Marine News from the Great Lakes

Boat Show Season Re-Imagined

Published: Thursday, January 14, 2021
By: Jordan Balbresky

This time of year, while our boats are shrink-wrapped and the lakes are frozen over, most of us boat lovers schedule at least a little time to get to a boat show. Whether that means traveling to Miami or finding one of the shows closer to home, we rely on these annual events to find our next new boat or product that will add to our overall boating experience. With the COVID pandemic, all of that has changed. Boat shows around the world in 2020 through at least the first half of 2021 have been canceled. This has not only been hard on the show organizations themselves, but on boat builders and equipment manufacturers, as well as consumers.

Typically, the “boat show season” begins with the Newport International Boat Show (NIBS) in September. One of the first events for boat builders to debut new models in North America and one that has an appeal to sailors and powerboaters alike, NIBS was one of the first casualties of the pandemic.

“NIBS was canceled two months before its September opening,” said Nancy Piffard, Show Director, Newport Exhibition Group. “This certainly impacted our company’s bottom line. There is also the trickle-down effect in that all of the service contractors hired to build the site, from tent companies to electricians, are financially impacted. We had various staff furloughed, and our marketing is cut short, not to mention the effect on regional hotels, restaurants, the City of Newport, and the State of Rhode Island.”

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) is the nation’s leading trade association representing boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturers. Collectively, NMMA members manufacture an estimated 80 percent of marine products used in North America. The organization also produces boat and sport shows in key North American markets, like the Chicago, Minneapolis, and Miami boat shows.

“This level of disruption has never happened before, and both the recreational boating industry and boat show attendees are naturally wondering, ‘What comes next?’,” said Jennifer Thomson, Senior Vice President, Boat and Sport Shows, NMMA. “One bright side of the pandemic is that Americans recognized boating as one of the safest, socially distanced atmospheres to spend time relaxing and de-stressing with loved ones. This heightened interest in boating bolstered the recreational boating economy, generating record summer sales. And as we look ahead into 2021, we expect this heightened interest to remain.”

The International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference (IBEX) is North America’s largest technical trade event for marine industry professionals. From composites to coatings, IBEX is where boatbuilders and OEM and accessory manufacturers come together to conduct their business. Usually taking place in Tampa at the end of September through the beginning of October, the decision was made in 2020 to launch a virtual event.

“Many events have pivoted to some form of virtual event and are finding some success, but this will never take the place of a live event,” said Anne Dunbar, IBEX Show Director. “At IBEX, we learned a lot as we transitioned to a virtual event, and this knowledge will inform our plans for 2021. While we believe live events will be back and better than ever, we also are taking this opportunity to expand our online content offerings and develop new relationships with our industry partners and exhibitors. We are planning to be on-site in Tampa in September 2021, but we are also developing an engaging online presence to expand IBEX beyond its show days to a year-round resource for the industry.”

What can we expect in the immediate future for boat shows?

“In terms of budgeting and planning for 2021, we have developed two strategies,” said Piffard. “One where there are no COVID restrictions—a healthy industry and economy—and the second plan is in the case of some restrictions still in place, less discretionary spending, an economic downturn, and potentially some exhibitors and suppliers have gone out of business. No matter the circumstances, we plan to celebrate NIBS’s 50th Anniversary this year in a safe and responsible way. In addition, the beautiful Hammett’s Hotel on the show site is complete and will be a convenient place to reserve a room. Its restaurant and lounge areas are perfect for networking before, during, and after the show. In the meantime, we will continue to use our social media platforms to keep our guests and exhibitors up to date, and we are very excited to be launching a new website and a clothing line.”

“As part of a three-year strategic plan, we are taking the first steps of integrating Discover Boating with NMMA boat shows,” said Thompson. “Combining the power of these industry-owned assets enables us to amplify recreational boating’s voice, drive increased ROI to both Discover Boating and boat shows, and position the industry to grow. When boat shows return, they will come back stronger than ever and be integral in attracting and educating new boaters, driving sales, and highlighting industry advocacy efforts. This integrated approach will also allow us to have a more dynamic footing coming out of the pandemic, which will be particularly important as pre-pandemic ways of life begin to re-open and we see increased competition for people’s time and attention.”

What kind of resources are available for boaters to explore as we wait for boat shows to return? Several non-profit organizations offer online resources to boaters. Check out for helpful resources on how to enjoy the boating lifestyle and do so safely. If you are looking for a new boat, they have a boat finder tool and boat loan calculator. In addition, you can visit the Articles & Resources page to find articles on docking, tips for new boaters, starter boats for beginners, and much more. You can also join America’s Boating Club, which now offers America’s Boating Course® 3rd Edition in English and Spanish—an online boating safety course that lets students proceed at their own pace. They also provide a number shorter online seminars on topics such as AIS Electronics for Boaters; How to Use Your GPS; Planning Your Cruise; Weather for Boaters; All About Marine Radio; Rivers, Locks and Lakes; Crew at the Helm; Hurricane Preparation, and much more.

Of course, one of the best resources for those boating on the Great Lakes is Great Lakes Scuttlebutt. In addition to the magazine, the website offers a regional perspective with how-to tutorial videos, product spotlights, local news, fishing and weather reports, classifieds and destination reviews. The interactive map is an especially great feature that lets you hone in on your particular area of interest. 

Insights from these organizations are certainly shared by others throughout the industry, and despite COVID, most, if not all, endemic events have found a way to support the industry to the best of their ability during these trying times. Fortunately, boating is a passion the pandemic cannot kill, and the online resources developed over the past year are sure to bring value to boating businesses and consumers alike. No matter how you slice it, one thing is for sure… we are all looking forward to the day when we can be back together safely, walking the docks of our favorite boat show.

About Jordan Balbresky

A former public relations practitioner serving the high-tech and consumer electronics industries, Jordan Balbresky returned to the agency world following a decade of hands-on marine experience. Living in the Caribbean and working in all aspects of the marine industry—from boat building, restoration and maintenance, to charter captain and delivery crew of sailing and motor yachts—Balbresky has a first-hand understanding of the outdoor and maritime markets. Fully immersing himself in the industry, he is a licensed scuba instructor, as well as master mariner and has lived on-board a custom-built schooner while skippering charters on boats of all sizes in the US Virgin Islands. In between articles, he works as a public relations and social media professional and enjoys fly fishing every chance he can.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter Issue (Jan/Feb) 2021 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.

tags: Boat Show, COVID-19


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