The coronavirus has hit the United States harder than any other nation, leaving event organizers struggling with constantly changing rules that vary by municipality, state and region.
“When you’re in event planning, you plan for the worst possibility in almost every scenario, typically,” says Jennifer Thompson, senior vice president of sport and boat shows for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “We’ve planned through hurricanes, cities being taken over by football; now we’ve added on a pandemic. That’s a new one — one for the record books. Every show is being treated very individually right now just based on what’s happening with Covid-19.”
The market-by-market assessment process changed once again in early summer, when spikes in Covid-19 cases created new hot spots in Florida. That state is home to the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, one of the world’s largest marine events. As of this writing, the show was scheduled for Oct. 28 to Nov. 1, barring any government mandates, according to Phil Purcell, president and CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the show.
“The local government is very supportive,” Purcell says, adding that the area saw an economic impact of $1.3 billion in 2019. “MIASF and [show producer] Informa Markets are going to use all the best practices to make sure people have a good and safe experience.”
Meanwhile, the Newport International Boat Show, to be held in September in Rhode Island, was the first major stateside fall show to cancel. The announcement came in June. “There are just too many unknowns at this point and a very high probability that the show will not be allowed to move forward,” says Paul O’Reilly, CEO of the Newport Restaurant Group and owner of the Newport International Boat Show. “And even if it was, it would be in a format that would clearly not be valued by our exhibitors and attendees.”
The Newport show was called after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo revised the cap on outdoor events to 250 people — a response to spikes in Covid-19 cases in other parts of the country. The concern was that people in regions with outbreaks, where events might be canceled, would flock to events in areas that had spent months flattening the virus curve.
The Fred Hall Show at the Long Beach Convention Center in early March was one of the final events to occur before California’s ban on gatherings of 250 or more people was issued, says Duncan McIntosh, CEO of Fred Hall parent company Duncan McIntosh Co. California Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the order in April. The Newport In-Water Boat Show in Newport Beach, Calif., originially slated for April, was postponed indefinitely. As of July, California remained among the hardest-hit states, reporting 11,694 Covid-19 cases in a single day.
“In Newport Beach, they’re not approving any permits until the ban is lifted,” McIntosh says. “I’m not sure if it’s going to ease up for us, because right now it’s getting worse. I don’t know if it’ll go at all this year.”
The NMMA has been researching events that happen in the Covid era to see what’s working and what is not. “If you have a show in a specific market, you use certain suppliers that also work with other events, so everyone talks,” Thompson says. “We all learn from each other right now. There’s a lot of exciting change that can come out of this, and the evolution of our shows. Shows may be different, but they’re not going away.”
Appetite for Live Events
NMMA has been surveying show attendees to learn their shopping habits. The majority still want to see and test products in real life before buying, Thompson says. After being cooped up for months, many are interested in live events, but that enthusiasm — particularly where air travel is involved — isn’t consistent across the U.S. population.
A June poll conducted by the International Air Transport Association showed that less than half of Americans, 45 percent, were ready to travel by air. That figure dropped from 60 percent in April, suggesting the public has grown more cautious as the pandemic drags on.
Dealer comfort level on attending boat shows varied widely among more than 100 survey respondents in July, according to the Pulse Report, a Baird Research survey administered with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Soundings Trade Only.
A little less than a quarter of respondents, 21 percent, were comfortable attending fall shows as planned; 24 percent weren’t sure; and 17 percent said they would only attend with safety precautions. Five percent planned to forgo larger out-of-town shows to stay local.
The largest share of respondents, 27 percent, said they were not participating in shows at all, though some said that decision was driven by unprecedented showroom demand rather than health and safety concerns. “We learned how to sell boats with our showrooms on lockdown,” one dealer wrote. “The Internet has arrived. It will change the way we sell boats going forward. Boat shows are in deep trouble. Exhibitors have wanted to scale back or get out of shows for quite some time. The cost-per-sales transaction is ridiculous.”
That sentiment isn’t shared across the board. For large-yacht brokers in South Florida, FLIBS can account for 15 to 20 percent of annual sales, says Andrew Doole, president of U.S. boat shows for Informa. Thompson agrees. “Shows are a part of revenue generations for the association, but I think, more importantly, our shows drive half the industry’s sales every year. Of course, there’s financial implications for the NMMA, but just as much for the industry.”
Shows of the Future?
Informa, whose other shows include September’s Monaco Yacht Show — which was canceled in June — developed what it calls AllSecure standards to focus on safe, hygienic, productive and high-quality event experiences. Purcell says FLIBS partnered with design firm EDSA, which is also designing Disney World’s new entrance, to help create a safer and more hassle-free experience.
He says the measures, combined with a layout that spans 90 outdoor acres across seven sites, make the Fort Lauderdale show more conducive to distancing than most events. Roughly half of the five-day show’s 100,000 visitors come from Florida; 10 percent come from Europe; and the rest come from other parts of the country, Purcell says.
Fewer visitors are expected this year, but Doole says the show’s proximity to the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports will help. “A lot of our traffic is via private plane or people chartering a plane to come to the show,” Doole says. “We can certainly get people in and out very easily. They don’t have to come to the main part of the show; they can just visit the superyachts. It’s a very slick experience, if you will, to come in … and in 20 minutes, we’ll get you in and out of the show.”
Organizers will add buses and water taxis, as well as entry and exit points, to “get away from the hub mentality, where all the buses arrive at one place and leave from one place,” Doole says. Additional tender dockage will be available, open-air golf carts can bring attendees from the parking lot to the show, and wider docks should create more space for distancing. “It is truly a reset for North America and the industry,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.