expectations are justifiably high.

That was the consensus of the18 representatives from 26 national or state associations at last week’s National Marine Trades Council meetings. The group is responsible for producing a total of 48 major boat shows — winter indoor and fall in-water — from New York to L.A.

The trend is now unmistakable. With the exception of a few shows that were hit with bad weather, most major shows last winter saw a marked increase in space sales and attendance. Moreover, that momentum has continued for virtually all of the fall in-water events. So, the optimism for 2014 is solidly based.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard those two sweet words ‘sold out’ at this meeting,” quipped George Harris, NMTC’s chairman. He could have been referring to the Connecticut Marine Trade Association’s Hartford Boat Show, which is sold out except for some accessory booths. Or the Cleveland Mid-America Boat Show, which is already 18 percent bigger than last year, according to the Lake Erie Marine Trade Association.

In Detroit, the Michigan Boating Industry Association has already sold out all of the space from last year’s expanded floor plan, so executive director Nicki Polan has added still another exhibit hall for next February’s event. Meanwhile, the members of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey have continued to recover from Superstorm Sandy and are reporting sellouts for both of their 2014 shows.

So, what’s changed? Improving boat sales, yes. More aggressive manufacturers and dealers, sure. But it’s as much a change in the way shows are being produced as anything else that’s producing success. As I was privileged to listen to the NMTC representatives talk about their shows, it became obvious that these are just not your father’s old boat shows anymore. Instead they have been recast into major boating events, with heavy emphasis on the show experience for visitors.

“It’s all about the experience these days,” says Greg Bojko, vice president of Adstrategies Inc., whose client list includes major boat, auto, motorcycle and outdoor shows nationwide. “The most successful shows have turned to a strong lineup of entertainment, interactive features and a festive atmosphere that attracts attendees and keeps them there longer. We live in an experiential society now,” he emphasized.

There was no shortage at last winter’s boat shows, and virtually all shows have plans to build in more this year. Some random examples: an alligator show in Atlanta; the Power Boat Docking Challenge in Chicago; a Live Shark Encounter in Houston; the Rockin’ Rollers on Water in Detroit; celebrities from National Geographic TV’s “Wicked Tuna” in Cleveland; or a Craft Beer Night in Seattle, to note just a few.

“We wanted to create a boating festival in our Seattle show, and it worked,” explained the Northwest Marine Trade Association’s president, George Harris. “On Craft Beer Night, for example, we saw attendance increase 40 percent, and we also noted a generally younger audience — something we really want to see more.” On another night, Seattle also had a successful “Uncork It” wine event.

The bottom line is that our industry boat shows are, once again, bringing in people to see our marine products and put exhibiting dealers face-to-face with qualified prospects. And when you get 18 association executives in a room, openly sharing what they’ve done to turn so many industry shows around, it’s a no-brainer to see that exhibitors across the country will enjoy even better, more successful events this winter.


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