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Q&A with Anne Dunbar

Show Director, International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference
1_DUNBAR

The first International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference was organized by Professional BoatBuilder magazine, kicking off in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Feb. 5, 1992. Since then, IBEX has seen a number of venue and ownership changes — perhaps most notably in 2003, when the National Marine Manufacturers Association bought a 50 percent stake, and in 2017, when Metstrade organizer RAI acquired the other 50 percent.

After being hosted as a virtual event in 2020 because of Covid-19 — and experiencing significantly reduced attendance in 2021 because of the Omicron variant — the good news for 2022 is that booth spaces for exhibitors sold out in July, two months before the show’s opening. Organizers say they expect as many as 7,000 visitors to roam the halls during the three-day run from Sept. 27-29 at the Tampa Convention Center.

Like every edition of IBEX, there’s still a heavy focus on education. This year’s show will include preshow sessions, nine educational tracks and 13 free, one-hour Tech Talk workshops. New this year is a Career Day hosted by the American Boat & Yacht Council’s ABYC Foundation, which is bringing about 50 students from eight technical schools to the show.

Soundings Trade Only connected with show director Anne Dunbar in late July to learn more about this year’s IBEX, how organizers are feeling about returning to normal, so to say, and what challenges and rewards she experiences in her position.

How did you end up in the marine industry? You have some experience with Soundings magazine, correct?

That’s a good place to start. I was teaching sailing in California, and I remember going to a boat show way back in the ’80s. I was a little baby. I was just out of college, and I got an offer from Soundings at the Long Beach Boat Show pushing subscriptions. So I developed my marine career on the West Coast.

I eventually went back East after three years. I’m from Connecticut, and I ended up working for Soundings in Newport, R.I. My territory was Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. I sold ads.

So, yeah, I’ve been in the marine industry almost my entire career. But I grew up on boats, and that’s how I got the job. I was teaching, sailing out there, and somebody’s like, “Hey, this company named Soundings needs somebody to stand in their booth and sign up subscriptions.” And I’m like, I can do that.

How did that path lead you to being the show director for IBEX?

I took a job with WoodenBoat magazine and Professional BoatBuilder in 2001. I was an associate publisher for the magazines, and I did the marketing for IBEX. So I really started as the marketing director for IBEX, and I’ve been running the show since 2014.

That’s a long run in this business. What has changed with the show over the years?

There’s been a lot of changes. When I took it over in 2014, it was half-owned by NMMA. And then, in 2017, the RAI, organizer of Metstrade, purchased the other 50 percent. So I went into a totally different job at that point. It hasn’t been just doing the same old, same old. It was this one organization, and then I went through the merger with the RAI, which was really fascinating.

It was a big shocker to all of us because [Metstrade] was our biggest competitor. So we didn’t know what was going to happen when that went down, but it’s such a great partnership. I can’t even begin to tell you how they’ve elevated IBEX and my whole team. It’s been a really great partnership. They do it right.

RAI is a great organization, and I have learned so much from them. What’s great about being partners with the RAI is they own that building [in Amsterdam], so they’re convention owners. When it comes to negotiating contracts and dealing with the building, I just go to my RAI buddies. If you get into any trouble, they’re like, “Oh no, no, no, this is what’s going to happen.” So the Tampa Convention Center folks … boy, that first meeting we had with them, their heads were spinning because they were like, “These people really know what they’re doing.”

The RAI invited the Tampa Convention Center over to Metstrade. All their bigwigs went over to Amsterdam. They watched the show, and they learned all about expansions because the RAI’s done so many of them. So the RAI assisted with the Tampa Convention Center expansion plans and elevated it and made it much better.

The partnership between IBEX and the RAI and NMMA is very positive, and the partnership with us and the Tampa Convention Center is very, very strong. They’re so appreciative that another convention center would take them in and show them all the stuff that they’ve done and learned, and the mistakes that they’ve made. Because they have certain people that all they do is maximize the space at the RAI. When you see IBEX, they’ve assisted us with filling every possible space in the building.

Niels Klarenbeek, the director of Mets­trade, has made a lot of changes. What’s happening with Niels and his team is exciting, too. I was with him at the ICOMIA/IFBSO Congress in Sweden [combining the International Council of Marine Industry Associations with the International Federation of Boat Show Organisers], and he’s built a whole new team. It’s like a whole new, fresh approach, and he’s really bright. I think he’s going to do great.

The move to Tampa, Fla., from Louisville, Ky., seems to be a win-win, especially with the waterfront access and demo docks. The first decision I made when I got elevated to show director was to move the show to Tampa. Having that waterfront access just added a whole new element to IBEX that was never available before, and the exhibitors that take advantage of it just love it. We’re expanding this year, and we’re taking over a bunch of the Marriott docks, as well.

The one thing about Tampa that I think is exciting is that the city is on fire. They’re Super Bowl winners. There are two or three more new hotels that popped up just this year. Last year came two or three new hotels — they’re just investing in the infrastructure, and they’re building up around the Amalie Arena. They want shops and more hotels, and all of that’s just going to benefit IBEX.

The nice thing is, we’re signed with Tampa through 2025. And then almost in perpetuity, because we have such a good relationship with the city. I’m one phone call away from the mayor. The economic impact of IBEX is just monstrous.

The point is that not only are we in Tampa, which is the perfect home for IBEX, but also Tampa as a city is vibrant and growing, investing in themselves, and we’re part of that. And we’re going to benefit from everything that they do, it’s just going to add more value to the IBEX show, more hotel rooms and more restaurants and activities. So it’s exciting and nice to have a home here.

The waterfront access at the Tampa Convention Center “added a whole new element to IBEX,” Dunbar says.

The waterfront access at the Tampa Convention Center “added a whole new element to IBEX,” Dunbar says.

Last year, because of Omicron, your attendance numbers were down almost 30 percent. How are things looking this year?

We’re 44 percent up over where we were for 2021. And we’re getting close to our preregistration numbers for 2019. Exhibit space is sold out. And we have a wait list. As of today, we have 640 exhibitors; 118 of those are new, and 40 are international. We also have about 30 boats booked for the docks. We normally host between 6,500 to 7,000 visitors to the show, and expect to meet or exceed those numbers this year.

Supply-chain headwinds have affected shows around the world because of a lack of inventory or inability to complete products in time. Are you hearing anything from exhibitors about this?

We just haven’t heard that, and I can’t answer as to why. I do know that the Innovation Awards submissions are coming in strong. That deadline is not for another month or so, and they usually all come in the week before. That’s going to be solid.

The consumer shows are very different. What we’re hearing is, there are pieces and parts that are missing and are very hard to source. But I will quote one of my exhibitors: “We’re buying bits and pieces wherever we can, just so we can keep products going out the door. I think everybody is being scrappers; they’re figuring it out. And I think it was a shock to everybody in the beginning, but now they’re two years into it, and they know that it’s not going to get any better. And it could even get worse.”

Is the war in Ukraine having any effect on international exhibitor attendance?

I’m sure there’s some of that, but we just haven’t heard it as vocally. We are hearing about material issues, like the resin and the glue guys — there are issues there. But again, I think people are just figuring it out. And there definitely are some that are getting shut down because of Covid. The ones where we’re seeing the biggest empty space is with Asian companies, although they’re starting to come in again now. So China, Taiwan, they all originally said, “We’re not coming.” And now, all of a sudden, there are a few that are like, “Hey, is there any booth space? Can we come?”

Dunbar says exhibitor space sold out in July.

Dunbar says exhibitor space sold out in July.

You recently announced new education sessions for IBEX. Tell us about those.

IBEX is a four-day education event. Monday is the preconference, and there’s nine sessions in there, including the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers’ “Design of Electric and Hybrid Propulsion Systems for Small Craft” session. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the seminar series offers a strong lineup of electrification seminars hosted by IBEX and two of our partners. There is a wide variety of topics and exhibitor training in nine seminar tracks. We have almost 50 seminars lined up, and we will have 13 exhibitors doing free Tech Talks in the main theater on the third level.

One other thing I should mention is our new Career Day component. The American Boat & Yacht Council’s ABYC Foundation is bringing 50 students from eight technical schools to the show. We have a bunch of our exhibitors stepping up just to give them a taste of the industry.

I think it’s going to be cool. It’s on the last day of the show, which is always quieter. These students will be able to go up to the exhibit hall, do a seminar, and then the exhibitors that are contributing are going to get a chance to talk to them for five minutes and tell them what they are looking for in qualified candidates. It will provide solid insights for these kids who are interested in getting into the marine industry. We’ve struggled with how to present that at IBEX, but I think the ABYC Foundation has come up with a really good plan here.

What trends are you seeing in the industry?

The big trend we’re seeing is electrification. It’s just taking off beyond belief. We have full seminar tracks solely about electrification and just had a webinar that had more than 500 people preregister, and 280 showed up. The whole hybrid and electrification is the hot topic at IBEX this year. And NMMA is doing a great job on this front in many ways.

And then there is all this self-docking technology — that’s such a game-changer. We were just in Sweden, and we went to the Volvo Penta test site. So, we did the self-docking, and they’ve got their hybrid stuff happening, too. And their commitment to being a clean and green company is so impressive.

What would you say to someone in the industry who is on the fence about attending IBEX?

IBEX is where everything begins. No one can go to IBEX and not walk away without a wow moment, just like, “Oh my God, that’s genius.” And I’ve had so many people stop me in the aisles or email me afterward.

Someone once said to me, “I’ve only been at the show an hour, and I just had the best meeting of my life. I could leave right now but I’m still here for another couple of days.” All you have to do is put yourself out there at any live event, and IBEX will always deliver. It’s just the nature of the beast — these exhibitors are so innovative and dedicated. They’re making it happen, and IBEX is the platform to that progress. And it’s exciting. So I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t go.

This year, IBEX will feature more than 640 exhibitors, 118 of which are new and 40 that are international, Dunbar says.

This year, IBEX will feature more than 640 exhibitors, 118 of which are new and 40 that are international, Dunbar says.

What’s the most satisfying and enjoyable part of your job?

We’ve got an amazing team, and then we’ve got amazing partners in the NMMA and the RAI, who just contribute so much. It’s been nice getting to know [NMMA president/CEO] Frank Hugelmeyer; his vision of the bigger outdoor industry has been great, and he’s really sharp.

Now, the best thing about the show is happy exhibitors and gratitude. Last year was my favorite IBEX because I had people who were stopping me in the aisle, thanking me for having the show. They would see my badge and they’re like, “Hey, you’re Anne Dunbar. Thank you. Thank you for having the show because we needed this.” Or, “We needed solutions, and we always find them here.” I’ve also heard, “I needed to make connections, I needed to get my business going again, and now know everything that’s happening.” So the gratitude that people feel because we create this amazing platform is great.

Also, when exhibitors do well, that’s very satisfying. Last year, Eastman Machine Co., which builds cutting machines, sold more than $1 million worth of equipment at IBEX. It was the best trade show they had in the history of their company, ever. And so, I was like, We did that. We did that for that company.

So we just want to deliver and have happy customers. And I think that comes through with our whole team. We work hard to make sure that you take care of the customer. That’s one of our core values, customer satisfaction, and we’ve got exhibitors and visitors, so to keep everybody happy? It’s not easy.

What is the most challenging aspect of putting IBEX together?

Right now, just like everybody else, we’re really challenged with increasing fixed costs. I have a fixed contract for the building, but the audiovisual costs, food services, security labor, everybody — it’s trickled down to everything. Our fixed costs are going up just like everybody else’s with inflation, labor, transportation, freight and services.

What states and countries are the largest in terms of visitors and exhibitors?

It’s definitely Florida. Canada is always next. I couldn’t give you what’s happening outside of that, but I see that the numbers right now are strong for Central and South America. That’s also not surprising because it’s easier for them to get here. But it’s preliminary. Florida is usually number one stateside, and Canada is number one internationally.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m proud of my team and our partners who work so hard to put this show together. And after two years of Covid-19 struggles, this year is going to be incredible. n

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.

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