Do boat shows sell boats?

2009 Sanctuary Cove Boat Show
Do boat shows sell boats? I guess that’s a question many boat retailers and their customers often ask themselves.

It’s certainly a question that comes up often, particularly during boat shows.

During my recent visit to the Miami International Boat Show, I came across what I felt were some valuable comments on the matter from two men well-placed to offer an opinion on the subject.

They were Ron Hein, Executive Vice President of Michigan-based Foresight Research and Mike Mraz, recognised as a trade show strategist and educator.

Both men made some highly interesting points; Hein believes there is one answer to the question and declares it is a 'resounding yes.'

Mraz comes on even stronger; 'There’s nothing like a boat show to help sell boats,' he says.

As Ron Hein points out, ever year millions of power boaters, sailors and anglers, together with their friends and families flock to boat shows around the world.

'These people are not just out for a good time,' he says, 'their fun is mixed with a serious and generous helping of shopping to find the boat that is right for them.

'They usually mean business and that means business for boat, motor and accessory manufacturers and their dealers,' he adds.

As Hein says, manufacturers and dealers invest considerable time, effort and money into producing their boat show displays, manning their exhibits, giving demonstrations, conducting seminars and the like.

'Back at company headquarters, the skeptics may well be asking, 'Do boat shows really help sell boats?' Hein says.

'I believe boat shows remain one of the best marketing investments available.

'I’ve been researching buyer behaviour for nearly 25-years and when I was brand manager for a large automobile company, I pored over data focused on the intentions of new buyers, advertising reach and frequency, product exposure and Internet traffic.

'I discovered a problem in that each communication form had different metrics.

'So, next time around we went directly to the source, new buyers who had just completed the shopping and purchase process and we used the same scale to measure the influence of each form of communication,' he explained.

The Sea Isle Marina, major destination for the in-water displays during the Miami International Boat Show. All-day shuttle buses link the marina with the other show sites. - Miami - spearhead of recovery?
Timothy McAfee


One source Hein called on was the 2010 US Boating Industry Marketing Communications Influence Study, the result of a survey of 3295 new boat buyers.

These buyers purchased their vessels over an 18-month period that ended in August, 2010.

The survey revealed some interesting numbers.

It showed that 50 percent of boat show visitors actually boarded a boat during their visit and that 60 percent of repeat buyers and 40 percent of first-time buyers made their purchase at the show.

The survey also revealed that 57 percent of all those who purchased a boat had attended at least one boat show in the 12 months leading to their acquisition of their boat.

Other survey results showed that 61 percent of boat buyers made up their mind about which boat to buy while attending a show and that an astonishing 95 percent visited the display of the brand they ultimately purchased.

Ron Hein said 14 different means of communication were measured, including three that are not necessarily marketing channels, but are influential, in prior brand experience, word of mouth recommendation and seen-on-the-water.

'Recent buyers easily recalled in great detail what they did, whom they spoke to, what websites they visited and what made a given communication channel highly influential to them,' he said.

'Here are some of those findings;

• For people who attended, boat shows had the most influence on their decision to buy a boat (57%) versus their experience at a dealership (54%) and the Internet (47%).

• Boat shows are the only marketing channel allowing prospective buyers to compare prices, brand and models side by side and to board the boats, two of the most important influences on boat buyers.

• Buyers said boat shows had the most influence during the consideration phase of the purchase process, when they often discovered brands they may not previously have known of.

• Among buyers who attended a boat show, 70 percent purchased their boat within three months of their visit.

• Nearly six on every 10 new boat buyers attended at least one boat show in the 12 months prior to their actual purchase.

• Nearly 20% of new boat buyers first met their eventual dealer at a boat show.

The independent study was funded by a group of industry organisations, led by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, Michigan Boating Industries Association, Southern California Marine Association, Boating Trades Association of Houston, Southwest Florida Marine Industry Association and Show Management, Inc.

'For those exhibitors looking for more than just a good hunch, the study offers rock solid evidence that investing in boat shows provides a powerful return on that investment,' Ron Hein added.

Comments from Mike Mraz solidly backed Ron Hein’s belief.

Mraz actually pointed out what he called ‘the true cost of not exhibiting’.

'Admittedly, exhibiting at boat shows can take a fairly big bite out of an exhibitors cash flow and the temptation to cancel the commitment and not exhibit can be strong,' he says.

'However, here are a few things to think about as you ponder your marketing budget.

'Buyers do go to boat shows and I’m living proof as I recently made a boat-buying decision as a result of meeting a representative at a boat show.

'Think about it, it’s winter, when boat shows are usually held, I’m in a centre surrounded by the toys of summer, I forget it’s cold outside and know that summer will eventually arrive.

'If you’re in the business of selling boats and related products, where else would you want to be but in the midst of hundreds of people with a passion for what you sell?

'Sure, the competition will be there, but if you had chosen to pull your marketing head into your shell, there’s no guarantee the competition will follow suit.

'If I was your competitor and found out you weren’t going to exhibit, I’d pump up the volume on my own presence.

'Face it, as far as the market is concerned, if you’re not at a boat show, you don’t exist,' Mike declared.

It's hoped that a strong SIBS will inspire buyers to get into boating.
Jeni Bone
As he explained, a manufacturer or dealer knows what it costs to attract someone into their showroom.

'Take that cost and multiply it by the number of prospects you could meet at a boat show and you’ll have a pretty goo idea of what it will cost to replace boat show connections with showroom activity,' he said.

'Of course, the next logical step is to move those boat show connections into your place of business, right?

'Well, it’s kind of hard to meet me if you’re not even there!

'Just remember, there’s nothing like a boat show,' he said.

Of course to add balance to this discussion, the survey on the importance of boat shows, was done with boaters who visited boat shows. (you'd expect they felt boat shows were important, or they would be elsewhere.)

Of the people who made boat purchases the Internet is plainly the research tool of choice prior to a Dealership or Show visit. Dealer Principal's world-wide are finding that their sales staff have to work hard to be ahead of a very well informed potential buyer group.

As one leading Dealer commented 'In the old days, boaters came in with a vague idea of what they wanted and we were able to influence their decision making to a large degree, now they will call us, with a cut and dried specification and are shopping on price. The Internet is having a very strong effect on the market place.'