As the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping around the globe earlier this year, many of us in the events business feared that we’d have to postpone our conferences and shows until the autumn of 2020. Knowing what we know now, that view seems almost naïve as one by one, the annual shows that for many of us form a big part of our working lives have been cancelled or “postponed”, leaving event planners staring at gaping holes in their 2020 calendars.

The Monaco Yacht Show, METS, the Cannes Yachting Festival, EBACE and NBAA have all been cancelled this year. Despite the speculation and, at times, controversy that has surrounded these decisions, the prevailing sense is that the organizers had no real choice but to pull the plug. At the time of writing, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (FLIBS) is due to go ahead on 28th October to 1st November, with the show`s website stating that “Social distancing of 6 ft will be maintained at all times” with exhibitors required to practice “increased sanitation throughout the day with deep cleaning and disinfection”.

The wisdom of going ahead with a large-scale event in the midst of a pandemic is one thing. However, with the virtual world stepping up to fill the voids created by COVID-19, many are questioning the future for the plethora of yacht shows, air shows, conferences and other events that make demands on our marketing budgets and travel schedules year-round.

Will the pandemic do irreparable damage to industry shows and events, forcing some to scale back or even vanish completely? Or does the impact of COVID serve to highlight underlying problems that may already existed, with even the most popular shows?

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of opinion that views boat shows as too expensive, especially when compared to the returns they may offer visitors and exhibitors. The mounting prices for visitors to the Monaco Yacht Show has led to a kind of black market for tickets, with potential visitors seeking free tickets from exhibitors. Many make the decision to stay outside the show perimeter and arrange meetings in the many pleasant cafes and bars that surround the port.

Show organisers may reasonably point out that decisions to raise the ticket prices are in response to exhibitor pressure to make events more exclusive. The desire to ensure that visitor profiles match exhibitor requirements is keenly felt. “One of the key issues is that the objectives of most boat show organisers are not aligned with the objectives of their exhibitors.” explains Patrick Coote, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Northrop & Johnson Europe “Whilst exhibitors want to create the optimum buying environment and buyer experience in order to facilitate yacht purchases, show organisers are often focused on selling more space to more companies and more tickets to more visitors. There is a complete disconnect.”

For brokers at least, it is all about creating the optimum environment for the prospective Owner. What should an ideal day at a show look like for the billionaire who interested in buying a yacht? As one leading broker told me, a day that starts with finding nowhere to park and continues with being jostled by crowds at a packed show, is not conducive to making a large, luxury purchase.

The mismatch between the needs of exhibitors and show organizers has prompted some to create their own solutions. In 2018, the Leading Yacht Brokers Association (LYBRA), launched The Superyacht Show at Port Vell, Barcelona as an “alternative to the traditional trade show”. This event focuses on showcasing a high-end fleet of yachts available for sale and charter with just a smattering of hand-picked luxury lifestyle brands such Boeing Business Jets, Credit Suisse, Pommery Champagne, Triton Submarines, Bulgari Jewellery, Mandarin Oriental and Aston Martin.

The desire for exclusivity, however, is not the only driver in determining the transformation of events and shows. Along with moves to launch smaller, more segmented events with higher barriers to entry, there is also a bigger factor at work.

In industries that rely heavily on personal contact and networking to develop business, the internet has nonetheless filled some of the void created by the cancellation of superyacht and business jet events. The pandemic era has seen many industry conferences cross over to virtual format, not to mention the slew of webinars organised by trade journals cropping up with impressive alacrity, barely days it seemed after lockdowns were announced.

As technology platforms like Zoom have entered the popular lexicon, they have enabled event organizers to provide attendees with an experience that looks very similar to a live conference – at least on paper. Panel discussions, audience questions, recorded and live presentations, break-out rooms, polling, sponsorships and even virtual exhibitions can all be done convincingly online.

In the straitened times that many of us now face, the cost saving made in eliminating travel and accommodation costs represents a big plus for online events. Even so, when the pandemic is behind us at some point in the future, will the accelerating growth of the internet replace the need for travelling to international events?

“The COVID-19 pandemic has stress tested every area of life as we knew it, and, where industry shows in particular are concerned, questions have been raised about when and how we return to business as usual, or whether there is any future for them at all,” says Dominic Bulfin, Associate Director at superyacht and luxury asset law firm Bargate Murray. “In my view there is no doubt that industry shows provide a valuable space for commerce, marketing, and building relationships with colleagues and contacts from all over the globe.”

Nevertheless, as specialist VR technology enables multi-million dollar yachts to be sold “sight unseen” to buyers whose only viewing of their purchase is via a virtual showing, might future Owners decide increasingly to buy from the comfort of their homes? What’s more, with companies who have hitherto invested heavily in industry events now reporting an increasing spend on digital marketing, might show organisers start feeling the pinch, as marketing budgets are diverted elsewhere?

For many years, it seemed that yacht shows, despite the impact of the internet on other industries, continued to flourish in this luxury sector where face-to-face networking is seen to be of paramount importance. It seems unlikely that this way of doing business will change completely, at least in the immediate future. What does seem clear, however, is that the number and type of shows appearing every year must and will change.

“This is certainly not the end of industry shows, but an opportunity to reassess what is important,”
sums up Dominic Bulfin. “How they should be organised, and how many we really need in the calendar for the model to remain viable.”