The Darwinism of Boat Shows

Originally published on 31 August 2016 on LinkedIn.

My father owned a boat before he owned a car. My first boating trip was onboard a converted Chinese junk named The Three Coins. My clearly brave mother allowed my father to take us all out for the day onto Hong Kong Harbour. I was 10 days old. On that day, a small part of my father’s passion for the sea and everything boating passed to me.  Since then, boats have played a large part in my personal life and, more recently, my professional one.

As a result, I have had a fair amount of experience with boat shows. I have visited them as both trade and consumer. I have exhibited at them. I have worked in a company whose premises were inside a show precinct and finally, I have organised a boat show for five years.

All of these experiences have brought me to the conclusion there is a Darwinism to boat shows. So in a gladiatorial-style battle where only the fittest survive and thrive, here are my tips.

Firstly, and most importantly, boat shows live and die on their visitors. If the visitors are the right ones then the show will thrive. But what is right? Exhibitors and sponsors will verse lyrical they just want small numbers of qualified visitors (preferably with cheque books at the ready with all the details but the price completed).  A veritable utopia that doesn’t really address the needs of current owners or the industry (yes, there is an industry beyond brokers).

Boat shows play a role in industry development. They act as a funnel bringing in new blood into the market and without doing so, exhibitors and sponsors would be talking to the same people year in, year out. Which, incidentally, is something everybody agrees is not great.

So here is a nifty diagram to demonstrate the visitor pyramid!

Obviously the pointy end is important as it represents those who are actively looking to buy then and there; cheque books at the ready and all. Chances are brokers have lined them up prior or at the very least, these individuals have done a significant amount of research themselves. They are great and we love them and their cheque books.

The second group are those people who sustain the industry’s service providers through their current nautical lifestyle. Without them, the boat show will be a bunch boats on the water, a handful of ‘Hot Prospects’ and not much else. Clearly, this does not make for a great spectacle and completely ignores the requirements of boat owners and the industry professionals who work for them.  After all, one lives predominantly on bread and butter. And of course, this group could always be persuaded to a larger boat. They are great and we love them and their boat (just ask them).

The final group makes up the majority of the traffic; thus the name. Let’s be honest, a significant number of this group are at a boat show for the free stuff and to see how the other half lives. Not all of them though. They have an interest and a desire to know more about boating. They have children who remember fondly their trip to the show in the adult, more affluent times of they lives.

Without this group, the industry does not grow. It does not support the nautical clothing lines, the stand-up paddle board manufacturers or the plethora of products designed to welcome people into the boating lifestyle. They are great and we love them so get a few more giveaway pens for the stand.

But who do they all come to see? Exhibitors. To me this is the most important group as without exhibitors there is no show.

If you are exhibiting at boat show for the first time then make sure you walk the show first. By walking a show, you will come to realise how the site works and the best place for your business to exhibit. Boat shows are all about the real estate so book early to make sure you get your prized location before someone else does. Again the quickest and fittest survive.

Once you have found your spot then work your real estate. There is nothing more infuriating to an organiser, or a visitor (especially those with the cheque books), to find a stand with little to no decoration or someone staring at their phone/laptop. Look up. Smile. Greet people. Be persuasive.  Not everyone will be your customer but there is always potential.

One thing I found incredibly useful as an exhibitor (and this was later reiterated by a broker I knew) was to always ask someone whether or not they own a boat. If they don’t, well then you are one step closer to working out where they are on the cheque-book-to-free-pen scale.

If the answer is yes, then they will love to talk about their boat. Trust me, I have lived with boat owners my whole life. Asking questions will make them feel great, remember you and give you incredible information about their intentions at the boat show and their budget. Your product is great! But their boat is greater.

For those visiting a boat show in whatever capacity, please consider your footwear. This sounds trivial and obvious but it is important. Boat Shows are large events. This means considerable distances to walk – on average, I walked 20 kilometres a day at a boat show. Great for weight loss not so great for blisters. This doesn’t even factor in the number of times you will need to remove your shoes to board a boat.  And if it is between you and the person beside you for the last table at the café on Quai Etats-Uni, your shoes had better not slow you down.

Finally, obviously, everyone who ever enters the doors of a boat show is a VIP. Clearly or why else would you be there? Having said that, even VIPs have to wait at boat shows. It is not a reflection of you or your ‘VIPness’ when you have to wait to see a boat, talk to a potential client or be served a drink. It is a reflection of how many people are equally excited about the boats as you are so relax, enjoy the hubbub and strike up a conversation with the person beside you.

Most of all, I wish you all a great show!

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