Three decades ago, when Kim Muncy became manager of what is now the Louisville Boat, RV and Sportshow, most of the attendees were men. That surprised her, since she was a woman who liked to go boating and camping, and she knew there were a lot of other women like her.
“As the years went by, I did more things to try to welcome women to the show,” Muncy says. “Unfortunately at that time, it was almost always on the cuffs of men — a date night like, ‘Men, bring your ladies to the show.’ As more women became participants in outdoor activities, we transitioned to inviting women, offering education and hands-on learning with a twist.”
The show, which is now part of the National Marine Manufacturers Association collection of around 20 events, began offering seminars for women by women. “Now we have women coming and buying their own boats, so the show is a huge family event,” Muncy says.
More than a dozen women manage marine shows today, and their perspective is helping not only to grow those events, but also to grow the sport of boating itself. The days when the husband needed the “nod of approval” from his wife to buy a boat are receding. Less and less, boating is “Dad’s sport” with the rest of the family coming along for the ride. Women are captains in control, too — a reality that female-led boat shows has fostered and continues to fuel, to the benefit of the industry’s overall bottom line.
Jennifer Thompson, senior vice president of NMMA shows, began her event career with the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference before producing the Progressive Insurance Northwest Sportshow and the Minneapolis Boat Show. “As women, we notice when things aren’t inclusive for women more than a man would when we put the microscope on our shows,” Thompson says. “Especially in sport shows, the family element is so strong. We’re always asking what things we can do to keep them happy and shopping.”
Becca Doyle, who runs the St. Louis and Kansas City Boat and Sportshows for the NMMA, says she sees more families attend on a regular basis. She has tried to build on that increase by enhancing kids’ offerings — for example, a pirate ship, an indoor zip line or an archery area. “It’s about trying to find ways to keep them there and make it a whole experience,” Doyle says. “I also think it’s really important to connect with the little ones when they’re young.”
Nicki Polan, who has run the Metro Boat Show, the Detroit Boat Show and the Novi Boat Show for six years as executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association, says involving women in smarter ways is key to the industry’s future. “This is a recreational activity that involves the entire family, and it’s not just the male making the decision,” she says. “The ongoing shift to include women and children is critical for a recreation that struggles to tap new and younger boat buyers.”
Female leaders change organizations
There is no data showing how many women lead events in other male-dominated industries, but the trend of more women taking leadership positions in the marine sphere has been upward for a while. More women have entered the industry in recent decades, allowing some the chance to rise to top positions.
Where marine may differ from other industries is in giving those women opportunities to lead. Women make up half of today’s workforce, but less than 20 percent of senior executives are women. That number seems to be reversed when it comes to major boat shows. “I think the number of female boat show producers outpaces the overall industry,” says Cathy Rick-Joule, who ran the Miami International Boat Show for 22 years before retiring in 2016.
The list is impressive: IBEX, Miami, Newport, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Kansas City, Pacific Sail, Louisville, Nashville, the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo, and others. In Europe, two of the largest consumer shows, Cannes and Monaco, have female leadership, and Metstrade’s staff is primarily composed of women. The Kuwait International Boat Show now has a female manager.
Organizations that have a more equitable split of men and women in management tend to outperform those with fewer women, according to a 2017 survey by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Executive Development.
“I think we’re just seeing women being given more opportunities to do these things,” says Thom Dammrich, NMMA president. “Because they’re excelling, that feeds this trend. Half of my direct reports are women.”
One reason women are running more boat shows is the growing number of female leaders in marine associations, says Liz Walz, vice president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. Data backs up her perspective. More than half the International Association of Exhibitions and Events’ membership is female — 57 percent — while 36 percent of members are male, and 8 percent are unknown.
“There are more women professionals in the marine industry, period,” says Anne Dunbar, who has been overseeing IBEX for five years, after heading up the event’s marketing for 11 years. “I’m seeing a lot more young women. I see it as an evolution of the marine industry across the board.”
Dammrich says simply having women in the room can affect an organization from the top down. “They bring a different perspective on many issues, from work-life balance to working moms to leave policies,” Dammrich says. “They affect the entire culture of the organization.”
Sometimes, he says, women bring ideas that men would never conceive. “It’s fascinating, the conversations we have at our senior management meetings, where the female perspective can be very different from the male perspective on many things,” Dammrich says.
Katie Kelly, who runs the Sail America Industry Conference as well as the Pacific Boat Show each year as head of Sail America, came from a mostly male team at US Sailing, where there was just one other woman at the table. Now, she works with an all-woman team. “It’s just different,” Kelly says. “I can’t really articulate it. Those guys were an awesome team, but the way we managed our tasks was different than the way we do at Sail America.”
Male-female skill sets
A 2015 Gallup study showed that female managers of every working-age generation were more engaged with workers than their male counterparts. People who work for women are 1.17 times more likely than those who work for men to say they receive consistent positive feedback for a job well done, and they more often agree with the statement that their opinion counts.
“Overall, female managers eclipse their male counterparts at setting basic expectations for their employees, building relationships with their subordinates, encouraging a positive team environment and providing employees with opportunities to develop within their careers,” the Gallup study states.
Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland found that acts of generosity stimulated the reward parts of women’s brains more than men’s. Selfish behavior triggered the reward centers more for men.
“Of course, there are always exceptions, but as I experience it, women are less status-driven than men,” says Irene Dros, group director, maritime, at RAI Amsterdam. “The ladies I know running shows, they are so intense and passionate about what they’re delivering that they are not driven by ego or status.”
Metstrade has tripled in size over the 18 years that Dros has overseen the event, drawing 1,600 companies last year. Rather than boasting about the growth, the pride in her voice is most evident when she talks about the major conservation focus the show has taken, from tackling plastics in the ocean to sustainable recycling of yachts.
Studies at the University of Southern California and at Radbaud University in the Netherlands found that men become laser-focused on rewards when their heart rates and cortisol levels run high, even if that reward has only a tiny chance of materializing.
When women underwent the same stresses, they took more time weighing possibilities, the studies showed, and were more interested in smaller rewards that they could count on.
For Doyle, manager of the St. Louis Boat and Sportshow, the difference is in the details. She sent a checklist to exhibitors ahead of a show. At the bottom, she asked exhibitors about new products so she could tease them in marketing materials. “I figured if they wanted us to help them promote their products, why not quickly respond to this email?” Doyle says. “I sort of noticed women are a lot more detailed in their correspondence. Of the 20 to 25 responses I got, only two were from men.”
Nancy Piffard, director of the Newport International Boat Show in Rhode Island, says that in her experience, women can generally multitask better than men. “I think we’re just wired that way,” she says. “A lot of this business is multitasking, so it works for us. I’m not downing men; it’s just that since the beginning of time, we had to do many things. When women stayed in the household, they were in charge of children, cooking, cleaning, and now we’ve joined the workforce and added that to everything else we do.”
A British study found that women outperformed men in certain types of multitasking. The women overwhelmingly assessed their situations prior to acting, whereas men were more likely to jump in too quickly. “Women are just capable of doing more things in one go,” Dros says. “It’s a general difference and not a rule.”
Cannes Yachting Festival manager Sylvie Ernoult says gender is not the main issue, though she acknowledges her mostly female team works well together. “You have good, efficient, professional and team-builder profiles on both sides,” Ernoult says. “Yes, the approach is often different between men and women, but what is important is to have the right profile in the team, with the same dynamics for working together.”
Details certainly matter in trade events. Many of the women have come up with clever ways to promote their shows. Thompson did a twist on the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” at the Minneapolis show in 2007, with “Bling My Boat.”
“We asked attendees why their boat would deserve a makeover,” Thompson says. “It was a great way to highlight new accessories and have a big reveal at the show where one family got a whole new boat, including the engine, fiberglass and upholstery. The PR went through the roof, and we won Consumer Show of the Year.”
Dunbar and her IBEX team, including marketing director Kate Holden, have focused on creating a group for millennials. “The difference in thinking among millennials is amazing,” Dunbar says. “You need that difference to be successful, especially at the show level, since you’re dealing with so many different people.”
“I think women tend to be good at communicating with different characters and personalities, and that’s definitely a necessity in this kind of work,” adds Doyle.
Muncy says that when she first became manager of the Louisville show, in 1988, her colleagues cautioned her about a particularly challenging exhibitor. “Right when I came on board, everybody warned me about what a problem he was,” she says. Muncy knew that to make the show successful, she had to eliminate the “us-versus-them” dynamic between producers and exhibitors.
Muncy asked around and discovered that the exhibitor had a weakness for Hershey bars with almonds. It wasn’t much, but she thought it might be enough to shift the relationship. When she handed him the candy bar on opening day — typically the exhibitors’ most stressful time — he grinned. “Maybe others got off on the wrong foot with him and just avoided him, but I found him to be the kindest, nicest man,” Muncy says. “It’s a small thing, but every year I would bring him the Hershey bar with almonds on move-in day because that’s the way our relationship got started.”
Piffard notes generosity also creates trust among her all-women team at Newport. “We know each other and how each other works and who is better at handling what,” she says. “We depend on each other every day all the time. I’m not opposed to banging nails or picking up trash at the show. I’m not going to call an operations person for that.”
Majority-female teams at industry shows
Numerous women running shows today say they have received strong support from male colleagues. “I had support from the beginning, and I always had male bosses,” says Rick-Joule, who retired in 2016 as vice president of boat shows for the NMMA. “Thom Dammrich, as you know, is just an incredible supporter of women.”
IBEX’s Dunbar also credits Dammrich with helping her get to where she is today. “As the leader of the marine manufacturing industry, I think his influence has been significant,” she says.
Those stories contrast with tales from trade show expert and consultant Candy Adams, who began her career at a car show in Detroit. At a time when only about 10 percent of exhibitors were female, Adams says, she was hazed relentlessly. “The union laborers didn’t like women on the show floor, so they took the signs off of every women’s bathroom door in the convention center, just to watch us squirm,” Adams says.
It’s a story that female show managers in the marine industry find shocking. “Maybe there is something to our industry, because I’ve never felt unwelcome in the boating industry as a woman — at all,” Thompson says.
Adams emphasizes that her experience occurred in 1991, before things began to shift for women across society as a whole. But Muncy, who began her management job in the 1980s, remembers her boss as a wonderful man and promoter who “was empowering women, even way back then.”
“I have been very fortunate all along to work with men and people who have promoted women,” Muncy says. “I don’t know if it’s because of the industry we are in — it’s just such an outgoing, happy, fun industry — I’ve just always been welcomed. I have never experienced anybody saying, ‘You couldn’t possibly know about boating or hunting or the outdoors because you’re a woman.’ ”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.