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Boat Shows – fixating on visitor figures is like mixing coffee and tea

by Jeni Bone on 10 Jul 2012
METS Tradeshow 2011 - just 19,000 people, but all eager to trade B2B. David Schmidt
Visitor numbers: It’s an obsession with marine media the world over, and members of marine industry groups, and to a certain extent the general public. Speaking recently in Taiwan, where he was a guest of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), organisers of the inaugural Taiwan International Boat Show scheduled for 2014, the president of IFBSO, Jurij Korenc states that comparing boat shows on the basis of attendance is like putting tea and coffee together in a pot – 'it doesn’t taste good'.

What he means in our vernacular is that looking at boat shows around the world based on their visitor numbers is like comparing apples and oranges.

It’s impossible to compare Fort Lauderdale with its 53 years of history and 95,000 visitors in 2010 with anywhere else. Its nearest 'rival', if that can be said (or ally if we consider all boat shows as effective means of marketing yachts and the marine lifestyle) is Miami, topping 100,000 visitors in 2010.

But even with such attendance, frequently undermined by inclement weather in whatever location they’re held, unsteady consumer sentiment means numbers through the gate don’t necessarily equate to a 'good show' for exhibitors.

It’s not uncommon to hear event organisers and exhibitors refer to 'quality over quantity'. 'The numbers were down on last year, but the buyers were out in force,' must be the ideal phrase to hear from a smiling exhibitor during and post-show.

Certainly maintaining visitor numbers in the face of every other distraction, including the economy, is a feat in itself.
Following the recent Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show on Queensland’s Gold Coast, one exhibitor from Perth observed that the 'd***heads didn’t attend SCIBS this year'. Perhaps they preferred to bask in the winter sun and sink a beer at Blues on Broadbeach, a mostly free event in the heart of the Gold Coast which coincided with SCIBS?

This was seconded by Melissa Yeomans from Deck Hardware, who more politely put it as: 'There were no silly questions, or people just browsing. People had done their research, they came to buy and they spent. We were thrilled.'

Numbers for Sanctuary Cove were almost equal to last year. And yes, they are audited, according to IFBSO 'Code of Excellence', a requirement for membership.

Out of interest, refer to the table below (click on tab to enlarge). It's interesting to note that China (Shanghai) recorded 31,000 visitors last year. With a change of venue this year to the massive Olympic stadium and an additional on-water component, that is likely to rise significantly.

Moscow, a must attend for the major European brands to capture the interest of the emerging affluent class of this powerful nation in the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China), it recorded just 9,100 visitors through the door last year. They could be billionaire oligarchs for all we know!

The main purpose of boat shows, if they are to be considered a major marketing offensive for a brand, is to sell boats (accessories, syndication, equipment, destinations etc), both at the event and post-show.

Bussing in hundreds of school children, as the Korea International Boat Show freely admits is part of its strategy, is a great investment in the long-term development of the boating lifestyle and certainly buoys attendance figures, but does it sell boats? Eventually, it may.



Attendance figures alone cannot be used to gauge the success of a boat show. Analysts, the NMMA and IFBSO are unanimous that visitor numbers are just one facet of a boat show, secondary to sales during the show and exhibitor satisfaction with the quality of leads for follow up post-event.

More and more, marketing boat shows is about casting the widest net possible. Significantly, NMMA research shows that among those who were highly influenced by a boat show in their most recent purchase, 40% went for entertainment value or fun, and 33% said they go every year.

According to Jurij Korenc, president of IFBSO, in the face of falling attendance, boat shows around the world have tried to boost numbers by linking their event with other compatible events.

'Some have successfully aligned with watersports and other events that work well with boat shows, but some boat shows have to face the facts – that they are not relevant because they are not attracting quality exhibitors.'
In 2011, the Tullett Prebon London International Boat Show was battling falling attendance and visitor feedback that said the show needed to bring back the ‘wow’ factor.

Murray Ellis, Managing Director of National Boat Shows in the UK said: 'People said they wanted the Show to move away from being like a trade show. They wanted more boats, attractions and on-water activity, more interactivity, and above all, they wanted it to be ‘spectacular, relevant, child-friendly and educational’.'

By adding features such as high-action watersports in the aptly named 'Action Pool', media hype and buzz created a broad appeal and that elusive ‘wow’ factor.

From post-show research, 75% of the visitors interacted with the pool, which was positioned in a prominent spot right at the front of the entrance to the show.

Other additions or improvements included a new layout for the 2011 show, adding the London Bike Show and The Outdoors Show who share a similar demographic.

The show injected interactivity, relevance and education with a model boat pool, Knowledge Box presentations, fashion and automotive launches. Top model, high profile motoring journo and equestrian, Jodie Kidd was the host of the official launch which went off with plenty of pizzazz and stars from TV’s X Factor, garnering headlines in mainstream news, fashion and lifestyle media, and placing the event in the minds of new markets beyond traditional boating crowd.

'Delivering more attractions' and 'ensuring everyone offers a good customer experience' at the show level were also important to driving word of mouth referral from people who attended.

According to organisers, the results speak for themselves. 'We reversed the decline in attendance with a 7% increase from 2010, with 109,778 people attending,' said Ellis. 'And with co-location the total attendance was 140,164 visitors. In short, the wow was back!'

In Germany, Boot Dusseldorf too realised it could do nothing to change the circumstances impacting on boat shows around the world – which it identified as 'a global crisis in the water sports market, change in recreational and consumer behaviour, a subtle withdrawal of the younger generation from water sports – especially in the recreational boating sector, and aging trade fair visitors'.

During the year between its 2010 and 2011 shows, Boot Düsseldorf 'reinvented itself'.

The event changed its format and image from a traditional trade fair for water sports to a worldwide leading spectacle for maritime sports and lifestyle.

As its motto, the show embraced as its ethos: 'All people who have a high affinity for water as a means of recreation prospectively belong in our target group.'

The show organisers took a strategic approach, investing heavily in the 2011 event, 'thought inclusively and had the courage to take charge and move forward with enthusiasm'.

'There are always negative comments. Without enthusiasm, confidence and the courage to make changes, you can‘t move forward!' they said in their literature supporting the show revamp.

The relaunch aimed to capture the imaginations of industry and the public alike. Among their initiatives were: new logo and branding, new ad campaign, relaunch of website, greater relations with media and industry, new programming to achieve a balance between technical info for professionals and entertainment for the general public, added focus on popular water sports with opportunities for visitors to try it out themselves, an d a new communications strategy which focused on a few topics in key areas, using traditional and lifestyle media.

In spite of extreme market conditions, Boot Düsseldorf experienced an increase in number of visitors, greater PR coverage, 'an enlightened spirit' within the industry and positive feedback from various target groups.

On a trade and business level, AIMEX attends several international yacht shows and industry events each year, with a delegation composed of its members and directors, as well as on behalf of members who don't have the resources to attend. AIMEX states that it determines which shows to attend based on analysing a variety of factors.

'AIMEX reviews the market potential for Australian marine exporters (hence the recent Trade Mission AIMEX hosted to Turkey), the potential for quality visitors (boat builders, distributers, agents), the economic climate of the show and its host country, how established or not the marine industry is in location, the presence of other nations at a show and importantly the networking opportunities and industry conferences aligned with a show.

'These all provide further opportunity for ROI to the exhibitor. AIMEX has had a presence in Korea for the past five years as a result of the government's commitment to develop a thriving marine leisure industry and incentivising exhibitors attendance. The proximity of Australia to Korea is also advantageous. Businesses in the marine infrastructure area have already established business in this market.

'Of course, once an analysis is undertaken the level of interest from exhibitors is the ultimate decider as to whether we have presence.'

Visitor numbers will always remain the focus, and they should be among the many tools determining whether or not a company exhibits at a show. But marine and mainstream journalists are not capturing the formula with any sophistication if they get hung up on that measure alone.

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