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Pay To Play

If there’s any question about whether boaters still love boat shows, all doubt was cast off when the Daytona Boat Show “roared” into Daytona Speedway last weekend, and thousands of visitors happily paid an admission they’d never paid before.

For the first time in the show’s history, a fee for admission was charged. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” says David Ray, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of Central Florida. “Some dealers were shaking their heads saying, ‘You’re doing what?’ But I acknowledge that I was encouraged to move forward by what happened at a show up on Lake Erie last spring. And now we’re so happy we did it.”

Ray was referring to the Catawba Island Boat Show, produced by the Lake Erie Marine Trades, which for 16 years had free admission. LEMTA president Michelle Burke opted to institute an admission charge.

“It raised lots of dealer eyebrows,” Burke says, “and I admit I was nervous. But the result was a record attendance and a handsome revenue stream.”

Ideas like this, and many more, have emanated from the Zoom meetings of regional and state marine trades association leaders from Seattle to Maine to Florida to Texas.

When Covid halted the in-person annual meetings of the independent National Marine Trades Council, Burke and Michigan Boating Industries Association executive director Nicki Polan initiated their Zoom meeting idea beginning in April 2020. With no major boat shows in the near future, the participants began exploring how MTAs could continue to serve their members, promote sales and explore new ideas — even something as wild as charging admission at previously free shows.

“The collaboration of the participants has been first rate,” Polan says. “We’ve all explored new ideas, refined old ones together and learned of positive actions from other regions that we could adopt to serve our members. It also has reflected the depth of services provided by the MTAs around the country.”

Further reviewing the Daytona show, Ray noted: “Prior to being hit by that nasty weather front on morning Sunday, our attendance was up 20.1 percent on opening Friday and 13.7 percent for Saturday. At some times on Saturday, traffic on Speedway Drive leading into the show was backed up nearly a quarter-mile.”

Unfortunately, attendance took a big hit from a front that passed through Sunday morning. Overall attendance was down 2.2 percent, though still a solid result. Meanwhile, in another positive indicator, Daytona area dealers increased their exhibit space by 34 percent compared with the previous show record to accommodate more than 300 boats and products on display.

“Preliminary comments from some dealers on their way out Sunday night indicated we’re still on a good boat-sales roll,” Ray says. “Several told me that people were definitely still buying, even on Sunday afternoon.

“Clearly, shows still draw buyers and put dealers face-to-face with large numbers of good prospects,” Ray adds. “We can still say, if we build it, they will come. And they’ll even pay to get in.”



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