By Steve Morrell
This post was printed as the editorial in the January 2019 issue about the December 2018 boat show.
In the 80s, this boat show was, as its name implies, both a power and sailboat show. At the time, Tampa Bay was a prominent center of both sailboat racing and the sailing industry. But the sailing industry felt they were being underrepresented at the show, with the ratio of power to sail at about 10 to 1. Boat show owner Show Management also always put the sailboats at the very east end of the show docks—the furthest point away from the entry—and sailors felt like they were being treated like second-class citizens.
So, in 1992, those in the local sail industry got together and created their own show, Sail Expo St. Pete. It was held at the Vinoy Docks and was a great success until the docks were destroyed by a tropical storm. The show had to move across the basin to a park, but they had to build temporary docks, which was very expensive and the show was suffering financially. Show manager Sail America knew they couldn’t continue, plus ownership of Show Management had changed, along with their attitude towards sailboats. In 2008, the sail show joined the power show and was again the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.
But in the process of joining the power show, the sail people negotiated terms that placed the sailboats at the docks closest to the entrance, and it was agreed that Sail America would run the show seminars, along with the popular Discover Sailing, which gave free sailboat rides to show visitors. The seminars—covering 40-50 topics—have always been a major part of the sailboat show and many sailors come to the show only for the seminars. But they cruise the docks and booths while there. The power show had no seminars, just a few fishing clinics. The seminars were for sailors.
The Sailboat Show Joins up with the Powerboat Show in 2008
It was in the fall of 2008 that the economy collapsed, but the show went on. For the next few years, the weak economy meant a smaller show, but it slowly came back and developed into a strong show for both sail and power.
In 2017, Informa, a London-based company that operates trade shows and conferences around the world, bought Show Management, but they did not make any changes to the 2017 St. Pete Show. But at the December 2018 show (Nov. 29-Dec. 2), the new Informa management was obvious, and from the sailing point of view, it wasn’t all good.
With the St. Pete show, I dealt with Show Management, which manages several big boat shows in Florida, every year since 2008, and, in my opinion, the company has always done a professional job. Their tents, docks and everything they have at the show is first class and in great condition and they have always acted professionally, treating me and other exhibitors I knew efficiently and in an organized manner. But in 2018, things changed.
In December 2018, for the first time in more than 20-plus years, the seminars were canceled. On top of that, Discover Sailing was also gone. Also missing was the author’s corner, which was an area outside the sail tent where authors of boating-related books sat (and they were generally all sailors), selling and promoting their books. Many of the authors also gave seminars. Show Management never charged the authors for the space, which was basically a card table and a chair. That space was empty this year. There wasn’t even a trailerable powerboat parked in the empty spot.
Another missing event was Bob Bitchin’s Cruisers’ Party (originally from the sail magazine Latitudes & Attitudes, but recently Cruising Outpost), a popular Saturday night after-show gathering where music, and free pizza and beer, was offered—for the last 21 years. It was particularly popular among sailors. Bob Bitchin decided to not even have a booth at the show this year. The two changes were probably related, as the previous year (2017), the seminars were sponsored by Bob Bitchin.
At our booth, we had visitors come by who were surprised when we told them the seminars were canceled. I printed the list of seminars in the December issue every year since 2003 and a summary in the November issue, but nothing in either month in 2018. Fellow sail exhibitors were also surprised and disappointed. On top of that sales, by almost every sail exhibitor I talked to were down, several saying they will not return next year. Garhauer, which has been to every show every year and travels the country going to all the shows, said they might not come back next year because sales were so weak.
At the docks, news was better and most of the brokers on the docks were pleased with the show and acknowledged good contacts, with some sales. That’s a good sign—for brokers.
Will Sail Booth Exhibitors Return?
What happened? It appears sailboat buyers and lookers came to the show, but sailors, who might come to buy gear and equipment for their boats, didn’t. What that means is sail booth exhibitors won’t find it’s worth it to be there. Many sail exhibitors are small companies and coming to a boat show can be a major expense. I wonder if their numbers are going to just slowly dwindle down to very few, maybe just local businesses, which don’t have travel expenses. But some local businesses I talked to were unhappy.
And one last item that makes me wonder: This is the first year in over 20 years that the managers of the show, whether through Show Management or Sail America, did not advertise the show in SOUTHWINDS. All previous years, SOUTHWINDS traded booth costs for advertising the show for two months. This year, we paid for our booth. Another sign that they weren’t interested in attracting sailors. My booth cost $1000. With tickets at $17, if our ads had attracted 60 sailors, Informa would have profited. It’s not like they didn’t have the space to give away. The main tent had many empty booths. We distribute to 500 locations in the Southeast, and our greatest concentration is in southwest Florida. I remember back in the early 2000s, when a poll was taken at the show asking visitors how they heard about the show. Results showed that the majority found out through a magazine.
Regardless, with all these sail events that have drawn sailors to the show being canceled, it almost sounds like an intentional disregard/conspiracy by the new owners of the show to not care whether it attracts sailors or not. Conspiracy? I doubt it. More likely, ignorance. Let’s hope Informa wakes up and learns. Sail exhibitors are already leaving the Miami Boat Show since it merged with power. They are a tiny portion and get lost in the power show, and the Miami show and the area are expensive. The only real sail show left for exhibitors in the South is the St. Pete show which has real potential to be great for the sailing community. Compared to Miami, St. Petersburg is very affordable for hotels and food, along with less traffic and a more small-town atmosphere. Show organizers should be finding ways to grow the sail portion, not shrink it.
Or are we back to 1992?