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Making your boat show exhibit better

I’ve seen a lot of boat shows in my days — produced more than 135 in four states, manned the Discover Boating exhibits in Miami and Tampa, Fla., Cleveland and, next month, in Orlando, Fla. I’ve visited many shows from New York to Los Angeles, Seattle to Houston. Boat shows are energizing, and I’ve never seen one I didn’t like.

They have allowed me to see many good things — and some not so good — that exhibitors do to succeed. With our winter boat show season fired up (Houston reports a good start; Chicago solidly opened on Wednesday; Cleveland, Seattle, New York and more are in the wings), here is an observation that might help as you get ready for what is your single biggest winter sales promotion.

I recall a time when exhibiting meant packing the display with a wide selection of models and ushering customers to a closing booth. Oh, to return to those easy days! Today the transactional marketing of old has been replaced. We now respond to, indeed demand, experiential marketing.

With hundreds of boat show visitors walking by, every exhibitor has just a few seconds to capture their attention. Although they may have been drawn in by products and signs of discounts (transactional marketing) in the past, today’s successful dealers have adapted to selling the experience of boating by purposely designing exhibits that clearly highlight boating’s desirable moments. Only after creating such an atmosphere can product conversations get started.

It’s important, then, to really deck out the boats, and too few dealers do it well. Whether it’s fishing or skiing or cruising, the exhibit should beam out such images through pictures, graphics, videos and signage.

Equally important, lots of trappings, from poles in rod holders to a wine bottle and glasses on a table to children’s toys on a seat are essential to helping visitors envision themselves having such an experience. Even something like a mini-theater playing an applicable “Stories of Discovery” or “Vacation on Demand” video available free from Discover Boating ( can help visitors see themselves enjoying life afloat.

Today’s most successful exhibit will draw in prospects by the “dream” the exhibit injects long before an examination or conversation turns to any product. In restaurants today it’s all about food presentation. In boat shows today it should be all about lifestyle staging.

Of course, it all means visitors must have good access and feel at ease about walking in. If they don’t come in, your team loses. I often see boat exhibits with one entrance. Either the boats have been jammed in, leaving little easy access, or there’s a belief that registering visitors before providing access is good business.

Both are questionable. Poor access walls out many visitors. Giving out information, i.e., registering, makes many people uneasy these days, so they’ll just walk on by.

Lastly, the people best suited to talk about the boating lifestyle may not be the sales team. Rather, the most qualified people to talk about the boating experience are boat owners who live it.

So consider inviting some of your best and most enthusiastic customers to be part of your exhibit. These volunteer ambassadors can share firsthand experiences, talking about how their family goes boating, places they like to go or things they enjoy doing. And they can answer typical questions as one boater to another, which could be particularly helpful to a potential first-time boat buyer.

Today there’s no question that marketers know storytelling is the way to reach people. Witness the video craze. Therefore at shows, and every day in the showroom, first sharing stories of how boating has improved life for specific customers and then talking about a boat that has been an integral part of that story is the way to lead prospective buyers to understanding the family benefits of our lifestyle.


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