by Oliver Bertin
For most NYC members, the boat show is a vast bazaar of polished boats and shiny bits of metal, a grand occasion to meet old friends, to gossip about the coming season and to dream about the next boat and the next cruise.
For insiders, the show is very different. Oh sure, it’s a time to meet old friends, to catch up on gossip, to see the latest products and to make a little money. But it is also a ton of work after weeks of preparation, a huge gamble and a long, stressful, grueling test of endurance. Participants look forward to the show every year, of course they do. They enjoy meeting old friends as much as anybody else. But they see the show as an annual rite of passage that must be endured and then quickly forgotten as they gear up for the spring sales season
Behind the Scenes at the Boat Show
Trade shows are very different places behind the scenes, with a fascinating dynamic and a lot of hidden activity that the general public never sees.
I’ve done the boat show three times as a part-time salesman at the Genco booth, and it has always been fascinating. As they say: “Everybody should do retail once. You learn a lot about human nature, more than you really want to know.” After a while, you begin to recognize the types.
There are the indecisive shoppers, as pictured by an Albacore sailor who came by every 15 minutes – literally – for an entire day, trying to decide whether to buy a yellow lifejacket or a black one. She just could not make up her mind until a fellow salesman – a Scot with a gift of blarney – told her in all seriousness: “You know. You look far better in black.” “Really?” she said and bought the black jacket on the spot.
And then we have teenage girls. I simply do not understand why, but they LOVE bright pink lifejackets. A young girl will wander by the booth, trailing her parents, looking thoroughly bored, with a disagreeable ‘I wanna-go-home look’ on her face. Then, she’ll spy the bright pink lifejacket from 30 feet away, suddenly wake up, run over and grab it. “Look Dad. It’s pink. Can I have it?”
I don’t know what it is, but it works for any woman aged from 13 to 30. Who knows why? Is it cultural? Is it genetic? But it definitely does not extend to boys. Boys don’t even see pink lifejackets; they are completely oblivious; their eyes glaze over, as they do at just about anything unless it is shiny, goes fast and makes a lot of noise.
Then, we have the comparison shoppers. They appear at the booth with a little notebook with a list of target items. They’ll jot down a dozen prices and then head off to the next booth and do the same. Then, they’ll come back two hours later, with a spreadsheet full of numbers and try to wangle a better price, usually a tax-free discount.
Sorry, there are too many HST inspectors running around this show. Nothing is tax-free.
Then they’ll say: “The lifejackets are 30-per-cent cheaper at the booth across the aisle.” Nope. The Mustang rep has just been by. He is keeping a very, very close eye on lifejacket prices and he’s asking everybody to move prices up and down together. I doubt there’s a nickel difference in the whole show for comparable jackets.
Maybe I’m not supposed to say it, but each yacht club culture is different. You learn the types very, very quickly. Some you avoid and some you welcome.
The members of the club with blue blazers and narrow ties – I’m not saying which club that is – know far more about boats than I ever will. You can’t pull anything over their eyes. They are also very proper, exceedingly polite and the soul of honesty. If I give them a nickel too much change, they will always return it.
The members of a nearby club always want a deal. They’ll take an hour of your time and then tell you the product is cheaper at Costco. And if you give them too much change, they’ll pocket it. Believe me, we notice.
Members of a third club are frugal but pleasant. I like them. The men tend to have beards and sandals and drink too much, and the women have tight blouses and pink cardigans, but they are fun to be with. Come over any time we aren’t busy.
The salespeople also come in types, some good and some bad. One store owner has been known to evict people from his booth if he doesn’t like them. Really. He’s famous for it. Another store owner is very, very serious, to the point of: “Let me go. Please. I really don’t care about deck cleaners.”
One booth manager hands out spiked drinks to his staff near closing time. I would too, if I had to sell electronics all day. Another has never, ever been known to make a sale. But he’s a pleasant guy who loves to chat.
Some booth managers have very short tempers by the end of the day, or the beginning of the day, depending. One well-known shop-keeper yelled at a customer: “If you complain any more about prices, I’ll double them!” The customer was so shocked he actually paid full price!
And blarney runs in huge measure. I asked one magazine publisher how his mag was doing. “It’s great. It’s wonderful! Never been better!” So I asked, in all innocence: “Are you paying freelancers yet?” A look of horror crossed his face: “Oh! We’re not doing quite that well yet, but soon.” Yeah, right!
For many, the boat show is a long exhausting ride. Two trans-Atlantic sailors, Diane Reid and Derek Hatfield, were there all day, every day, answering the same questions time after time, looking thoroughly exhausted. They have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each to finance their trips – that means selling an awful lot of T-shirts. I don’t know how they do it. It must be a huge relief to cast off their boats and head across the Atlantic in peace and quiet with nobody around to pester you.
The Best Time of Day…
The best time of day, I’ve always thought, is before the opening. There’s a certain serenity to the boat show before the doors open, a feeling of huge anticipation a long way off, like the buzz at a symphony concert as the strings warm up.
The booths are wrapped in shrouds eight feet high, with shiny objects peeking through. The signs are in shadow, waiting for the spotlights to shine. Cleaners are moving about, making one last attempt to clean the carpets. The occasional salesman is wandering to his booth, holding a warm coffee in one hand and a bagel in the other.
The activity level slowly rises as the show wakes up. Early risers take down the curtains around each booth, slowly at first and then faster. One exhibitor turns up a loud stereo, and neighboring exhibitors complain. Salespeople rush in with boxes full of last-minute merchandise and quickly reorganize their displays to make room.
The Yamaha booth has its morning pep talk with cheering, clapping and music, as a motivational speaker “builds the enthusiasm”. The young kids in their blue shirts play close attention as the older guys sneak around the back and grab an extra coffee.
You can tell the pros at the show. They have done it all before, many, many times. They do the job, no fuss, no muss, no energy wasted. Their booths are bright, clean and sparkly and they are always ready for the next customer, primed, sharp-eyed and standing erect.
The end of the day is completely different from the opening. Fifteen minutes before closing the sales people start to glance at their watches, counting the minutes that are left. At 10 minutes to closing, they surreptitiously count the till and tidy the shelves. With five minutes to go, there is a sudden rush for the curtains that hide the merchandise.
Within 10 minutes, everything is battened down for the night, the displays are neat and people are donning their winter coats and tuques. Five minutes later, the place is dead. There is nobody in sight, not a voice to be heard. Everybody has cleared out, so fast you didn’t see them go.