New England show ‘We can’t live without it’

The Boston-based exhibition, recently purchased by the NMMA, sees a jump in attendance and sales


Winter weather failed to dampen spirits at the 54th annual New England Boat Show, which saw a significant increase in sales and an uptick in attendance, according to organizers.

"The earlier winter shows did well, and I think each one has been getting stronger and stronger," says show manager Joe O' Neal. "We're one of the later winter shows, so we've gotten some of the benefits."

The Feb. 20-28 show was held at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. O'Neal says initial on-site ticket numbers show a 2 percent increase in attendance over last year, which was about 50,000. He says the show was about 30 percent smaller this year, with dealers bringing less inventory to the floor, but 80 percent of the dealer base returned.

"We decided to stay with a nine-day format because we wanted our dealers to get the most out of our show," says O'Neal, who has managed the event for more than 20 years. The National Marine Manufacturers Association bought the show just two months before this year's opening, and O'Neal says the transition was smooth because the existing management team was kept in place.

"If people hadn't read the press release about NMMA buying the show, they'd never know. It was a seamless transition," says Larry Russo Sr., owner of Russo Marine, a dealership with locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The show included the NMMA's Affordability Pavilion, which featured 24 boats that could be financed for less than $250 a month. It proved to a popular feature. Among the "affordable" boats sold, O'Neal says, were a 17-foot DaySailer built by Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co. in Wareham, Mass., a 15-foot Boston Whaler from Russo Marine, and a Sea-Doo Utopia 205 PWC from Billerica (Mass.) Motorsports & Marine.

"The show was very positive for us," says Russo. "It was very busy, especially on the weekends."

Russo says his dealership - now in its 70th year - has exhibited at every New England Boat Show. "It's important to be in the marketplace in the offseason to get our customers thinking about boats before the season starts," he says. "This show - we can't live without it."

Kari Sullivan, general manager of Billerica Motorsports & Marine, says her dealership sold 38 personal watercraft at the show. "We tripled our sales of what we did last year," says Sullivan. "For a lot of people, their whole attitude was different. They were happier and ready to spend some money and have fun."

Cape Cod Shipbuilding vice president Wendy Goodwin says the show's smaller size was a blessing because it cut down on the competition for buyers. "A couple of years ago it was so big that by the time prospects would come to our booth they had already seen so much," says Goodwin. "Now that it is a little bit smaller, people are more receptive to learning who we are."

Goodwin admits her small fiberglass sailboats are "oddballs" among the larger powerboats on display, but the show nonetheless has proven valuable. "It allows us to catch up with all of our existing customers," she says. "If we had to budget down to only one show a year, this is the show we would keep going to." She says Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co. also attends the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland and the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Md.

NMMA executive vice president Ben Wold says the group is pleased that many exhibitors had a strong show. "It was unusual for us to buy a show two months before [it 's scheduled to run]," says Wold. "But it allowed us to get our feet wet, and we learned a lot."

Wold says the NMMA allowed attendees to preshop the show online, and it offered e-tickets. "Our core philosophy for shows is the five Es - exhibits, education, entertainment, environment and experience," he says. "We hope to bring more features and events to this show in the future." One idea for next year is a separate sailing section with seminars tailored for sailors.

"The combination of our resources and good local management makes for a great formula," says Wold. "We're excited to see this show grow."

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.


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