The first consumer boat show in the world was held over 110 years ago in New York City. The New York National Boat Show was held in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, a pandemic to which the current COVID-19 pandemic is often compared. The demise of boat shows has been predicted for decades. They are too expensive. There are too many of them. The ROI is not sufficient. They will be replaced by the internet. I am sure you have heard these things said, and maybe even said them yourself!
Yet, boat shows have persisted, grown in size and importance, remain the primary marketing channel for new boats and the largest line item in most dealer and manufacturer marketing budgets. Until 2020! Beginning in March of 2020, government response to the global pandemic has caused nearly every boat show in the world to be cancelled. There have been a few that have been held (Genoa, Interboot at Lake Constance, and Helsinki In Water come to mind), but they are the exception. And, though a smaller Ft. Lauderdale is planned to go ahead in October, 2020, with extraordinary safety protocols, most boats shows will likely remain shuttered through June or July of 2021 or until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available to the public.
Shows that are being held are reporting attendance of about 30% to 60% of pre-pandemic levels. And they are also reporting strong sales for boat manufacturers and dealers. That is not surprising. Research we did during my tenure at NMMA showed that only 15-20% of boat show attendees came to the show with intent to buy at the show. Most came looking for parts and accessories or to learn about boats and boating. Only 5% purchased a boat at the show. Why the other 10-15% who come with intent to buy and leave without purchasing is a topic for another day.
How often have we heard from exhibitors that they had a strong day or a strong show despite bad weather or sporting events that kept many people away? The serious buyers always came, rain or shine, and that appears to be true for shows operating during the pandemic.
Shows cancelled at the last minute, or inappropriate actions by show producers more interested in profits than the success of their customers will be damaged by their response to the pandemic. But my expectation is that consumer boat shows will return as important as ever. Not all of them, certainly, but those that have earned the trust of the industry and produce results for the industry will endure.
But, for twelve months at least, there are almost no boat shows. Fortunately, this comes at a time when consumer demand for boats is the strongest in forty years! Reports for my Global Marine Business Advisors (GMBA) (www.gmba.blue) colleagues around the world indicate that boat sales are very strong, dealers are running low or out of inventory, and manufacturers cannot keep up with demand for new boats. Order backlogs stretching through mid-2021 are common among manufacturers. People throughout the world are turning to the outdoors and recreational boating for relief from Zoom calls, being encouraged to stay at home and physically distance, and relief from many other activities, from youth sports to dining out, that have been all but eliminated.
In response, some large manufacturers and dealer organizations have turned to digital boat shows and report success in doing so. Not surprisingly, digital boat shows provide much more data on attendees (first time vs repeat buyers, interests, etc.) and their purchase journey. Dealers are so busy keeping up with demand, they have not missed shows. So, what will dealers and manufacturers do with all the money they are not spending on boat shows? Are they investing in other marketing channels, particularly digital marketing? Or are they too busy to learn new ways of marketing and will just let those dollars drop to the bottom line, making a great year even better!
Smart operators are not sitting still. Manufacturer digital boats shows are meeting with success for them and their dealers. Others are investing those boat show dollars on improving websites and learning how to effectively deploy digital marketing and social media to gain visibility for their business and their products. And, continuing to invest in their international partnerships so important to export sales.
Boat show attendance and boats sales had been in a long-term decline from the heydays of the 1980’s, but in 2020 boat sales will likely surpass sales seen just prior to the Global Financial Crisis and without boat shows! Now is the time to prepare for the post pandemic future. And yes, there will be one!
Those who use this time without boat shows to learn how to maximize other marketing channels, enhance their digital presence, understand the consumer journey and how to impact consumers’ decisions along their path to purchase will be best prepared as life and the boating industry return to normal. Expect manufacturers who are learning quickly how to do digital boat shows, to continue doing them in conjunction with face to face boat shows. Digital shows will not replace the face to face version, but digital boat shows are likely to become an important complement to live boat shows. The hybrid boat show, both live and digital, is likely to continue to evolve to reach more consumers and keep their sales teams busy during shows while providing more and more actionable data to those who do them.
Show producers will not be successful offering digital versions of shows. Manufacturers and dealers will be more successful by integrating their digital presence with their live presence as boat shows come back online. And, those who are not using this time to learn and experiment with a stronger digital strategy stand to lose ground to competitors who are.
And while manufacturers struggle to keep up with domestic demand for new product, be sure to maintain your export presence and support your international dealers even if you cannot travel to be with them. The pandemic will cause many long-term changes in behavior, from work from home to other consumer behaviors. Let us hope the new focus on connecting with the outdoors and re-awakening to spending quality time with family and friends outdoors, and on the water, persists long-term. If marine companies use the money not being spent on boat shows to get good at digital marketing, and improving customer relationships and engagement, maybe we can keep the current momentum going. We have been there before. We can be there again!
Disclaimer: Global Marine Business Advisors and its associated website www.gmba.blue are not registered legal entities. GMBA is a network of independent marine industry advisors. In all articles the opinions expressed are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of GMBA