Boat shows have become indispensable sales and marketing tools for the marine industry. Although many companies have become wiser and more proficient in presenting themselves and their products, it is alarming to see how many opportunities are squandered at shows by a far-too-large number of show exhibitors simply because their boat show appearance fails some simple tests.
Think about what a boat show represents. It's a gathering of products, salespeople, the media, current and past customers and new sales prospects. That creates an unusually high level of energy, excitement, crowds and, unfortunately, confusion. How you capitalize on the opportunities can spell the difference between a good sales year and a disappointing one.
What has become increasingly apparent, however - to media, trade organizations and show management - is the disparity between exhibitors who arrive fully prepared with well-conceived displays and sales orientation and those who expect that just being there will suffice. Post-show evaluations often confirm that the first group found these shows much more successful and productive than the latter did.
Last fall, Sail America and the United States Yacht Shows decided to draw attention to the quality of exhibitor efforts with a new competition at the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis. This competition was named "The Best in Show Awards," but it was really intended to help exhibitors raise the level of their performance in future shows.
A panel of judges was appointed, using people with marketing experience broader in scope than solely marine. The four were Jonathan Banks, executive director of Sail America; Todd Little, president of Mainsail Marketing; Doug Metchick, president of Penfield Marketing Group; and myself, president of Brewster Strategies. All four of us have advertising, marketing, public relations, sales and exhibition experience.
We developed a list of five criteria before touring the show for judging:
Powerboat interests would change "sailing lifestyle" to "powerboat" or "fishing," but you get the idea. You're selling lifestyle in any show that's got pleasure boats in it.
Smaller space exhibitors often complain about contests rating exhibitors that "the big guys always win. They spend more on space, have huge budgets we can't compete with, can use empty space for impact, etc., etc." So we decided to show that smaller exhibits can be just as effective as big ones. Perhaps spoiling the suspense, I can tell you here that the overall winner was not one of the bigger exhibitors.
We rated four categories of exhibit: booths up to 200 square feet, booths larger than 200 square feet, boat displays of four or fewer boats and boat displays of five or more boats.
And the winners were ...
At this point the "why" is more important than the "who." But who these companies are is important to how they showed. If you attended the Annapolis sailboat show, you might recall seeing all four because each of them was memorable.
Sebago built a nice space under a well-marked, peaked modern tent. The space was inviting: clear, airy, room to move around, sit and try on shoes - all in a 10-by-20-foot booth. A single, big sailing lifestyle picture formed the back wall behind a see-through grid holding boat shoes, implying that the shoes on display were meant for the specific audience in the show. And despite having hundreds of styles in their line, Sebago only featured key products to make each stand out better. Less was truly more.
Because all of the judges had seen the exhibit in prior shows, there was some reluctance to make Harken the winner in the 200-square-foot-plus category. But the quality of its display lets the company continue to use it year after year. Strong, consistent branding includes maintaining a "company color" and a high-tech platform for product display that reinforces Harken's advanced-technology market positioning.
Its booth was clearly a "hands-on" exhibit that also included other interactive features and touch-sensitive information pads. You were drawn from one to the next, capturing visitor time, thought and consideration, vastly expanding the value of Harken's show real estate.
Topaz USA is the U.S. importer for Topper's Topaz Sailing System, a range of small sailing dinghies. Despite its small budget, Topaz made the most of its cradled three-boat display, tiny floating platform and demo boat tied alongside, ready for test sailing.
Clear, consistent branding included rigid adherence to a black, red and white color palette extending even to a black rubber floor covering. Topaz's three models were mounted on low cradles that posed each model at a jaunty, aggressive angle, as though these small boats were jumping off waves.
The overall effect was beautifully appealing to the younger generation, for whom these boats were developed, and all four judges expressed the opinion that kids would drag their parents back to this display.
The multiboat winner was Beneteau, not for the nearly uncountable number of models it displayed but for the way it sucked show-goers into its fleet. Yes, Beneteau made a big statement, but it was the grand entrance that made it all work, using the company's two biggest and newest models angled as sides to a funnel. In addition, a Dock-&-Go demonstration, casting off lines and spinning a 50-footer under power in a space only inches larger than the boat without touching and without dockside assistance, was so compelling that the crowd applauded every time. Finally, it's worth noting that Beneteau "pre-sold" its fall show appearances with an alluring marketing effort in the media.
So who was the overall winner? Topaz, the small, low-budget startup - proof that you don't need tons of money if you have a clear picture of your objectives, your strengths and your appeal - and you stay focused on them.
Wandering around as judges, the four of us got to look at a show full of exhibits and exhibitors. Many of the points given above seem to focus more on the physical presence, but we became acutely aware of the importance of the exhibitors themselves - the personnel who manned the displays. The four winners and, fortunately, many others seemed to understand that people, not products, sell products at shows.
We made a list of five lessons every exhibitor should learn.
First, make sure staff and products are accessible. Nothing frustrates show-goers more than not being able to see the goods and find a salesperson who knows enough to talk about or explain them. Remove blockages and get your sales staff out where customers can shake hands, meet eyeball to eyeball and feel connected.
Directly related to this, make sure your staff is clearly identifiable. This can be by uniform or distinctive name tags (certainly not the show credential tags). If wearing company clothing, coordinate everyone to use the same color and style each day. When the booth gets crowded, how will prospects quickly see whom to talk to? We noticed and applauded a few embroidery jobs that included a second logo placed on the back of shirt collars. Makes sense, doesn't it?
Clean and small is better than big and messy. This is as true with giant displays as it is when booths are tiny 10-by-10s.
Be selective. Show what's absolutely the best, and don't detract by mixing it up with lesser goods - or hide the best among inferior choices. That goes for signage, too: Keep the wording short and to your point.
Be enthusiastic. Shows are brief moments tightly packed with opportunities. Bring energy for full show hours and days. There's plenty of time after the show to kvetch, unfreeze the smile and let down. Most show-goers want an excuse to buy; a lack of enthusiasm in you sends them to your competitors, who in this case are likely to be nearby.
Less subtle is the message you give if you are on your cell phone, BlackBerry or iPod, or staring into a computer screen. All these say that you have something more interesting to do than talking to and selling to the person who just stepped into your booth. Want to check your messages? Do it on your break.
Please note that almost all of the points our group of judges made were "cost-neutral." They really don't add to your show expense, just to your show effectiveness. And they make your next boat show an even greater event.
After last year's Annapolis boat shows, Donald Brewster retired after 37 years heading Brewster Advertising and Brewster Strategies.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.