Visiting a Boat Show? Make a Game Plan

Whether you plan on buying a new boat or just viewing hull after hull of gleaming fiberglass, one of the best things you can do to stave off the winter doldrums and start getting psyched for the next boating season is to visit a boat show. You’ll 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. Chances are, you’re going to a boat show for one of five reasons:

boat show prior to opening
There’s no better place than a boat show to see row after row of boats. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

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 (some dealers require removing your shoes before boarding).
  • A digital camera or cellphone.
  • A notebook and pencil (or be prepared to take notes on your phone).
  • Business cards or calling cards (or the digital equivalent) 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. Show vendors often hand out free bags, but your own easy-to-carry bag with strong straps and pockets to stow things will serve better.

Buying a Boat at a Boat Show

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 boat 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.

boat show deals
You can find deals at boat shows – lots and lots of deals. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

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 the head sits? 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?

Boat Show Shopping Tip

Also take photos of the show placards near the boats – they’ll give you pricing reference points that you can take home and study. They’ll also often include the contact information for the local dealer who is displaying the boat.

Comparing Models at a Boat Show

Boat shows give you the opportunity to check out competing boats side by side, all on the same day. Of course, at many shows you won’t be able to go for a sea trial. So when you’re comparing models, remind yourself that in order to get the full picture you may need to delay the actual purchase until a later date. Still, there’s no better opportunity to see multiple competitors all at once.

boat sea trial
Some boat shows allow for sea trials, but many don’t. However, at a landlocked show most dealers are willing to make a sale contingent on a sea trial at a later date. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

As you compare different models, remember that despite all appearances it can be difficult to compare apples to apples when it comes to pricing. Different builders include different features as standards versus cost-adding options, which can have a huge impact on the bottom line. In some cases, boat “A” may appear to be 25-percent less expensive than boat “B” until you grab your calculator. Add in the cost of options, and you may well discover that boat “A” turns out to be the more expensive one to buy.

miami boat show
These boats may look similar, but they all have different price tags. And unfortunately, comparing apples to apples usually requires a calculator and a careful inventory of the standard versus optional gear. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Researching for Buying a Boat in the Future

Many people who want to buy a boat but aren’t yet ready to pull the financial trigger will attend boat shows, too. It’s a great way to keep up with the latest models and changes in boat construction. It’s also ideal for keeping abreast of trends in everything from boat power options to accessories, and what sort of new tech is trickling down in the marine industry.

boat show shoppers
For many people, attending boat shows is as much about gathering intel as it is about buying a boat. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Researching Which Type of Boat is Ideal for You

Look around at the crowds at a boat show, and you’ll notice that there are lots of families. Lots and lots of families. Taking the entire clan to a show will let everyone provide input on what they like or don’t like in different boats, and ultimately, for most people boating is a family affair. So, a boat show is a great place to get feedback and learn what everyone thinks about this style of boat or that one.

pontoon boat at boat show
You’ll often see entire families at boat shows, because they’re a great opportunity to get feedback from those people you’ll be boating with most often. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Remember that choosing the ideal type of boat for you and your family is no easy call, and it’s a good idea to do plenty of soul-searching before signing on any dotted lines. Before you head to the show be sure to check out our Research pages thoroughly. Articles like Top 10 Powerboat Classes and Boat Hull Types and Designs can deliver a lot of insight into what sort of boat you and your family will be happiest with.

Many people go to boat shows to look at the accessories and services being displayed as much as to look at the boats themselves. Most shows are lined with booth after booth and you’ll see marine electronics, fishing gear, dock accessories, nautical clothing, and plenty of other items of interest to mariners. Much of the time you’ll also find special boat show deals and discounts, and the shows can be an excellent place to buy everything from fenders to fishfinders.

fishing seminar at boat show
Many boat shows will offer seminars, often for free, on a wide range of boating and fishing topics. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Many boat shows also offer seminars on topics ranging from safe boat handling to fishing techniques. These are often free to attend (though advanced seminars at some shows require paid entry), and are provided by the shows to attract more attendees. While going to these doesn’t exactly count as “shopping,” it can be a good way to expand your knowledgebase. So if you’re heading for a show it’s a good idea to check the website ahead of time, and see if any seminars of interest are being offered.

With a combination of digital photos, specific thoughts penciled into your notebook, and a wealth of new knowledge, you’ll come away from a boat show better equipped to make a decision to buy — or to keep on looking. Either way, when you go to a boat show one thing is for sure: you’ll have fun.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in September 2016, and this article was last updated in October of 2022.