International Boat Shows

By Sue Grant

The life blood of the yachting business or …

Pre-COVID, attending boat shows was a cornerstone of our marketing activity. Every year we would exhibit at shows around the world, showing the new yachts in the Berthon stable – Windy, Pearl, Solaris, Moody, Rustler, Advanced and Iguana. We also attended events like the Palma Super Yacht Show with yachts from our brokerage fleet. These shows provided the opportunity to meet new clients, connect with previous and current clients, meet others in the industry and also to have a look at innovation and new design, as well as diving into yachting and all that it has to offer.

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For our part we have always found them to be energising, exhausting, exciting, key for the business, and of course super expensive too, as organisers have consistently ramped the prices knowing that these would be paid by an industry for whom it was key to show their product in the high street of yacht sales. Even before COVID, there was the start of a backlash against the ever increasing cost as some exhibition companies did not move with the times and were trigger happy with their invoicing. As a result we saw shows popping up without expensive organisations with all their on costs. Examples of this are the Palma Super Yacht Show, run by the brokers for the industry, and indeed the MDL show in Southampton which is now concurrent with the traditional Southampton Boat Show. For the old format therefore, the writing was already on the wall for the old way of doing things. These new industry shows lack some of the glamour and polish of their costly rivals, but win out with diverse products on show and a relaxed feel.

In 2020, we looked forward to participating in a myriad of shows. The last of the major shows was Düsseldorf, a great showcase for our industry and the biggest indoor show in Europe. Thereafter we watched as the boat show programme fell to bits. First it was the Palma Super Yacht Show, then the local shows that we normally attended where our offices are located. The only ones to survive were in Orust and Mandelieu. The rest put up the shutters as the pandemic swept through Europe, the USA and the rest of the world.

Having lost Palma, we focused on Cannes and to a lesser extent the Southampton Boat Show at the end of the season. Surely, we would be through the storm and these would run? We planned, identified yachts and did the pre-marketing. Cannes pulled up the shutters in August as the reality of being able to open such an elaborate international show with all the restrictions in place made turning the show into reality impossible and the probability of few clients, attendees contracting the virus and an early closing, a risk that the organisers did not want to take.

Southampton remained on the agenda. A scaled down show with a lot of planning around social distancing and all the rest. The industry breathed deeply and said, yes. It was cancelled at 18.30 on the evening before the Preview Day. Like many others in our industry we had positioned yachts, built stands and committed resource. But again, like our colleagues in the industry, we dug deep, called our clients (all of whom had appointments) moved our yachts and carried on with the programme. For us, this gained us yacht sales and it was a positive, but a little more notice would have been super appreciated.

The monster that is the Düsseldorf Boat Show announced that it would run in January 2021, and then moved to April 2021, only to cancel completely thereafter. The difficulties of such a massive indoor show are obvious and as we scribble this piece we are preparing for the Palma Super Yacht Show at the beginning of June and hoping against hope that this will run. In a world of compromise, we don’t expect a huge gate and we are conscious of the reluctance of some to fly for the event, but we travel in hope.

We also see that the Southampton and Cannes Shows for 2021 are billed as running. With so much uncertainty around, we wonder about these shows and if, in fact, they will open, although of course we hope so. In a year when Her Majesty the Queen has cancelled the famous Buckingham Palace garden parties for the second year running, we wonder at the wisdom of running the traditional shows this year.

All of this disruption has caused us to do things in different ways. There have been online promotions of all sorts – seminars, virtual boat shows, virtual boat showings, video tours and all the rest. For sure what is possible with technology has been amazing. It puts you aboard the yacht and you can explore the navigation station or owners’ stateroom or engine room (and bilges) from the comfort of your favourite armchair, whilst wearing slippers!

Of course the marketing companies have seen the opportunities and have climbed on this particular bandwagon to create marketing groups and forums charging a premium for featuring new yacht product. Some of the offerings have been reassuringly expensive.

We have jumped onto the new possibilities offered by this technology, which has been helped by the fact that our clients are yacht mad and willing to engage virtually when this is the only option. However, our experience has been that a more home grown and down to earth approach to this technology has worked best. A FaceTime viewing, or a proper chat about the technicals of a yacht, have gone down much better than lots of marketing fluff.

These changes have seen many attracted by the idea that the day of the boat show is over. Now that we have this wonderful technology, no one will be bothered to get in their car, or aeroplane or train to visit a venue full of boats and phaff to check out new yacht product or indeed brokerage yachts. Henceforth, yacht purchase will be conducted from behind your screen at home without the need for the live touch and feel that makes a boat show and boat viewing so exciting.

It has also been mooted that no one will bother with these dinosaur events, holding instead, small gatherings that are carefully controlled with invited clients to look at specific product.

I am afraid that we do not agree with this view. To think that this is the new normal is to think that the lack of human and yacht contact is not desirable for those who buy yachts. This tends to ignore the fact that our sport involves enjoying yachting with friends and families, going to extraordinary places, taking calculated risks when we engage with the sea and being social. People buying yachts are adventurers, sportsmen and those who want to drink deeply of the draught of life. They are not keyboard warriors.

Why would they want to buy via the antiseptic medium of online unless there was no alternative?

A yacht is a significant financial purchase. You will have read this in many of our previous market reports, but very often it is the largest purchase that a client will make after their house or houses. It is not something to be taken lightly and it is an entirely discretionary purchase. Emotion plays a big part in the process and being able to touch and feel the thing that you are going to buy, is key. Boat shows deliver on this.

Boat shows are for the brief period during which they open, the high street for yacht sales. Sailing yachts and motor yachts of all sizes and types cluster together. They are joined by chandleries, widget suppliers of all hue, charter companies, clothing and shoe shops and much else. There is a fantastic atmosphere – it is a marine bazaar. THEY ARE FUN! Clients who have already bought their dream yacht also attend, to talk about widgets, dream about the next purchase and to catch up with yachting friends and people they know in the industry. And then, there is the social aspect of dining with friends, and/or colleagues.

However long you spend in this industry you cannot avoid being swept up in the collective boat mad enthusiasm of these events. This has been much missed in 2020.

On a commercial basis, this broad church that is the boat show, is also important for those of us who are selling yachts. We love doing private events for clients and showing our yachts on a one to one basis. However, what about those who do not know our yachts and have not considered them? Nothing matches the excitement of meeting a new client for the first time who has visited the show to see the competition and wandered past your yacht and had a look and put her on their wish list. It is the joy of the bazaar. Of course it is more than matched by the disappointment when a certain buyer ends up aboard a competitors’ yacht – but that is business, and life and to be expected.

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So all that said, has the COVID pandemic and a new way of marketing and viewing yachts done for the traditional boat show? Is the new normal of virtual boat shows, and tightly controlled single product showing the future? Will our client base move this way, dispensing with events like Cannes, Düsseldorf, FLIBS and the rest?

Whilst our FO would think this a very good idea, on the whole I think, and hope, not. These are the events that show the best (and in some cases the worst) of our industry. They are the energy and lifeblood of what we do, and they provide a wonderful environment for our clients to see yachts, buy yachts, meet old friends, and to feel part of this wonderful industry.

What I do hope is that the boat show organisers will be sensitive to the fact that COVID has been a bruising experience for everyone from client to broker to yacht builder. I hope that they will not attempt to open shows before they are 110% sure that they can keep everyone that attends safe. I also hope that they won’t seek to push up prices on the gate and on the berth to compensate for their losses over the COVID period. Their exhibitors and their public have given much too, and deserve a fair deal.

Most of all, I hope that they will take the opportunity to embrace some of that new online technology that has been used during the pandemic, and to roll it out to provide a better show experience for us all. We look forward to boat shows that are dynamic and easy to get round and to find the products that you are looking for with intelligent guides and good WiFi for the period of the show. We need safety and clarity but still to maintain that wonderful sense of fun, excitement and the bazaar.

So as we begin the gallop through 2021, hoping for a return to normality with the long summer days, and new yachting season, we also wait with baited breath to see the return of the boat shows that normally punctuate our annual calendar. We are sure that they will be back and look forward to attending more intelligently organised and better thought out shows in the future. You never know, there may even be food at these new shows that qualifies as eatable! Most of all we look forward to the fun and the bustle and to meeting you there in 2021 and beyond. Please look out for the Berthon Sales Group signs and do come and say hello and enjoy with us the atmosphere and excitement of the boat show bazaar!

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