The onus is on Boat Show organisers- Get it right, or risk dying out

Barcelona Boat Show
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Boat shows dot the calendar all over the world, with countries hosting up to 10 (or in the case of China, planning as many as 20) major events per annum, aiming to push boat sales and aspiration towards the boating lifestyle in all its guises. But what should drive organisers' objectives and how can stakeholders measure their effectiveness? Jurij Korenc, President of the International Federation of Boat Show Organisers (IFBSO) reveals some of the contemporary challenges and the realities of staging a boat show.

Jurij Korenc President IFBSO
Jeni Bone

Q. What should be the main objectives of a boat show?

Jurij Korenc: 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), both now and in the future
We can’t really ascribe any loftier motives than this as the primary objective.

For a regional government it might be enough that the show provides direct employment for local people and also fills hotels, restaurants etc; for a BIA, the show might be the cash cow that provides the funding for the BIA’s activities, or a means of ensuring that the industry gets a more cost-effective shop window than would be provided by an outsider.

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Q. What are the main factors that should be considered to judge a boat show 'successful'?

JK: In this respect, therefore, the measure of success 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:
* for the exhibitors, who want qualified visitors with the money and the enthusiasm to buy;
* for the wider industry, which expects the show to develop the market by generating interest in boating in the non-boating public;
* for the visitors, who want to see, touch and compare great products, and talk with experts and fellow enthusiasts;
* for their sponsors, who expect the event to reflect their brand values and deliver the expected results to the target market;
* for the stakeholders, who all have their own objectives as mentioned.
That’s sustainability.

Auckland boatshow 2
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Q. The Australian marine industry is obsessed with boat show attendance as a measure of a boat show, judging large events as superior to smaller – is visitation a relevant factor for comparison?

JK: The boss of Sunseeker once said, 'I don’t care if only 100 people come to the boat show, as long as they’re the right ones for me'.

Since he was president of National Boat Shows, which owns the London and Southampton Boat Shows, at the time, the comment didn’t go down too well with the industry – but it served to make a point: that every exhibitor has his own target market.

The greatest divide is between the top brands like Sunseeker and the 'boatswain’s locker' type of exhibitor, for whom every visitor is a potential sale. Evidence suggests that the biggest names frequently do better when attendance falls, because there are fewer distractions both on stand and in the aisles from members of the public who wouldn’t be in the market for high-priced items anyway.

Unfortunately, though, total attendance remains the primary benchmark for the success of a show. An end-of-show release from an event that has suffered a fall in visitation might say something like 'the 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.

Q. How are boat shows around the world combating falling visitation? Are these strategies working – both to drive attendance and boat sales?

JK: Boat show attendance and boat sales are closely correlated, not least because very few people ever buy a boat off a magazine page 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.

The boating industry faces both short-term problems in consumer confidence and credit availability, both of which are essential for its sales, and a long-term decline as other pastimes and interests stake a claim on the leisure dollar, pound or euro. 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.

The difficulty at the moment is not how to grow attendance or sales, but how to arrest decline. 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.

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IFBSO is the International Federation of Boat Show Organisers, founded in 1964 to help the development of boat shows and marine trade exhibitions worldwide. Today all member shows comply with the IFBSO Code of Excellence, ensuring that they meet the highest expectations of exhibitors and visitors.