by Jeni Bone
Boat Shows remain relevant, even in a climate of competing commitments and new means of marketing. Nowhere else can visitors and industry alike enjoy the 'gathering of traders' so crucial to presenting innovation, passing on experience and reinforcing the boating lifestyle.
The public are able to touch and feel.
Boat show season is moving in to full swing, with the Rosehill Boat Show and Brisbane Tinnie & Tackle in March, Sanctuary Cove looming in May, followed by Adelaide in June, and Sydney and Melbourne in August, the Gold Coast Marine Expo in November and marine festivals and regional boat shows dotting the calendar throughout the year.
For exhibitors, the options are innumerable: choosing from local, national, BIA and privately owned shows, all touting for business and themselves judged on the number of exhibitors and visitors through the gates.
In Victoria, Steven Gill, the new GM at BIA Vic took the opportunity to chat at length with exhibitors at the Melbourne Summer Boat Show. They were unanimous in their estimation of the new generation of customer at boat shows who are well informed and looking for a good deal.
'Customers who come to boat shows and dealerships, have done their research on the internet and they clearly understand the products they’re looking at – the specs, brand reputations, pricing. Exhibitors are expert at asking the qualifying questions, and they told us boat show visitors have sought out the products they’re interested in and boat shows deliver the important tactile part – the touching and feeling, picturing themselves in their boats, justifying that purchase, forming a relationship with the person or brand they’re buying from – all the things you can’t do on the net.'
From analysis of this year’s Melbourne Summer Boat Show, the BIA Vic determined its website received a 335% increase in hits. The organisation promoted the site in all its marketing material and with links on event sites.
Says Gill: 'The internet is an important part of the process, an extension of the showroom, and social media too. Ignore it at your peril. But boat shows are crucial in the mix. People attend a boat show to compare products. We as organisers have to look at ways to facilitate that. The entire show experience has to grab people, because you’re competing with everything, online and off.'
The not-so-qualified visitors too have to be catered for, if we consider them as the boat buyers of the future. 'Exhibitors acknowledge there does have to be a component of education, attractions and other experiences for those visitors. And we have to create a desire to be part of the boating lifestyle. We can use the internet to attract people in to the boat lifestyle.'
Domenic Genua, Marketing & Events Manager BIA NSW, is a veteran of 15 editions of the Sydney International Boat Show. Over that time, he has engineered the evolution of the event in response to the results of research into its key markets.
'We know people go to boat shows to buy, but they also expect to stimulate their five senses,' Genua says. 'They want the education and the entertainment components. That is, they want to learn about innovations and technology and see that for themselves and hear from experts, and they want to be entertained for their ticket price too. That’s how they view value for money.'
This combination of a great place to buy, and learn and be entertained is captured in the marketing and support for Sydney International Boat Show.
Rosehill Trailerboat Show on the other hand is a pared back experience, positioned as the show to get a good post-summer bargain. 'Exhibitors and visitors know this show is about end of summer clearance specials, new and second hand boats. We have a bit of fun with the fishing supertank and weigh in, but it’s really about doing deals – that’s the main objective.'
While assailed with competition from all quarters within and beyond the boating industry, Boat Shows will always exist as they appeal to something deep in human nature, asserts Genua.
'You can’t get away from the fact that boat shows owe their heritage to the traders’ bazaars of antiquity,' explains Genua. 'Traders would come to a central meeting place and show off their wares for visitors from all over the region. It’s human nature to enjoy that exchange and that excitement of gathering to hear what’s new.'
In Queensland, Marine Qld uses data on boat registration trends supplied by Queensland Transport which shows peak periods for registrations occur the months immediately following the industry’s leading boat shows.
Similar results have been documented in the US. A study conducted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association found that boat shows remain a crucial part of the consumer’s boat buying process.
In what NMMA is calling the largest study of its kind, MSU surveyed more than 20,000 attendees across all of NMMA’s consumer boat shows in 2008. The results revealed that 55 %of boat buyers attended a boat show within six months prior to their purchase and 65 % agreed that attending a boat show actually increased their desire to purchase a boat.
Says Don Jones, CEO of Marine Qld: 'There is no denying that today’s consumer is very savvy and the internet has made it much easier to research and discover what’s available.
'However, as boat show research proves, nothing can replace the importance of getting up close and sitting in the driver’s seat of your next boat before you make the final decision to buy.'
As well as its Brisbane events, Marine Qld plans to add a few regional shows to its program in 2013: the Mackay Marine Festival in June and the second edition of Power, Sail & Paddle at Manly which is penciled in for November.
'Shows continue to prove people still buy boats at or in response to boat shows, there’s no doubt about that,' states Jones. 'In the marine industry, shows are one of the few calls to action, unlike the caravan and camping industry and other recreational spheres.
'People time their purchasing and channel their efforts in to visiting a show where they hope to see the latest gear at the best price.'
And the onus is on boat show organisers to make the offering innovative, compelling and enthralling to keep patrons coming.
Jones’ view is seconded by the head of the International Federation of Boat Show Organisers, Jurij Korenc, who states that the aim of boat shows worldwide is to 'attract quality exhibitors and healthy attendance'.
But European boat shows, like other sectors impacted by a squeeze on discretionary spend, are not buoyant.
'We expect that in Europe, the situation will go on for another few years,' he says referring to the economic unrest and struggle many boat shows, large and small, are having in attracting visitors.
'It’s not just economic and political, it is now becoming psychological. It’s not ‘in’ to visit boat shows because there are so many more important issues. As long as there are economic problems in Europe, the industry will suffer. And the marine business is the last to bounce back. It will never come back to the heights of five or six years ago. If it can get back to 50% of the former situation, it will be a success.'
According to Korenc, some boat shows are trying to staunch and prop up visitor numbers by merging with other shows or sport events, 'but it’s a question of how long you can survive'.
'The main aim of a boat show is to deliver a profit or other benefit to the stakeholders (which may be a boating industry association, an independent exhibition organiser, an exhibition centre or a combination of interests). The measure of success then is whether the show delivers the desired benefits in a sustainable manner. And there is the crux: sustainability.
'Any street corner merchant can make a profit by fleecing customers, because he has a constant stream of new prospects coming along the pavement and because the fleeced customers never get to swap stories. Boat shows are right at the other end of the scale. They only happen once a year, and their customers, whether exhibitors or visitors, are all too ready to gather round the village pump to discuss their experiences at the show. So the organisers have to get it right, this time and every time.'
Stakeholders in boat shows are many and have varied expectations.
'Exhibitors want qualified visitors with the money and the enthusiasm to buy. For the wider industry, the show is expected to develop the market by generating interest in boating in the non-boating public. For the visitors, they want a reason to take time to attend and pay the entry fee to see, touch and compare great products, and talk with experts and fellow enthusiasts. For show sponsors, the event must reflect their brand values and deliver the expected results to the target market. To achieve positive outcomes for these stakeholders, that’s sustainability.'
A reality of boat shows is that total attendance remains a major benchmark for the success of an event, continues Korenc.
'An end-of-show release from an event that has suffered a fall in visitation might say something like ‘visitor numbers were down, but those who came were well motivated to buy’, or cite numerous exhibitors whose show ‘exceeded expectations’, but it’s rarely a convincing line.
'Boat show attendance and boat sales are closely correlated, not least because very few people ever buy a boat off a magazine ad or website. They need to see it first, and shows remain the best platform to view and compare different craft. So what is true of building attendance is true of generating sales.'
Changing demographics, fluctuating consumer confidence and competition from all manner of leisure activities mean the boating industry must adapt.
'Worldwide, the boating industry faces both short-term problems in consumer confidence and credit availability, both of which are essential for sales, and a long-term decline as other pastimes and interests stake a claim on the leisure dollar, pound or euro,' advises Korenc, himself the founder of the Internautica boat show, now in its 18th year and based in Portoroz Marina, on Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline.
'The difficulty at the moment is not how to grow attendance or sales, but how to arrest decline. An ageing demographic means that, in Germany for instance, three high-spending older boaters are lost to the industry every year for each new enthusiast that joins at entry level.
'In terms of strategy and positioning boat shows, we are seeing more intelligent use of closely targeted marketing efforts that make the most of the appropriate modern media for each need, and less of the blanket press advertising that used to be the mainstay of boat show marketing.
'Using a variety of social media to create a buzz about boats and boating, the best shows are perhaps beginning to make some progress. But it’s going to be a long climb back before recovery turns to growth.'