Visiting a Boat Show? Make a Game Plan

One of the best things you can do to stave off the winter doldrums and start getting psyched for spring is to visit a big boat show. (Here’s a list of them.)  It doesn’t matter whether you’re in active buying mode or research mode – either way you get that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling, and you’ll have fun no matter what. But you’ll have more fun if you do some prep work ahead of time. Let’s work through this…

Going to a boat show without a plan is like walking into fiberglass forest. You'll just get bewildered.
Going to a boat show without a plan is like walking into fiberglass forest. You’ll just get bewildered.

Chances are, you’re going to a boat show for one of five reasons:

  • You have a specific boat locked in your sights, and you’re going to the show to score a deal.
  • You have two or three or four models in mind, and you want to compare them in one visit, with show prices available.
  • You’re not ready to buy, but you’re looking at today’s new offerings knowing that there will be used models on the market at reduced prices in a year or two, when you are ready to buy. (See Used Boat Buying: Shop the Shows, Then Be Patient.)
  • You know you want to get into boating, but you don’t really know where to start and just want to see a whole bunch of boats in one place so you can compare them. (For ways to think about these things, see What Type of Boat is Right For You? Top 10 Choices for Boaters.)
  • You’re shopping for gear or services. Every boat show has whole reefs of booths with venders selling everything from electronics to teak furniture to sunglasses to insurance and financing.

No matter which of these profiles fits you best, don’t just walk into the show without any plan at all – you’ll waste valuable time wandering aimlessly in the gelcoat jungle.

Experienced boat show denizens check out shows online beforehand, so they know which builders and gear-makers are going to be represented, and sometimes even where they’ll be located in the venue. They map out who and what they want to see, figure out a priority list and a walking path, and they come equipped with all or most of the following items:

  • Comfortable shoes that can be slipped off and on easily if you’re going aboard boats
  • A digital camera or cell-phone with a camera
  • A notebook and pencil
  • Business cards or calling cards to give to sales people or builders if you want them to keep you updated on a boat or product
  • A sturdy bag, if you’re planning to pick up brochures or take-home boat gear. Yes, show vendors always hand out free bags, but your own easy-to-carry bag, with strong straps and pockets to stow things, will serve better.
Even if you're not in active buying mode, take photos of show prices to help you do your research at home later.
Even if you’re not in active buying mode, take photos of show prices to help you do your research at home later.

There are always, always bargains to be had at boat shows. Builders, dealers, and equipment-makers invest to be at the shows because they know that virtually all the show-goers are truly interested in what they’re selling. The question is, what can be done to convert active interest into a sale? The simple answer is discounted prices, but there are other incentives, too, like free or discounted option packages, or attractive financing. Boat show deals can get done quickly because representatives from the OEMs are often there themselves, working with their dealers to make things happen for customers.

When you go into the show with your camera, take photos of the show placards near the boats – they’ll give you pricing reference points that you can take home and study.

You don’t need to take photos of boats to remember how good-looking they are – you can see that in the builders’ brochures and on their websites. Instead, take pictures of the things that are going to concern you if you actually buy the boat: Can you access the sump pump for the shower in the head compartment? Is the refrigerator big enough? Is there any ventilation in the center-console where you’re going to put a toilet? Is there a gasket on the anchor locker hatch? Can you lock the outside stowage areas? Can you get to the batteries easily? Is the fiberglass work in the bilge area smooth and easily cleaned, or has it been left rough and raw – because hardly anyone at a boat show bothers to inspect bilges…?

With a combination of digital photos and specific thoughts penciled into your notebook, you’ll come away from a boat show really equipped to make a decision to buy — or to keep on looking. Either way, you’ll have fun.

A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in September 2016.

Written by: Doug Logan

Doug Logan has been a senior editor of since 2010. He's a former editor-in-chief of Practical Sailor, managing editor and technical editor of Sailing World, webmaster for Sailing World and Cruising World, contributing editor to Powerboat Reports, and the editor of dozens of books about boats, boat gear, and the sea.