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Chart a course: Boat show operator adapts to new reality

Informa Markets, which owns and stages the St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale boat shows, faces an entirely new set of challenges in the COVID-19 era.

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For much of 2020, boat shows, particularly the indoor variety, have been verboten because of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet despite the inability to showcase their wares to potential buyers in person, boat dealers saw a sales surge that has helped them weather the COVID-19 crisis better than anyone expected. 

Now the marine industry aims to dip a toe back into familiar waters, led by Informa Markets — a British firm that owns and operates many boat and yacht events around the world — deciding to stage the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in late October, followed by the 43rd annual St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show in mid-January. 

'We’re going to take advantage of the better time of year. We expect that attendance will increase because now we're also catering to the winter residents coming down after the holidays.' Chris Fleming, Informa Markets’ director of business development

“Everybody was saying, ‘Are boat shows going to become nonexistent?’” says Chris Fleming, Informa Markets’ director of business development and show director for the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show. “No. It brings everything together. It’s one-stop shopping.” 

But therein lies the problem: Boat shows also bring people together — thousands of people, in many instances. Holding these shows-events safely in the age of the coronavirus is a core challenge faced by not only boat show promoters but also scores of other industries that bring people together. 

Clearwater-based MarineMax, one of the nation’s largest boat retailers, recently went in the opposite direction. It's held virtual boat shows that allowed shoppers to personally interact with sales staff via web chat, attend webinars about boating and experience online video tours of vessels. Fleming, however, says online-only events are no substitute for the real thing. 

Courtesy. Informa Markets executive Chris Fleming is the director of the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.
Courtesy. Informa Markets executive Chris Fleming is the director of the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.

“Let’s say you’re looking at four or five different center-console fishing boats,” Fleming says. “You can’t make a decision based on pictures, and do you want to drive to five different dealers? No. You drive to one place, and here they are. You can’t sell a boat off of a model. You’ve got to be able to touch and feel it.” 

Fleming, 51, has been with Informa Markets and Show Management — the latter was acquired by Informa four years ago — for 21 years. He says the unexpected lull in shows during the summer allowed the company to develop a comprehensive health and safety protocol called AllSecure it plans to implement at the Fort Lauderdale and St. Pete shows. The break also afforded Fleming and his team the chance to accomplish a long-sought goal: changing the date of the St. Pete event. 


The 2020 edition of the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show was originally set for Dec. 3-6, but Fleming says exhibitors had long complained about the event being sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The show has been pushed back to Jan. 14-17, 2021, and Fleming says the change will be permanent. He also says the move is backed up by a timeless business lesson: Listen to your customers. 

“We have seen much greater interest, across the board,” from exhibitors, Fleming says. “I've had exhibitors that did not exhibit in the past couple of years because the dates were not beneficial.” 

Squeezing the St. Pete show, which has both powerboats and sailboats on display, between Thanksgiving and Christmas denied exhibitors the chance to sell to greater numbers of one of their primary customer segments: snowbirds.

“We’re going to take advantage of the better time of year,” Fleming says. “We expect that attendance will increase because now we're also catering to the winter residents coming down after the holidays.” 

Not only are more exhibitors returning to the fold, Fleming says, they’re bringing more boats, boating accessories and other merchandise to sell. And that means more revenue for Informa Markets, which is keeping admission prices and exhibitor fees unchanged from last year’s show. 

“We're already seeing a very, very positive response,” Fleming says. “We're trying to make this the ultimate, premier event on the entire Gulf Coast. It’s already one of the few shows in the country that does a mix of power and sail.”


With Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show being one of the largest mass gatherings of any sort in the COVID-19 era, Fleming is well aware the eyes of the world will be on the South Florida marine industry extravaganza, watching to see if an event of its size and scope can be carried out safely and not become a coronavirus “super spreader.” Some people have even questioned the wisdom of going ahead with the show, he says. 

“Of course” there has been pushback, Fleming says. “We live in a different world now. It’s not like it was. But my role hasn’t changed; it’s just been adapted. And we have to adapt to the new norms. Informa has stepped up to the plate with our AllSecure standards, companywide, not just our division.” 

Courtesy. A scene from the 2019 St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.
Courtesy. A scene from the 2019 St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.

The new norms include mandatory face masks for all show exhibitors and attendees, except when eating or drinking, and temperature checks upon arrival at the show. Hospital-grade air scrubbers and purifiers and electrostatic foggers will be used in the exhibitor tents and other enclosed spaces. There will be limits on restroom capacity and additional entry and exit points to promote traffic flow and deter large groups of people forming, and all food will be preprepared and served in sealed packages. 

“The list goes on and on,” Fleming says of the AllSecure measures, adding the proposal he submitted to the city of St. Petersburg was 47 pages long. “We’ll have hand sanitizer everywhere. We’re buying it by the truckload now.” 

Tony Leno, the City of St. Petersburg’s director of event recruitment and management, says he hasn’t yet read through Informa Markets’ entire proposal but is hopeful the boat show can go ahead. 

“The event is still subject to COVID guidelines,” Leno says. “It hasn’t been officially approved yet. If I’m able, I’m going to go to the Fort Lauderdale show so I can see what precautions they’re taking. That’s our barometer. We all hope that COVID relaxes by January, but nobody knows what’s going to happen.” 

Leno, who’s worked for the city for 34 years and has been in his current role for the past seven, says event-based companies like Informa Markets will have to decide for themselves whether it’s economically feasible to stage festivities, even if they are approved. 

“Performing arts venues can open at 50% [capacity],” he says, “but they’re not making any money so they’re not opening at all. So it will be a business decision that Chris and his team will have to make when we get to that point.” 

Courtesy. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speaks at the Sept. 4 announcement of the $2 million
Courtesy. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speaks at the Sept. 4 announcement of the $2 million "Rise to Shine" campaign.

Informa Markets isn't going it alone when it comes to drumming up interest for the show. In advance of what’s hoped to be a busy fall and winter tourism season, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, a destination marketing agency for the area, has launched a $2 million campaign called “Rise to Shine” that will help Pinellas County businesses communicate their approach to meeting travelers’ health and safety expectations during COVID-19.

“It’s more important than ever for our destination to demonstrate that you can travel responsibly, and we’re here to support the county face covering ordinance and other safety measures,” Visit St. Pete/Clearwater President and CEO Steve Hayes says in a statement announcing the campaign, which will include TV and radio ads, wrapped buses, signage at St. Pete/Clearwater International Airport and Tampa International Airport, outdoor billboards and digital and paid media.

“With tourism being Pinellas County’s No. 1 employer,” Pinellas County Commission Chairman Pat Gerard adds, via the statement, “we have to do everything we can to reinvigorate our tourism industry and local businesses during this challenging time and this campaign is a great signal of that support.”

In preparation for boat show season, Fleming says he and his team are keeping in mind another classic business axiom: Accept that you’re going to make mistakes, but learn from them. He says FLIBS won’t be perfect but that the lessons will be used to make the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show as good as it can possibly be. 

“We’ve got to do it right, straight out of the gate,” he says. “But obviously, nobody gets everything 100% right. If you make a couple of mistakes, you’re going to learn from it. We're going to take our — hopefully very few mistakes — and apply what we’ve learned toward St. Pete. We’re excited as to what we can do with the show now."



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