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A dealer once said to me: “The only bad boat show is the one I’m not in.” Of course, that was back in the late ’80s, as I recall — a time when virtually every boat show produced big attendance and lots of sales. Oh, how things have changed.

Today, there are simply too many boat shows. That’s what NMMA president Thom Dammrich said at the National Marine Bankers Association annual conference. He noted that manufacturers are looking for new business models, among them “cutting back boat shows from 300 to perhaps 30,” he said.

“They are expensive and often don't return to exhibitors a good return on investment. Ninety percent of boat shows need to go away,” he added.

Dammrich’s speech triggered robust discussion at the National Marine Trades Council annual meeting last weekend. After all, the NMTC is made up of marine trade association executives that produce boat shows around the country. In fact, more than 55 boat shows were represented at the meeting. So you might assume Dammrich’s suggestion would be unwelcome, but that was not the case at all.

The association executives all agreed that there are too many shows in many markets. As Dammrich further explained, his figure of 30 shows isn’t necessarily the right number. Maybe its 60 or 90. But it clearly shouldn’t be the 300 we have now.

It’s not unusual, for example, for a dealer to be in six or seven shows a year. That’s a very big expense for that dealer, and he struggles to get a good ROI from so many shows. When he can’t do it, he blames all shows. The fact is, dealers should do one or two shows a year, and only the dominant ones in the market. Then their ROI picture would totally change.

As a practical matter, Dammrich further explained, if the industry’s dealers shrink by 30 to 40 percent, as some predict, along with a significant reduction in manufacturers and boat brands, and the industry eventually stabilizes at about 200,000 new units a year, as many predict, the number of shows will have to drop. What should be left is an industry stable of large shows in large boating centers. Every area dealer would display, and the attendees would travel to them because that is all there is. The ROI for the dealers, manufacturers and the trade association that produces the show would be excellent.

Don’t miss that I said “trade association that produces the show.” With rare exception, the national and local marine trades associations currently stage most of the industry’s best shows. These are the only shows that dealers and manufacturers should be in. Industry-produced shows are most in step with dealer and manufacturer needs or trends, not to mention providing important benefits and services to dealers and manufacturers using boat show proceeds.

Moreover, in the scenario of fewer shows it will be necessary for manufacturers to provide more resources — financial and product — to the dealers in these shows. Fewer shows will mean manufacturers will be better able to do so.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with boat shows or their ability to provide ROI except there are too many,” claims Dammrich.

The NMTC members unanimously agreed.

Boat shows are still the single most effective way to put our products face-to-face with large numbers of prospects in one place at one time. Now is the time for the industry’s trade associations and dealers to bring down the number of boat shows.

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