Welcome to 2013

Looking ahead at the future of boat shows.

The boat show experience 10 years from now won't be straight out of The Jetsons, but it likely will be enhanced by technology that allows you to cover more ground and better focus your efforts on the products and services of specific personal interest.

Leaving the ticket window at the 2013 Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show wearing your favorite deck shoes, hat and shades, you'll make your way to the Technology Tent. After some quick paperwork and a credit card deposit, you'll receive the latest version of a PDA. Real-time cameras set up around the show will provide a gull's-eye view of the event and help guide you to the boats that have short lines and salesmen available to answer questions. Another touch of the screen will summon real-time vendor inventories, which will allow you to quickly locate those hard-to-find size 12 EEE fishing boots. Not bad, eh?

Most boatbuilders agree that the next advancement will be the elimination of paper brochures-a blessing to builders, vendors and shoppers alike. Touch-screen kiosks will replace them, providing data ports that will allow you to download all the information you need to your PDA. Once you return the PDA to the vendor, the information you've stored will be burned onto a single disk for you to take home.

Giant television monitors promoting events and seminars, or running paid advertisements, will be placed strategically throughout the show. Test tanks and simulators will dot the landscape. The automotive and aviation industries have long used simulators to create true-to-life experiences, as well as to train and evaluate pilots and drivers, so promoters and vendors expect to see simulators used more aggressively in the marine industry. One promoter has seen simulators at his events since 1978.

"Virtual sail simulators for each model will abound, with adjustable specs for wind direction, speed, weather and sail trim, predicts Rachel Sweeney, marketing director of Beneteau USA.

Powerboaters will be able to simulate Force 7 storm conditions or sample docking maneuvers with various bowthrusters. A buyer unsure of what engines to order for his new toy will be able to assess handling characteristics without leaving the dock.

Will the Web hurt show attendance, reduce the quality of on-site customers or initiate the demise of boat shows altogether? The consensus among boating-industry executives I spoke with is no. Virtual boat shows will be available year-round, but smart buyers will still want to touch and feel the products before they write any checks.

"Changes in technology will impact the shows and offer more opportunities for consumers, said Mark Pearson of Pearson Yachts, "but there will be no substitute for the touch and feel of a show.

Chip Shea, marketing director for Luhrs Mainship, agreed. "They can shop on the Web, he said, "but they will come to the show to cut the deal.

Boat show attendance has remained healthy in recent years, and manufacturers of production yachts don't expect that to change. Doug Finney, vice president of sales and marketing for Ocean Yachts, said, "One out of 10 people is qualified to purchase, but that will not keep them from coming to the show".

Greg Bourque of Cabo Yachts concurs. "Boat shows", he said, "are as big a part of boating as the boats themselves.

There is no consensus, however, when it comes to the number of shows that will exist in 10 years. Many production-boat manufacturers expect fewer shows. Promoters with waiting lists for exhibitor space predict otherwise, though some have cut the duration of their exhibitions. Some promoters see expanding dates with vertical-market segmentation, which will relieve the burden on exhibitors who dislike spending time away from their businesses.

Duncan McIntosh, a West Coast show promoter, decreased the number of his company's events and has already seen a rise in overall attendance.

Vertical-market events such as Trawlerfest and Sail Expo continue to grow in popularity. Some builders, too, are sanctioning their own events, including rendezvous, poker runs and single-brand boat shows.

Many say the next 10 years will usher in an era of improved customer relations. Competition will be fierce, and boat shows will be an important battleground. Some companies may not survive the current economic downturn, but those that do will have to raise the bar for the quality of their yachts and their commitment to customer service.

Jim Leishman of P.A.E., builder of Nordhavn Yachts, expects the boat show experience to withstand considerable improvement. Boats for sale in 2013, he said, will be better designed and built.

"Advancements in regulatory compliance and the competitive nature of the business will make the boat show experience more like buying a new car, Leishman said. "Boats will be easier than ever to operate and navigate. As more and more fences go up, the freedom of the ocean will be the last frontier. Boating will require minimal skills and adventurous people with good common sense will look to the sea.

If current trends hold, consumers will step up in LOA. Ten years ago, the largest yachts at boat shows were 80 feet LOA. Today's superyacht category extends well beyond 200 feet. Some in the industry expect to see LOAs in excess of 300 feet.

The information age may not be the unconditional ally of the consumer. Some predict the tables will turn, and dealers will find themselves choosing buyers, rather than the other way around. Instead of assessing a customer by the watch on his wrist or the car he drives, for instance, a dealer might request an in-depth profile of the potential buyer.

"Brokers will love the 'qualifier polygraph,' where a prospect scans his palm, and his credit report, previously owned boats and sailing history will be instantly revealed, Sweeney joked.

We'll just have to wait and see what a difference a decade makes.