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The most fun you can have with your shoes off (and on)

Years of attending shows as a seller and buyer have given this writer a unique perspective

Years of attending shows as a seller and buyer have given this writer a unique perspective

Most of us in the boating business have heard the one about the “whistling gophers” who attend boat shows. They’re the annoying window shoppers who come aboard and immediately ask, “So, how much does this baby go for?” Recite the base price, and they pucker up their lips and whistle, as in, “Wow, that’s a lot of money!” By the third day of the show, most salespeople are ready to stick a rolled up brochure in their mouths.

Read the other stories in this package: THE BIG TOP   Powerboats   Sailboats   On tap this fall

But for every amusing story that industry people have about working a boat show, there’s an equally interesting story from the boat-buyer’s point of view. I’ve attended nearly every major boat show in this country, and I’ve worked both sides of the dock — as an avid boater (a mild way of referring to my addiction) and as a marketing consultant for boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers. I’ve concluded that I have a love-hate relationship with boat shows.

I can’t wait for the fall shows to begin, but I’m sure I also won’t be able to wait until the sun finally sets on the Miami show in February. My feet will be killing me. My cell phone battery will be dead. I’ll need to get to Gold’s Gym and lose the pounds I put on thanks to boat show food and late-night dinners. My suitcase will be jammed with literature I’ll never look at again, and my American Express balance will be near its limit after paying for an overpriced, undersized hotel room on SouthBeach.

But I undoubtedly will have found a new piece of gear for Sawdust, my Thomas Point 43 that will greatly enhance my boating experience. In fact, I’ll wonder how I ever went boating without it. Better yet, I will have discovered at least one new boat that will make me wonder if I can talk my wife into selling our house or cashing in our 401K. Hey, you only live once, right? And, most importantly, I will have reconnected with old friends and clients, all of whom share my irrational affliction with boats, boats and more boats. I’m not sure if misery loves company or whether boating friends are simply one’s best friends.

Here are some observations and tips that could help you survive, if not enjoy, the long lines, overcrowded buses, heart-stopping food, dumb questions (and dumber answers), indifferent salespeople, and sticker shock of the coming boat show season.

To begin with, try to attend the first day or two of the show, avoiding the packed weekend. This is when you’re more likely to meet the company’s top brass, because they usually come in for the setup and trade day. Contacting your dealer or factory rep ahead of time sometimes will get you a free ticket and a scheduled appointment to look at a boat before the big crowds hit the docks.

At large shows like Fort Lauderdale or Miami, it’s a good idea to map out your strategy ahead of time, using the official show program; otherwise you’ll be wasting time going from one far corner of the show to another. I like to plan and execute my hit list during the first couple of days, then spend the last day or so wandering and discovering things I never knew existed.

You’ll be taking off your shoes — even soft boat shoes — a couple of hundred times, so consider wearing slip-ons. Years ago at the Annapolis Boat Show, builders continued to ask everyone to remove their shoes before boarding, even during a heavy rainstorm. Soon thousands of soggy, smelly socks were tracking water inside while all these sorry-looking shoes remained outside filling with rainwater. I will never forget being greeted by Walter Schulz, builder of the salty, oceangoing Shannon sailboats, who implored me to keep my shoes on. He said something like, “This is a boat, not a museum. Keep your shoes on!” He even had a sign that said, “Please Keep Your Shoes ON!” From that moment, I knew if I ever chose to go back to sailing, I’d buy a Shannon 43. It’s a real boat you can sail with your shoes on.

At the other extreme are those fashionable Euro boat folks who make you wear their silly-looking slippers. You don’t even have to look at the boat in front of you to know what kind it is; just look at the empty shoes on the dock. You won’t find real boat shoes here; you’ll find Gucci loafers and high heels. Of course, if you have the kind of money that can buy this gold-plated masterpiece, you’ll probably just have your captain check it out. But if you want a real boat, I’d say look where the real boat shoes are, like old, well-worn Topsiders.

If you’re not sure which boats are the hottest sellers of the year, it’s easy to spot them by the long lines. Some builders hire professional “greeters” who know nothing about the boat, so it’s useless to strike up a conversation while you wait for someone to emerge. I wish exhibitors made more productive use of this time. Why not have a knowledgeable person walk the line with brochures, offering to answer questions about the boat? It’s an opportunity to talk with a captive audience and prequalify the lookers. This “preboarding” process could shorten the time of the walkthrough, because essential questions already will have been answered.

I especially like the separate staging areas that bigger companies offer. Often these are simply a small, floating dock with an awning and a couple deck chairs. You can sit down, look at a brochure and enjoy a cold drink. It’s also a good place for a salesperson to talk more privately with a customer, especially during price negotiations. Even smaller companies should consider including one of these if their budgets allow and if show management can accommodate them. I think this extra effort says something about how a company treats its customers.

In fact, you can tell a lot about a company by the way it presents itself. If you notice a lot of last-minute hand-made signs, hastily prepared brochures and unfinished or sloppy details, proceed with caution. Even more important is the caliber of people on board or manning the display booth. Allowing temporary or low-level help to try and answer questions about a $500,000 yacht or $7,500 radar isn’t the way to make a good impression.

On the flip side, I’ve seen the magic spell that industry luminaries like Mark Pearson, Buddy Davis and Bob Perry can cast on potential buyers. A couple of years ago I overheard a new owner of a Pearson True North 38 boast: “Dealing with Mark Pearson at the boat show was like buying a Mercedes and dealing with Mr. Benz.” Indeed, many leading companies have their top brass work the shows to get firsthand feedback on their products. Niche builders like Nordhavn and Nordic Tugs have grown into sizable companies, but you’ll still find founders and CEOs like Jim Leishman and Jim Cress on board, answering questions and handing out literature.

As consumers, we should consider how tough it can be answering hundreds of questions — often the same ones — day after day. So give these folks a break and don’t ask questions that you can easily find answers to in brochures or on-board display materials. And think about the relevancy of your questions before you ask.

Many years ago, on the last day of the Annapolis Sailboat Show, I saw a salesman lose it during the last hour. We were both working on the beautiful Kaufman/Ladd-designed Dickerson 50 ketch, a luxurious offshore passagemaker. A rather rude, loudmouthed woman interrupted the conversation he was having with a serious buyer to ask, “So, how many people can this boat sleep?” Without hesitation he answered, “Thirty-six,” and then proceeded to explain. “You can stack four guys on the settee, two can sleep on the galley counter, another four can share the cabin sole, three can fit vertically in the forward head.” She left in a huff. I got a couple cold beers out of the fridge and closed the hatch. The show was finally over.

At the very least, try putting yourself in the boat shoes of the other guy. A salesperson is trying to make a living selling you something very expensive that you don’t need. As a salesperson, consider that one of those whistling gophers may surprise you with a deposit check because you’ve been smart enough to realize his or her questions aren’t so dumb after all.

But above all, have fun. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few days, looking at all the new stuff, getting ideas for my boat, adding to my fleet of small craft, and dreaming what it would be like to live aboard a Fleming 55 or sail a Shannon 43 to the South Pacific … with my shoes on, of course.