This is a matter I’ve been thinking a lot about during the year. When my favorite-boat-show-of-the-year was cancelled and turned into a Virtual Boat Show by a large international event company, I had a small hope that there’d be something new and groundbreaking out of the box. Instead… an experience that might as well have been from 1996.

But this isn’t too much of a surprise: one of the biggest names in the boating industry started doing “virtual boat shows” a few years ago, and they, too, felt like a horrific joke to me.

Disclaimer: if you are hoping for an easy, no-cost solution that requires no effort, please exit out of this article. Every single business has the opportunity to grow revenue and increase profits, sometimes it’s low-hanging-fruit, other times it’s very fine polishing, and most often somewhere in between the two - regardless, it requires effort.

The issue at hand is porting. We can’t expect to snap some photos of an in-person experience, slap them on a website and call it a virtual event. Nor is our small industry ready to pioneer virtual or augmented realities (further, our audience is even less ready for it). We shouldn’t be attempting to port “some customers looking at some boats” to a webpage, we should be adapting and creating a native environment online for these experiences.

Detour: for an unexpectedly great article on the subject of porting vs. adapting online experiences, I recommend Jason Fried’s Remote work is a platform.

Imagine showing your kids photos and a pre-recorded video of Disney World after cancelling your trip to the park. Pretty disappointing, right? Hold that thought, we’ll get back to it in a second.

I’ve brainstormed the matter with some of the wisest and most creative folks I know, and we’ve largely agreed that there’s something we’re missing - and perhaps we’re just not asking the right question.

However, something dawned upon me this morning. After moving aside some furniture boxes to make room for my wife to work out in an unused room in our home, I hopped in the shower and thought about how much I miss the gym. While I usually consider myself pretty good with habits, working out at home has been challenging and I truly miss going into a building with no distractions for the next two hours to focus on my own health (and nothing else). While equipment is one thing, the experience is even more important. And experience is what makes in-person events special.

The experience of a work out is which is why I feel a Peloton might change this. But what makes a Peloton special at the core? The live interaction, the almost-personal coaching - there’s something new each time, no two classes are the same.

A few years ago, I attended the International Builder’s Show (an expo for all things light-construction related). I expected a bigger version of a home-show, instead my mind was blown and I wished I had dedicated a full week to the event. As we’ve been renovating our new home, I’ve been waiting for the show to come back to Orlando - just to spend a few days there to explore all the products and solutions I simply was unaware of.

Earlier this year, the show was announced for an Orlando return in February 2021. But, given the global pandemic, it too was cancelled - in lieu of a virtual event. A virtual event I have no interest in attending. What am I going to do? Log in during a specific time period, most likely during work, and click around some web pages? Nope (I have the same issue with virtual conventions/training events).

And this is why the existing virtual shows fail: they’ve created a webpage with some links to products with some photos (maybe even some video), and there’s no live or personal interaction. There’s no element of discovery for the audience. Often, “virtual boat shows” provide a lesser experience than existing manufacturer or dealer websites.

Now imagine that Disney example again, but this time you had Mickey Mouse greeting your kids personally on a live video (over a Facetime call, for example), and walking them through the park, taking them virtually on the rides they select, etc. The kids see something interesting in the corner, “hey, what’s over there?”. It’s not the same by any means, but it’s a lot closer.

And somehow, some signals in my brain jumped over… could this be a small key to fixing virtual events in our industry?

Let’s take a look at our current situation:

  • Getting stock inventory is very difficult, and this means we’re selling out of brochures. Some customers will want to wait for a similar boat to arrive before they’ll commit to an order.
  • A quantity of customers still want to shop in person, others want a contactless experience - yet something more than a brochure or a prerecorded video
  • We can’t adopt the European auto dealership example of keeping one of each model in inventory all-year-round for orders (manufacturers, for one, aren’t setup for this)

One idea

Create an event at your dealership, advertised locally as a pre-order event (not just a boat show). By defining a time period, say 2 weeks or a month, we can pre-plan to reserve one of each of your most popular models (and borrowing boats when necessary).

  • Customers will understand that this is time-sensitive (in the same fashion that a boat show is only around for a few days or weeks), and if they are in the market they should partake in the event.
  • If possible, setup a special area in your dealership yard (think Christmas tree shopping - make it feel like a real event).
  • For customers preferring a contactless experience: have product experts ready to take live video calls and educate customers on products, one-on-one. Answer their questions, provide accurate order timelines. Success might be found in utilizing a non-sales person for this role (marketing team member, for example), who has the product knowledge and can deliver a qualified customer to the sales team when the timing is right.
  • And for those customers who want to come see the boats in person: facilitate them as you would a real boat show.
  • Use the opportunity to have your sales or marketing team record personal walk throughs of the inventory (it’s gonna take much less time and effort to do many at once, than one here and one there in the future).
  • Generate some awareness for the event by live-streaming personal walk throughs of different boats (suggestion: a new boat each day) on your social media channels (more on advertising in a bit).

Now some dealers will say that the manufacturers should actually do this (sidenote: as is often the case when something requires a little bit of effort and some funds) because a single dealership will receive much lower volume than a traditional boat show. That’s true, and this concept could easily be implemented for boat manufacturers, but on the dealer level this could be addressed by increasing the duration of the event. Outside of initial preparations, it shouldn’t consume much time from a normal day - but would allow you to possibly convert more interested customers into retail sold orders (even the customers who weren’t coming in for the event).

How this differs from just offering video calls during a normal week: it’s designed specifically to address our current challenges.

On the manufacturer level, with a solid lead base of interested customers, the acquisition cost (on ordered boats) could be substantially less, with the total number of new orders much higher (focusing just on popular models, a manufacturer most often will have less models to present than a dealership offering multiple brands). What’s also nice on the manufacturer side is you have the real-world product experts sharing their knowledge with customers (one of my favorite aspects of working with manufacturer representatives when purchasing cars is that I feel I’m being educated, not sold).

Advertising wise: there’s no need to play games or mislead anyone that it’s the boat show they are expecting. We can be transparent about the situation in the industry, perhaps with a personal message. Our consumers are more educated than they’ve ever been, they know the situation. All we really need to do is inform them of the event and how it can benefit them (reserve a production slot in line to get your boat quicker than waiting for stock, see and possibly sea-trial the boat in person during this event).

Running further with this: existing show organizers might have an opportunity to offer technology and marketing platforms, promoting and organizing simultaneous events at local dealerships - creating a mesh network of a boat show (technology allowing for an easy customer experience of jumping from one brand to another). However, I believe once the current pandemic concerns ease we’ll return to a largely traditional form of boat shows, and I believe that will come sooner than the development and adoption of such a platform… with a potential exception: if dealers found greater success in orangaizing their own events.

It’s not the perfect, but it’s a step - and I believe perfection is the result of iteration. As I continue work on the concept and platform for the next generation boat dealer website (one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever tackled), a lot of thought is put into the customer experience beyond the walls of pre-generated content (photos and videos).

Final thoughts: while we’ve seen technology disrupt many aspects of shopping (think about how much this year’s challenges have fueled companies like Instacart), countless industries share a similar struggle to ours. How do you try on clothes without taking them into a fitting room? How do you browse grocery aisles without going to the store? While consumers are getting more comfortable with larger purchases online each year, we have a large gap to fill and plenty of thought, trial, and error will need to be put into executing that properly.