Successful boat shows have a ‘new’ formula

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With the industry’s long list of fall boat shows opening Thursday at the Progressive Michigan City In-Water Boat Show near Chicago, organizers are making changes that will cause thousands of visitors to pass through their gates around the country.

Historically, show managers have held that visitors come “to find new products.” No question it was true in the past. All that was needed to draw a crowd was display lots of new boats. But it’s a new day. Why would anyone come to a boat show to find new products when everything they could want to see or know is available admission-free with the click of a mouse? There isn’t a major boatbuilder, engine manufacturer or accessory maker who doesn’t have a good website. So do the successful dealers. Many even have extensive social media programs. It all means this is the age of unequaled access to information.

Still, they come to the boat shows. And to be sure they continue to do so, shows are being designed to do what the Internet simply can’t — give them an experience.

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Now, I’m not suggesting showing new products doesn’t draw. It is important, of course. Shows are where new products can be showcased to literally thousands of prospects at a single location in a short time frame. Attendees can touch, smell, compare and judge the products. Shows are still the No. 1 place to present what’s new and come face-to-face with a large audience.

While that alone will get serious prospects through the gate — as we’ve seen in recent years — the broader group of future buyers hasn’t been coming in like before.

Accordingly, it’s no longer a success formula for show managers and exhibitors to just set up the newest boats and watch the crowds roll in.

To grow today’s show attendance and, therefore, business for the exhibitors, successful show managers are building and emphasizing the show as a good family experience by expanding event programming and entertainment. The programming is becoming broad, practical and hands-on wherever possible.

There are two words marketers know work — free and new. For show managers that don’t want to go with “free” (paying for admission is a great qualifier), then “new” is the game changer. Successful shows are always adding “new” reasons to come and experience.

Today, the most successful shows are being designed to have specific features for Dad, Mom and the kids. For example, many shows offer good seminar schedules, but they’re usually on fishing or maintenance or subjects aimed at men. The best shows also offer women everything from “guest chef” cooking clinics to “cruising with kids” panels or from abbreviated “Partner in Command” sessions by the Power Squadrons to on-water hands-on docking and boat-handling classes for women.

Many in-water shows also set up special demo docks from which selected boats can be demonstrated. Opportunities can also be presented for visitors to get hands-on experiences with kayaking or paddleboarding and sailing.

For the kids, we’re seeing more shows adding things like interactive pirate events, rain-gutter regattas, alligator shows, kids-only fishing clinics and Water Rollerz, among others.

Today, boat shows are packing in more activities and events than ever before. That’s because it’s important to recognize that the exhibitors are not buying display space in the shows, they’re buying access to a big audience they can’t ever reach by themselves. That not only leads to sales during and immediately after the show, but it also begins relationships that will convert to sales in the future.

To grow the audience for the exhibitors, today’s boat shows are building in enough activities and features that there truly is something for everyone to experience. That will makes the upcoming fall boat shows exciting for attendees and successful for exhibitors. And there is every reason to expect the fall boat show circuit will reflect the improving economy and the continued growth in boat sales.