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Boat Shows in the Age of COVID-19

COVID-19 has hit the United States harder than any other nation, leaving event organizers in all sectors struggling with constantly changing rules that vary by municipality, state and region.

According to Jennifer Thompson, senior vice president of sport and boat shows for the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), “We’ve planned through hurricanes, cities being taken over by football; now we’ve added on a pandemic. That’s a new one — one for the record books. Every show is being treated very individually right now just based on what’s happening with COVID-19.”

While some events have taken the completely-virtual route, local government officials are supportive of a potentially in-person Fort Lauderdale Boat Show happening from October 28th to November 1st. Phil Purcell, president and CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the show, notes that the area saw an economic impact of $1.3 billion in 2019.

The main concern with such large in-person events is that people in regions with outbreaks, where events might be canceled, would flock to events in areas that had spent months flattening the virus curve.

LOGISTICS

The Newport International Boat Show of Rhode Island was the first major stateside fall show to cancel. Paul O’Reilly, CEO of the Newport Restaurant Group and owner of the Newport International Boat Show, attributes too many unknowns and the attendee experience as reasons for the cancellation.

The Newport show was officially canceled after Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo revised the cap on outdoor events to 250 people. This new cap was enforced in response to spikes in COVID-19 cases in other parts of the country.

The Fred Hall Show, held at the Long Beach Convention Center in early March, was one of the last largescale events to occur before California’s ban on gatherings of 250 or more people was issued. California Governor Gavin Newsom extended the order in April.

The Newport In-Water Boat Show, held in Newport Beach, CA, was originally slated for April, ultimately being postponed indefinitely. As of July, California remained among the hardest-hit states, reporting over 11,000 COVID-19 cases every day.

The NMMA has been researching in-person events to see what’s working and what is not. “We all learn from each other right now. There’s a lot of exciting change that can come out of this, and the evolution of our shows. Shows may be different, but they’re not going away,” Thompson says.

LIVE EVENTS

Recently, NMMA has been surveying show attendees to learn their maritime-related shopping habits. While the majority of people still want to see and test products in-person before purchasing, many are not interested in live events given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19.

A June poll conducted by the International Air Transport Association showed that less than half of Americans, or roughly 45 percent, were ready to travel by air. That figure dropped from 60 percent in April, suggesting the public has grown more cautious as the pandemic drags on.

27 percent of respondents said they would not be participating in shows at all. While some attribute health and safety concerns to their decision, some said that decision was driven by unprecedented showroom.

SHOWS OF THE FUTURE

Informa, whose also hosts the recently canceled Monaco Yacht Show strives to focus on safe, hygienic, productive and high-quality event experiences in the future. Purcell says the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show has partnered with design firm EDSA to help create a safer and more hassle-free experience.

He says the measures, combined with a layout that spans 90 outdoor acres across seven sites, make the Fort Lauderdale show more conducive to distancing than most events. Nearly 50 percent of attendees will be coming from Florida, with the other half split between the rest of the US, Europe and around the world.

While fewer visitors are expected this year, the location’s proximity to the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports will help. Event organizers hope to get people in and our very easily and promote a slick experience.

Organizers plan to add buses and water taxis, as well as entry and exit points, to promote socially distant ways of getting to and from the event. Additional tenders will be available, open-air golf carts will bring attendees from the parking lot to the show, and wider docks should create more space for distancing.

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