Boat Show Insider: Target-Rich Environments

Boat shows offer an ocean of valuable information — and even a deal or two.

FLIBS
Fort Lauderdale International Boat ShowForest Johnson

Thirty years is a long time, but I distinctly remember how excited my dad and I used to get each winter before the New York Boat Show came wheeling into the Big Apple’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Our routine never varied. We crawled around new yachts, checked out the latest marine electronics and — of course — stopped for pizza en route home. While some boat-show conversations were more accessible than others to my 9-year-old mind, I clearly remember my dad talking to sales managers and product engineers — and enjoying boat-show-only pricing.

Boat shows come in all sizes, but most are a place where builders, equipment manufacturers and boaters can discuss the latest trends, technologies and designs. Some shows are centered on new-boat sales, while others are oriented toward aftermarket equipment and electronics (see “Choose Wisely”). Depending on the show’s size, some offer presentations by experts, which can be a smart way of keeping your knowledge fresh — especially in swift-moving streams such as marine electronics, where a new-product announcement can trigger an instantaneous sea change in buyers’ expectations.

“The biggest advantage of hitting one of the big fall [or] winter boat shows is the chance to see and compare products from all of the major manufacturers, all under the same roof,” says Jim McGowan, the Americas marketing manager at FLIR Maritime. “Most of the manufacturers schedule their new product launches around the Fort Lauderdale and Miami boat shows, so you’re always bound to see the latest and greatest innovations.”

Here, big national shows offer an advantage over smaller regional ones because more manufacturers and dealers exhibit product at the marquee events. Also, customers interested in the latest technology are advised to check out the new-boat offerings, in addition to the electronics tent.

“Boat manufacturers often offer up new models at shows, and it gives us a spectacular platform to launch our new products,” says Dave Dunn, Garmin’s senior manager of marine sales and marketing. “The customers can see the newest boats with the newest equipment, oftentimes months before they are available.”

Depending on your vessel’s vintage and the size of its production run, it’s sometimes possible to see what the latest equipment would look like on a helm that’s similar to your vessel’s. And while new products are a classic show-attendee magnet, access to the marine industry itself can be just as compelling, especially if you have technical questions.

“Most boat shows are staffed by factory representatives, and often, technical people in addition to sales people,” McGowan says. “There are great resources on-site to get in-depth answers to all of your questions and see any features that are important to you.”

Dunn agrees: “The manufacturer’s reps are there to give you the best and most accurate information.”

New builds and refits typically take months to plan and execute. This means the gear that’s available when you start talking with your marine-electronics shop might not be contemporary by the time the job is complete. Several high-end marine-electronics shops advise customers to finalize their purchase order after the boat-show season (ballpark October through early February) to ensure that they have seen and touched the latest equipment. Moreover, a good marine-electronics shop working on a new-build or refit project should be willing to send someone to a national-level show to walk the floors with the client and look at the latest innovations together.

“Attending the big boat shows is useful because you can visit the factory booth and get the product walk-through from the experts,” says Larry Schildwachter, owner of Seattle’s Emerald Harbor Marine, which handles new builds and refits of investment-class yachts. “And they’re a place where owners can save money on gear.”

Some manufacturers maintain minimum retail pricing, much like Apple or Nike, but others see shows as an opportunity to woo new customers with incentives.

“Raymarine has no firm policy about show discounts, but over the last few years, we’ve never shown up at a major show without some kind of special offer,” McGowan says. “Be sure to ask each manufacturer what specials they’re running, and ask your dealer too.”

He adds that the marine-electronics marketplace is extremely competitive: “Often there are extra incentives offered for purchases made at the show or immediately afterward.” Indeed, some marine-electronics manufacturers that enforce an MRP have been known to let participating dealers sell their products at shows for sub-MRP rates, sans penalty. “Who doesn’t love deals?” queries Dunn, adding that Garmin always works to create excitement at shows and to help their dealers succeed.

One last tip: If you’re attending this season’s shows, arrive prepared.

“Bring measurements of your helm and a gallery of smartphone [images] of your boat’s current systems,” advises McGowan. “Many times we can tell just from photos what will fit or not, based on what you own now.”

While smartphones and tablets were still 20 years over the horizon when my dad and I faithfully walked the Javits Center together, we both go electronically equipped to shows these days. Not only are smartphones and tablets powerful tools for comparison pricing, their solid-state hard drives can store product-registration numbers for existing software and a schematic of your vessel’s equipment, both of which can be useful when making purchase decisions.

Choose Wisely

While there are many boat shows afloat, the bigger shows attract diverse exhibitors, making them the best environments for exploring the market thoroughly. Prospective buyers are wise to target one or two shows where the latest technology will be displayed, and where they can talk — one-on-one — with industry experts, get hands-on product demonstrations and land the best deals on new equipment. Given these considerations, the premier American shows for perusing power-yacht electronics are the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (November 3-7) and the Miami International Boat Show (February 16-20). Sailors should consider attending one of these shows, as well as the United States Sailboat Show (October 6-10) in Annapolis, Maryland.