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Headwinds for early winter shows

Organizers were upbeat about the Cleveland boat show’s new format, but a blizzard made it difficult to gauge the overall response.

If you follow reports from Trade Only Today, you know that whether it was an NFL playoff game or a raging blizzard, several events on the winter-show circuit have faced less-than-ideal conditions. Still, the good news is that exhibitors are generally reporting continued good sales, and that is, after all, the most important result.

One of the latest shows to get hammered by a true blizzard was Cleveland last weekend. Sporting a new name, new leadership and a new format, the Cleveland show may be establishing a new approach to staging these events.

“We wanted to give the show a major makeover, a new look and broader appeal,” said Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association. “So we started by dropping the 62-year-old name, Mid-America Boat Show, and named it what it is — the Progressive Cleveland Boat Show.”

But that’s just the start. “We aimed to be more than a great show of over 450 power and sailboats,” Burke said. “Our goal was to make the show reflect the boating lifestyle. For decades, the old show did a good job of selling the hardware, but to be successful today we think the new show should immerse visitors in the boating experience.”

It began with a theme for each show day. Opening Thursday was “Islands Day,” with special exhibits from Put-In-Bay, the most popular summer port in the Lake Erie Islands. It featured live entertainers who are synonymous with summer nights in “The Bay,” right down to the lobster bisque flown in daily from the boardwalk in Put-In-Bay.

“Friday Frolic” was a date-night theme that included live music, craft beers and a new Lake Erie Market of nautical artisans. Saturday’s theme was “The Mid-Winter Rendezvous,” with an emphasis on family activities, from Twiggy the waterskiing squirrel to kids hands-on fishing events and more.

“Sunday was ‘Kelleys Island Sunday FUNday,’ with a variety of exhibits from the largest of the American islands in Lake Erie,” Burke said, “and live music by island performers right down to the iconic island drink, the brandy Alexander.”

With yesterday’s Martin Luther King holiday, the show theme was “KIDSday.”

“With kids off from school and many parents off, too, we added special kids’ fishing events and other hands-on activities, as well as face-painters, balloon artists and popular costumed characters moving around the show,” Burke said. “We backed it with a lot of promotional dollars, and it has given us a solid attendance for the day.”

The show opened on a roll, with two days of double-digit attendance growth. Heading into the critically important weekend, the blizzard arrived to take down what looked like a sure winner. It eliminated the chance to see how adding such a variety of attractions and entertainment reflecting the summertime boating lifestyle in Ohio would impact attendance and sales.

“We’re remain convinced allotting necessary space and finding vehicles that show off the boating experience can make our show a place where families will spend a day and be appropriately entertained,” Burke said.

“It’s the way to grow our show attendance. Unfortunately, a road-closing blizzard won’t give us the proof this time around,” she added with a smile.

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