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The (boat) show must go on

Lately we’ve all been re-evaluating many aspects of this business, especially where we spend our money. Let’s face it: There isn’t as much coming in as there used to be, so we have to be a little more prudent about what flows out.

When it comes to marketing and sales expenditures, for many of us boat show expenses top the list. So to some people, it’s the logical thing to eliminate when times are tough.

I’m not one of those people.

Let me be clear that I fully understand each business is different. I don’t presume to know what each of you are facing, and to what degree you must make adjustments in spending. Understanding there are countless other factors that weigh into the decision whether or not to participate in a show, you might want to put a little more thought into those factors before making a decision based primarily on the seemingly large expenses involved.

Take a look back at your boat show experiences. If you can point to nothing more than seeing a bunch of old customers (whom you probably provided with their tickets), getting a fluorescent-light tan or nasty sunburn, and having dinner with your bank and factory reps, then you might want to rethink things. Boat shows are for selling, and if you aren’t getting many deals out of them, you are missing the boat. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

As the headline above indicates, boat shows are, in a way, “shows.” The stage must be set properly, the orchestra must have its music, the lighting must be correct, the actors must know their lines. When the curtain goes up, everything has to be ready, and the actors must put on their best performances. If everyone does their part to the best of their ability, the show’s a hit, and the audiences keep coming back for more. Done properly, the process works whether you’re the biggest show on Broadway or a small production in an off-Broadway theater.

Over the years, boat show sales have accounted for anywhere between 45 and 60 percent of Trenton Marine Center’s annual sales. The majority of these deals are written at the show. Of course, there’s always a few added through proper follow-up, but if the process begins at the show, then that’s where the credit goes.

That percentage is a truly significant number that probably couldn’t be made up by changing up other things in our marketing mix. What you also need to know to complete this equation is that when we exhibit at a boat show, we go all out. We would certainly qualify as more of a “Broadway” headliner.

Typically, we bring one of every model we sell. The customers can actually see and touch what they are considering purchasing. The salespeople have everything there so they can offer alternatives. This is a huge logistical undertaking, and at some shows it can make space costs alone break six figures.

The key is that it works for us because we work it hard. Strategic planning in advance, close attention to details and hard work during the show, positioning the right people in the right places, and follow-up afterward are just a few critical parts of the process. If you miss the mark on just one of the parts, the whole production can suffer.

Keep in mind that while direct results are easily measured, there are also many intangible benefits to boat show participation. Customers will see your people and your product, hopefully in their best light. Maybe they aren’t going to buy a boat this year or even next, but when they do they’ll remember the impression you made.

I can’t begin to tell how many times people say to us, “Oh, we’ve seen you at the boat shows,” while they’re standing inside the store nowhere near boat show season. It’s an undeniable return on show investment, though admittedly very difficult to quantify. The same can be said of boat shows as a whole. They are good for the industry. They keep customers and potential customers “in the loop” and thinking about boating. If consumers begin to see fewer shows in existence and observe existing shows getting smaller and smaller, the message consumers receive is not to our benefit as an industry.

As we move forward in this climate, things will change. All of our organizations will adapt to some extent. I’m certainly not here telling you to completely change your entire process and spend your last dime going all-out at every possible show, or that without a show presence you’re doomed to fail. My idea here is to provide a real-world example and get you thinking about your situation and how boat shows do (or can) play a part in your overall sales success.

I’m sure there are some of you out there who don’t participate in shows that could teach us a thing or two about your successes with alternatives. I would love to learn about them. I do, however, believe that shows are an investment that can return more than what you put in to start. It may not be at that particular show or even the next, but it will come back to you in one form or another if you put on a good production.

When you think about boat shows, consider the cost. Also consider the potential return. If you, as a “producer” or “director,” need to make some changes to let the show go on, do it. Don’t close the curtain altogether and send our boating audience elsewhere.

And, as they say in the (boat) show business, “Break a leg!”

— Dave Huddy
Trenton Marine Center, Trenton, N.J.


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