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January 4, 2007

Sponsors await direction as London Boat Show reaches crossroads

The Collins Stewart London International Boat Show starts tomorrow, amid persistant rumours that its holding company, trade association British Marine Federation (BMF), is likely to sell off its event assets (including the Southampton International Boat Show) to a professional organiser.

If the rumblings prove to be true, the new National Boat Shows (NBS) managing director, Andy Williams (below), may not be around for long. That would be a shame as Williams comes with an excellent pedigree from the home entertainment sector with a career spanning Walt Disney, Nintendo UK, and most recently Goldwyn Mayer Home Entertainment Group.


Andrew Williams, managing director, National Boat Show 

National Boat Shows managing director Andy Williams


The reasoning behind the rumours is that recent shows have underperformed after a hugely successful relaunch of the London show at ExCeL in 2004, where attendance topped 215,000 compared to a departure audience from Earls Court of  around 145,000. Since the move, however, attendance has fallen steeply to around 170,000 and 150,000 in subsequent years, and heads inevitably rolled last year with the departure of Paul Streeter from the NBS helm. Streeter was unfairly hung out to dry by the board of NBS, consisting of boat manufacturer members of the BMF, who themselves exerted far too much control over the marketing and positioning of the event.

Williams will have no time for consolidation or puff. The last minute sponsorship of the event by stockbroker Collins Stewart is a timely reminder that the show is first and foremost about members accessing the right audience to whom they can sell boats. Creating the ambience is important also since the environment within which the boats are set will have a bearing on the level of sales achieved.

Williams has a big decision to make. Does the event focus on new and established wealth, such as can be found among the rank and file of Goldman Sachs and the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) respectively, or does it continue to play a broader, more populist role of introducing new C1 and C2 audiences to the world of boating, which may or may not convert into the next generation of boat-buyers in the medium to long term? The latter approach has prevailed since 1998 under the initiative of Streeter`s predecessor, Colin Campbell, and included The Big Blue and more recently the Channel 4 Splashcamp campaigns.

A change in tack towards consolidating a ‘value’ audience would appear to be a sensible about turn since wealth abounds in the City, and ExCeL lends itself far more to the commercial environment of trading boats for cash, with those who have it, rather than having to be dressed up to the eyeballs for the latest marine pantomime for those that do, or may, not.

However, NBS marketing director James Gower (surprisingly overlooked by the NBS board for the top job) appears to be far closer to the tiller. And this year’s event measurement of ‘Value, Ambience and Audience’ should result in his tracking of the proportion of total UK boat and related sales resulting from his shows. Gower has also signalled his intent by ditching the National Indoor Windsurfing Championships, the £1 million ongoing experiential disaster designed to pull in the aspirational market and provide family fun, and has refocused the content to within the exhibition halls.

However, if Gower is to secure additional, or even continued, sponsorship from companies seeking access to a high net-worth consumer, Williams has a duty to declare the event’s ambitions as such, giving sponsors and his own team the fighting chance of securing these lucrative contracts and the additional value audiences that they in turn can bring in time for 2008. If he does so, then any shortfall in gate receipts will be comfortably redeemed, additional high-net worth audiences secured for the benefit of his vendor members, and money saved on the dressing-up box.

Andy Williams deserves a fair and unrestricted attempt to position the industry`s bellweather for 2008 – the next 10 days will tell.

The Collins Stewart London International Boat Show runs from 5th-14th January at ExCeL. See www.collinsstewartlondonboatshow.com for more details.

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