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The Two I’s

Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

IBEX this year was at the top of its game, with a 23 percent increase in visitor numbers and 14 percent more exhibitors than 2017. It felt like the once-wandering show has finally found its home in Tampa.

Organizers’ efforts to upgrade the event showed across multiple fronts. The IBEX Education Conference reported a 27 percent increase in the number of seminars sold, and special sessions like Designing for Speed and our own Trade Only aftermarket roundtable were standing room only.

Ten percent more exhibit space was squeezed out of the convention center, with booths spilling into aisles and mezzanines outside the two main halls. Those booths included pavilions from France, Italy, Australia and South Korea, hopefully the first of many more pavilions going forward.

Fifty-five nationalities were represented among the 4,300 visitors and 700 exhibitors at the event. The show organizers and part owner RAI Amsterdam of Metstrade were both determined to put the international back in the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference.

Exhibitors across the show seemed genuinely happy. No cracks about bowling balls in the aisles or shortages of quality attendees. Just upbeat comments about growing the business and trying to keep up with demand. I heard zero complaints.

Well, almost zero. Walking around the show on the last day, I came across a group in the French Pavilion sharing a bottle of red wine. It wasn’t exactly a celebration, but more of a gathering of first-timers who weren’t sure what to make of the show.

The loudest of the group complained about the lack of foot traffic (perhaps to his booth but nowhere else that I saw) and the awkward placement of the French Pavilion (actually in a busy cross section). Then he revealed he had made two promising contacts with distributors from Taiwan and South Korea (talk about international). But when speaking with some of the other, more measured French exhibitors, they shared the same concerns.

It occurred to me that if the organizers really want a United Nations of boat pavilions at IBEX — especially ones that won’t disappear at the first whiff of a recession — they’ll need to make access to the U.S. market easier for companies with no idea how to navigate it. Otherwise it’ll be a revolving door of first-time and last-time exhibitors complaining about the costs of trying to establish a foothold in the United States.

The exhibitors in the French Pavilion were waiting for U.S. clients to come to them, a naïve assumption perhaps but understandable if they were expecting an event as big and global as Metstrade in Amsterdam.

I’ve written about marine industries in Europe, Asia and South America for a long time, so I’m a believer in international trade. I saw how the export market propped up many U.S. boatbuilders during the last downturn. I also think trade opportunities in equipment and accessories could be improved to benefit the marine industries on both sides of the Atlantic, especially at shows like IBEX.

My suggestion would be to establish a meeting system between exhibitors and potential clients, much like they did at MAATS, the former aftermarket trade show in Las Vegas. The meetings were a short 20 minutes, but they gave the exhibitors (often first-timers) a chance to present their products to many potential buyers. The exhibitors loved it, as did distributors and the national retail chains, which often found gems they would have missed on the show floor. It’s a simple technique that could work.

Going forward, we’ll be doing more international coverage because it’s an important part of the U.S. boating industry that often gets brushed aside. We won’t be skimping on domestic coverage, of course, just adding to it with the latest news on tariffs and importers, and looking at foreign companies that are becoming part of our mainstream, as we note in this issue about Groupe Beneteau, starting on Page 20.

I’d also like to highlight the other “I” word — innovation — by announcing the winners of our first annual Top 10 Innovative Marine Companies awards (see Page 34). There were actually 14 winners: the top 10, three honorable mentions and a company to watch.

Our editors gave these awards a great deal of time and thought. We weren’t looking for the latest technical breakthrough (though there were those, too), but how companies were going to market, giving their cultures extreme makeovers or, in some cases, delving head-first into innovation by forming divisions outside their corporate structures to disrupt traditional business practices.

I found it a highly rewarding exercise because it showed how many companies see innovation as key to their future. I’ve often thought of our industry as a sleepy network that adopts technologies long after everyone else.

Not anymore. You may be surprised at how fast the industry is moving forward. I know I was.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.


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