Reasons for the demise of the London Boat Show and why the five day format was deemed wrong

British Marine has cancelled the 2019 London Boat Show citing insufficient support, but what do exhibitors think happened and what impact will it have?

Following a year which saw the LBS reformatted from ten to five days and a tenth year of falling attendance figures, British Marine last month cancelled the 2019 show at ExCel London, claiming research showed ‘insufficient support from a large proportion of the marine industry’ for the show’s ‘current format, duration and location’. This, said BM, made the show commercially unviable.

A non-starter
It’s well-known that Earls Court was favoured as a venue but the show has been held at ExCel for 14 years with plenty of other issues contributing to its declining popularity. Reacting to the news, boatbuilders and suppliers alike said they were disappointed with the decision, although the consensus seemed to be that it was the five-day duration in particular that made the show commercially unviable. BM itself has admitted that ‘a large number of key exhibitors were not prepared to commit to exhibiting to a five day Show at ExCeL in January 2019’.

Indeed, one of the clearest outcomes of the 2018 revised format was that the shorter show somewhat polarised exhibitors. Many exhibitors believed the shorter duration made the show disproportionately more time consuming and expensive to the customer sales and contacts gained.

Phil Dollin, director at Inspiration Marine Group – the UK dealer for brands including Hanse, Dehler and Privilege, pointed out that the five-day format effectively made transportation more expensive against business gains. Inspiration took five vessels to London, but, Phil says vessels over 30ft cost around £3,000 to transport there and back. Three days either side of the show is needed to get the boats in and out of the venue and prepared for display, plus the manpower places an additional cost on business, he stressed.

Show competition
Keenly aware of dropping visitor numbers before the switch to a shorter show, boatbuilders were counting the business as well as the days. Iain Smallridge, Pearl Yachts MD said he preferred the new length but attendance was poor and it failed to attract international boat buyers. Dusseldorf will now be the main focus for the company. “There are too many boat shows now and clients are prepared to travel to the big international boat shows to see a wider range of products. I think London has missed its opportunity to be a major show,” he stated.

Similarly, Inspiration Marine Group, which came away from London with less than its average 300 new leads, will now put more effort into investing in marketing the Dusseldorf show, where it will represent the HanseGroup with around 17 vessels.

Another company in favour of seeking more business through Europe is Hartley Boats, which took 15 vessels to London, but is now looking at exhibiting at the Paris Boat Show for the first time. Stephen Blake said that the show’s length wasn’t a problem, having ‘sold on a pro rata basis the same amount’ but its cancellation means Hartley will need to make up around 7% of annual sales.

Minimum return
Bucking the trend, Highlander Boats attended London for the first time last year because they were attracted by the five-day format, but co-owner Ian Simpson said the ‘return off it was absolutely minimum’. He believes Liverpool, Bristol and Poole are becoming stronger regional contenders, adding that what his company and others with smaller craft are looking for is a show that actively supports vessels of all sizes.

This was echoed by Hyde Sails’ Andrew Woodbridge – aka Wooderz. “The decision was not surprising in many respects as the show had been seeing less and less marine trade. There seems to be more and more other, non-marine related trades in there.

“The last revamp didn’t work and it was no different to previous shows.”

Inevitable end
Andy Sims, Quick’s UK representative and AJS Technical Services MD thought the decision was almost a foregone conclusion.

“Having visited and exhibited at the London Boat Show for many years, going way back into the Earls Court days, I can only see this as an inevitable end,” he said. “It’s not so much to do with the venue as many events at Excel are packed out, it’s more to do with the change in consumer appetite.”

And he feels the industry should concentrate on one big show – SBS – build it up and move on.

“London was seen by customers and trade as a shadow of its former self, now that negative has been removed, let’s build the positives.”

And he suggests: “Why not link up with other events, pop up shows, maybe even God forbid look to the grim north (that bit past Newbury) and connect marine to the country?”

Southampton Boat Show to benefit
While London is out of the picture, Southampton does look set to reap the benefits.

This is echoed by Richard Pardoe, product and marketing manager for Aquafax.

“It’s the end of an era. It’s a shame LBS has come to a close but I feel it reflects the changes we’re all experiencing in the marine market,” he says. “It does put more emphasis on Southampton being the premier leading UK boat show.”

Sarah Wallbank of August Race agrees. She says that while many businesses reacted positively to the five-day format, a large percentage felt the adjustment was the beginning of the end of the show as we know it.

“The general consensus seems to be that more focus should be paid to Southampton which seems to improve year on year,” she says.

“Not disregarding the fact of course that we are one of the only locations in the world to hold two large national boat shows in a relatively small country, Southampton continues to be an exciting and profitable show for us and we look forward to another exceptional show this year.”

Big discounts
Jeff Webber, Wilks sales and customer support, says the decision to cancel LBS 2019 is not good for the industry and BM should have reacted to falling visitor numbers sooner.

“The writing was on the wall, the show has been heading that way for at least five or six years,” he says. “I’ve had conversations with National Boat Shows almost word for word for the last two years.

“We need the two weekends – a five-day show doesn’t work. If a ten-day show is not feasibly, how about a nine-day show?”

And he points to the large build-up window that adds to the cost for exhibitors asking ‘why are we renting the halls for extra weeks – if the bigger boat builders need it then they can pay for it. Smaller exhibitors pick up the cost for the major build-up players – we don’t get the big discounts that Princess and Sunseeker get as they have the square meterage.”

And although SBS is successful, Jeff believes indoor shows like LBS are the way forward.

“The stands at Southampton are like a glorified country fair and outside shows in the rest of Europe are not working; all the successful shows are inside.

“It’s a shame, I’ve always been a fan of LBS. Excel could work as a venue. It needs to be looked at with fresh eyes and a new team. The world has evolved and British Marine hasn’t evolved with it.”

Regional shows
Emerging shows too may well see a positive impact, although not all exhibitors are convinced of their value.

Those such as Fischer Panda, TCS Chandlery, Compass Marine and Landau said the 2018 show format worked for them and were disappointed with the show’s cancellation. However, even companies that saw great business traction and benefited from the shorter duration due to less company downtime, noted how the lack of an on-water segment and a location and format in competition with both bigger and niche up-and-coming shows, could contribute to its demise.

A viable revival?
Optimism for the show returning appears low with other exhibitors also remaining emotive about what they see as a lack of action taken by BM on feedback, though some did volunteer suggestions for a potential revived show.

Chris Fower, sales and marketing director at Fisher Panda said more boats and a water presence could be what a revived show would need to succeed. “What was ultimately missing with London is you want to see boats in the water. At the end of the day, frustratingly that was probably its demise.”

He added: “2018 was Fisher Panda’s 24th consecutive LBS and we are disappointed there won’t be a 2019 LBS. We’ve always done very well there; our results have been solid for the last five years. We were surprised with the decision as we thought the new five-day format worked.

“We may go into regional shows, we don’t think the industry can only have one main show a year.”

Rob Clay at TCS Chandlery stressed more should be made of interactive content that is built on rather than used once, while Tony Jaques, owner and MD of Performance RIBS proposed that the date should be moved to later in the year as post-Christmas retail is challenging.

Small-led revival
Paul McCarthy, BRIG MD believes that a show with only boats under 40ft could be an option – ‘the only way to revive it is to have smaller, normal boats’.

Erica Mear, partner at Compass Marine agreed, adding, there may be room for a different type of show ‘more focused on the ordinary boater, rather than luxury sales’.

However, for some such as Jonathan Cook, group marketing manager at Yacht Havens Group, a similar event to the LBS would be closely looked at.

For those who visited the show, it’s a sad end of an era, but no great surprise.

Chris Feibusch of Wescom Signal and Rescue has visited the show since he was a child and feels a personal tinge of sadness at its demise.

However, he says BM made a ‘good and brave decision’ to cancel it.

“Now the industry can put its collective efforts into Southampton and look at other opportunities and platforms for promoting itself and not continue to flog a dead horse out of some misplaced sentimentality.”

And he also looked back to happier times: “Although I fully understand the reasons for moving to Excel in the first place and respect the decisions made at the time, the truth is the show was never the same post Earl’s Court.

“Frankly, Excel and the surrounding area lacks atmosphere and character and is a pain to get to for the majority of UK based visitors.”

Article reprinted from Boating Business

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