Rocking the boat

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When the London International Boat Show (LIBS) launched in 1954, it became an annual mainstay for the UK boating community, as well as a destination for avid international boaters and businesses. However, attendance at LIBS has been steadily declining for the last six years. Numbers surged in 2004 when the show moved from Earls Court to Excel, but have been dwindling ever since. This year, the ten-day show saw 102,655 people, less than half the total attendance of six years ago. Exhibitor numbers, on the other hand, have remained constant, with exhibitors, organising staff and press making up more than 15 per cent of total attendance this year, at 17,605. Andrew Williams, managing director of National Boat Shows (NBS), a subsidiary of the British Marine Federation (BMF) and organiser of both LIBS and the Southampton International Boat Show (SIBS), says: “You always get your core boaters. On top of that you have got your new boaters. During harder times it’s only the core that you get. We seem to have a good core level of visitors. It’s a stable amount and I think it’s going to grow as well.” Yes, 2004 may have been boosted by the novelty of a modern new venue. Yes, 6,000 people who bought tickets this year didn’t turn up, mostly because of the weather. But numbers don’t lie, and there is no sign of attendance levelling off. The show has lost an average of 18,500 attendees each year since changing venues. Where are these people going? What happens to over 100,000 people in six years? SIBS has maintained a healthy quota of visitors over the years, but it isn’t growing either.Is the population of UK boaters shrinking, or is it something else entirely? James Gower, marketing director for NBS from 2000 to 2007, thinks the apparent waning of the London show does not indicate a lack of demand. Earlier this year he announced the launch of the Liverpool International Boat Show at Liverpool’s Albert Dock, to open in April 2011. The event will not be associated with the British Marine Federation’s London and Southampton shows. According to Daniel Carter, main board director of Albert Dock owner Arrowcroft, London’s decline is not a matter of people losing interest in boating: “Despite our economic climate, the British marine leisure industry is enormous. It’s partly due to our naval heritage but also our love of sport,” he says. The business model for the Liverpool show will differ from that of its southern cousins. Casual visitors will be able to satisfy their curiousity for free, while more serious attendees may purchase VIP wristbands to allow them access to the more exclusive areas. Giving free access will allow the organisers to take advantage of the thousands of visitors the Albert Dock receives every day. This is meant to draw people who wouldn’t normally go to a boat show, thereby increasing awareness and appreciation of the UK boating scene. Gower hopes to draw two kinds of exhibitor: those after volume sales as well as those looking only to sell one or two products, such as luxury boat manufacturers. The business model is tailored to give maximum appeal to both groups. Those looking for volume sales can set up and peddle to VIPs and casual visitors alike. The luxury boat manufacturers will have access to the exclusive group of high-powered buyers. The Albert Dock houses the largest collection of listed buildings in Europe, and has the same cultural listing status as Stonehenge. The water is deep enough to allow bigger, ‘set-piece’ boats to dock, and Gower hopes to feature some of the world’s largest cruise ships along with tall ships and naval frigates. But if the market is there, why hasn’t somebody already launched a boat show up north? “When the Liverpool Boat Show was announced organisers asked us if we would endorse it,” says Williams. “We asked 40 or 50 of our members and they were unanimous in saying they didn’t want another show. Obviously they don’t believe it will deliver them anything more. “I met with Gower and told him ‘good luck, you’re on your own.’ We can’t support a show the industry doesn’t want.” Gower agrees that the market is only calling for two shows. “They only want two big shows, and those two shows are Liverpool and Southampton,” he says. “The BMF is very risk-averse. It is a trade association with not a lot of resources and it decided it was easier not to proceed than to proceed,” he adds. Carter says: “I initially approached the BMF, and it concluded that it needed to put all its efforts into producing the London and Southampton boat shows, so it went cold on the idea.” While the industry represented by the BMF may be reluctant to commit to a third big show, consumer research suggests it may be ripe for the picking. In a report of research commissioned by Liverpool City Council and Arrowcroft, Liverpool is said to “offer an excellent opportunity for a new National Boat Show event, where market research company CACI predicts it will attract approximately 103,000 paying visitors and the potential for 300,000 visitors.” The report also suggests that those attending the Liverpool show will be more likely to buy boats and spend more overall due to the lower cost of living outside London. It claims that the relative affluence and lifestyle of the predicted visitor demographic suggests their potential spend is 10 per cent higher than that of LIBS visitors, and five per cent higher than that of Southampton International Boat Show visitors. The report predicts that Liverpool sits at “a near optimal location to increase market penetration in the north of the UK without cannibalising the events in the south”. Although they may not directly compete for visitors, if exhibitors think they will make more sales at the Liverpool show, they may well opt out of LIBS. While visitors aren’t likely to stray too far from home just to attend a show, the cost of exhibiting is such that many exhibitors may have to decide between shows. The CACI market research was conducted in 2006, and Liverpool was declared European capital of culture in 2008,  leading to over 1,000 hotel rooms opening in the city centre. Liverpool John Lennon Airport has become the fastest-expanding airport in Europe, linking Liverpool directly to a number of Europe’s most popular boating centres. The show will take place in April, and feelings are mixed as to the choice of date. Some argue that people will be out boating, and not bother coming to the show. Others say sales will be down because products wouldn’t be ready in time for that year’s boating season. After half a century, the London International Boat Show is steadily losing numbers, while the market may be primed for a new northern show. Only time will tell if there is indeed room in the tub for three big ships.
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