I majored in marketing in college. I thought I was great at “packaging an idea” and running with it. Now that I have owned Onboard Interiors LLC in Marblehead, Mass., for almost 20 years, I understand that marketing changes with the world, and the marine world is a unique market for sure.
Are boat shows still a mainstay?
Our business has had a booth at our regional boat show for almost 20 years. We operate under the idea that our business is a resource for boaters. This show has been a mainstay of our marketing plan, but right now, I’m not sure about the value of in-person boat shows. I have always been a big proponent of boat shows, especially at the local level. Show attendees whom we wouldn’t normally get introduced to have been able to find us at this show, and these leads have transferred into jobs year after year. It has also been an important venue for networking with the trade. Over the years we’ve developed relationships with local dealers and brokers to “style” decor packages for the showboats—all paid for by dealers.
COVID culture intrudes
And then COVID hit, and boat shows were canceled. In the spring of 2022, after two years off, our regional boat show organizers brought the show back, and I’m not convinced it was a good idea. This show regularly brags about the 55,000 people walking through the door. But in the aftermath of COVID, the entire experience felt uncomfortable given the masking, reduced footprint, expense and general unease. I came away feeling that attendees had a bad taste in their mouths and that maybe the show should have been canceled and brought back with a bang in the future.
Change is in the air
But will there be a “bang” in the future? Given all the post-COVID disruption and the effects of climate change (IBEX 2022 was cancelled due to hurricane Ian!), I’m not certain the recovery of in-person boat shows is guaranteed. Perhaps the future will look more like what’s happening to retail outfits like West Marine, which was sold to a private equity firm in 2021. Many of its small stores closed and have been replaced by fewer, larger regional flagship stores. Will this happen to boat shows? Will the regional shows be combined, or will they break up into even smaller events? Nobody knows the future, but change is in the air and our marketing strategies need to change too.
Think smaller and local
Our regional territory is New England. For years I told customers that all we needed was to measure the boat, and then we could fabricate everything in-house and ship the items to wherever our customers landed. However, post-COVID, our circle has become smaller. We are dialing down the distance we travel and are servicing a wider range of items to the customers we already have. For example, in the past, if a customer asked about exterior spaces, we mostly focused on cushions. But now, we are creating covers and enclosures too.
We also took part in the Marblehead, Mass., HarborFest festival during the summer of 2022. I have noticed these smaller, local shows are popping up in a lot of coastal towns now. It was our second year participating in this show, and I think it’s a great way to connect to the coastal community: the restaurants, the mooring services, the retail shops. It’s a diverse bunch of vendors, but I think it’s a way to network along the waterfront—new marketing. We need to remind ourselves again that it’s not the quantity of leads, it’s the quality.
Hook, line and surfing
Over the past year, we have also built a relationship with an online boating “harbor” called HarborMoor (harbormoor.com). It’s a website that brings boaters together in a forum and helps connect them to vendors. Again, I try to stand by the idea of Onboard Interiors being a marine resource. I like building relationships among customers, their boats and vendors. This online community is still in development, and we are still working out how to monetize it. My hope is that sites like this can fill the boat show voids and allow boaters to find the vendors they need and continue to build relationships.
Energize your online “legs”
I’ll admit that online marketing is a weak point for me, and it probably hinders our business growth. But living through COVID is forcing everyone to become more trusting of online commerce. Facebook and Instagram are electronic freeways for both meeting customers and taking them places they want to go. Thanks to Zoom meetings and FaceTime, even older customers are getting more comfortable online. If our customers can keep up with their boat electronics packages, they can use the online marketplace and so can we. We now offer customers both in-person and Zoom meetings to access our showroom. Making our business easier to access online will get it some “legs,” which is definitely the way to market now and in the future.
Think outside the exhibit box
For the boat shows I will continue to participate in, I’m trying to figure out a way to make setup and breakdown easier. I absolutely dread unloading all our samples, photos, etc. and then waiting for that horn to blow so we can pack up and run our dolly out of the building as fast as we can!
I’ve noticed that some creative business owners have converted RVs and trailers into mobile showrooms. For the past few years, Sunbrella® has brought a small RV to the Newport International Boat Show to display its new fabrics. In 2022, the Bitter End Yacht Club had a trailer with a dressing room inside and all of its clothing and accessories. What a creative way for businesses to display their wares.
With this in mind, we recently bought a boat from former customers that we had worked on a decade ago with the idea of using it to showcase our work and possibly even bring it to a boat show!
Yes, the marketing methods we use need to change with the times. My love of boats is the mainstay of our business marketing. While I’m not sure I read about that in my college textbooks, it will always be the heart of our message.
Krisha Plauché is the owner of Onboard Interiors LLC located in Marblehead, Mass. She is a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, has a certification from Westlawn School of Marine Technology and was a yacht designer for many years. She is a past director of the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association and is a member of ASID, the American Society of Interior Designers.