NMMA cancels New Orleans Boat Show

On Nov. 24 there was an article in The Times-Picayune, section C page 6, titled, “Boat show canceled.” It really wasn’t an article. It was a single paragraph comprised of a total of 82 words. It simply stated that The New Orleans Boat & Sport Show would not take place in 2010. The show had been scheduled for Jan. 6-10. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), which owns and produces the show, blamed the cancellation on a lack of exhibitors due to the current economic situation.

I was very saddened to hear the New Orleans Boat Show was being canceled. My father was one of the original founders of that show 39 years ago. When I joined our family business, Big M Marine, in 1972, I too became involved with the show. The first few years, the show was held in the Rivergate, and later moved to the Louisiana Superdome in 1976.

That was a thrilling year to be associated with the boat show. Our show was the first event in the dome where the general public could actually walk on the arena floor. The response was fantastic. There were long lines to get tickets, and the show aisles were packed with people.

I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the New Orleans Boat Show, but I do remember many of the stories that Dad and some of the other original founders would tell. I recall that before the show was formed, there was an out-of-town promoter who put on several shows in New Orleans. This promoter was apparently not treating all of his exhibitors equally. Some were given sweetheart deals in order to fill up the available floor space.

The local dealers at that time got together and formed the Better Boating Association. The purpose of the BBA was to promote and produce the New Orleans Boat Show. In 1970, the first show was held. This group of business competitors had successfully joined together and created an association that was dedicated to promoting boating.

After many successful, harmonious years, the boat show was sold to the NMMA, a large industry group that is active in public policy, market research and data, product quality assurance and marketing communications. Now the NMMA has canceled The New Orleans Boat Show, and is laying blame on the economy.

For the past three years, there has been a second boat show in the New Orleans area. It is called “The Boat Show,” and is owned by 12 boat dealers from this area.

Lionel Dowling, manager of The Boat Show, agreed that the economy has slowed, but he was quick to point out that it has not come to a complete stop. He also said that the New Orleans economy has been doing better than the national average because of our rebuilding from Katrina.

Dowling stated that a boat show should be viewed as a tool to sell and promote boats and boating products. The NMMA had lost sight of this goal, and instead viewed boat shows as profit generators. The cost of floor space had constantly risen over the years as well as the cost of admission.

After Katrina decimated the Dome, the New Orleans Boat show was moved to the Morial Convention Center. It didn’t take long for the show management to realize the potential for greater profits by selling more floor space.

Katrina destroyed many of our area boat dealers, and this left a hole in the bigger-building, more-floor-space, more-money plan. In order to sell more floor space, dealerships from far-away places like Florida, Alabama and Texas were brought in. Many of the boats that these dealerships offered for sale were the identical brands that local dealers sold. Louisiana has laws that create protected territories for recreational-product dealers. Manufacturers are not allowed to set up multiple dealers within a territory.

The New Orleans Boat Show seemed to find a way around those laws by claiming to be a “Regional Boat Show.” The local dealers cried foul and requested meetings with the NMMA to address their concerns about this and other issues. The result of these meetings was a no-budge attitude on the part of the NMMA. These local dealers got together and formed The Boat Show, which has been held in the Dome. They succeeded in creating a show that is reasonable in cost both to the exhibiting dealer as well as the public. They are no longer at the mercy of an out-of-town show promoter. They are now in control of their own destiny. History, indeed, has a way of repeating itself.

I also contacted the NMMA for their side of the story. Public Relations Manager Sarah Ryser responded to my e-mail. I had explained to her the accusations that I had heard about the NMMA, and asked for their response. I also noted that on their web site they listed 21 different boat shows that they own and operate. Of those 21, only one was shown as being canceled (New Orleans). If the economy is that bad, then why is it that 20 out of 21 shows are still scheduled?

This was their response: “To clarify the postponement of the New Olreans Boat & Sportshow, we did in fact cancel this year’s show because of the economic downturn. As you know, it’s currently a tough environment for your industry. Not only has the New Orleans show been affected, but we’ve had to cancel three other shows in 2009 because of the recession (the Schaumburg Boat & Sportshow, the San Diego Boat Show and the Virginia In-Water Boat Expo). Non-NMMA shows have also been impacted, with many of the smaller outdoors and boat shows shutting down altogether — Boston In-Water and Charleston to name a couple.

“With regard to New Orleans, we simply didn’t have a big enough exhibitor base to produce the show this year with reasons that include:

• Some of the exhibitors didn’t have enough product/inventory to allow them to exhibit at the show.

• Some exhibitors couldn’t afford to exhibit at the show this year.

• Some preferred later dates, and unfortunately, we’ve been given dates that aren’t advantageous for our exhibitors — this is something we’re working toward in 2011.”

As with the original press release, the NMMA is sticking to finger-pointing at the economy instead of looking deeper at the true underlying problems that exist between their dealers and themselves.

The Boat Show will be held in the Louisiana Superdome March 4-7, 2010. I asked Dowling why they chose to go back to the Dome. He reminded me that the Superdome offers on-site indoor parking. No need to hike through inclement weather to get to the show. There is better security with both NOPD and Superdome Security on duty, and the Dome is located in a better neighborhood with easy access.

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