MIASF CEO Phil Purcell on The Success of FLIBS 2020

By Jenna Mehdi

The decision to go ahead with the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show at the end of last month was regarded with some skepticism by more than a few of us in the yachting industry. After successive cancellations of major global yacht shows, it seemed impossible that FLIBS - which ordinarily takes place across seven venues and attracts over 100,000 visitors each year - would be able to go ahead with the necessary safety and distancing measures in place. But the show did indeed go on, and without a hitch. We spoke to Phil Purcell, CEO/President of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, to discuss what exactly this year’s FLIBS looked like, its significance to local industry and economy, and its potential impact on the future of yachting events.

The Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF) has owned the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show for 61 years. As the show has passed through the hands of different promoters, most recently from Active Interest Media to Informa Markets in 2017, FLIBS has grown exponentially to the sprawling international event it is today. ‘Every day was touch and go,’ Phil tells us as we ask whether choosing to go ahead with this year’s show was a difficult decision. ‘But we were determined to make it happen.’ 

In a study conducted last year, it was found that FLIBS brings in a total benefit of $1.3billion to the state of Florida with over $715 million in direct sales over the five days. ‘Most clients are entrepreneurs with an interest in sailing - at some point they pass through the show and decide to make the leap to a bigger boat. What’s typical about FLIBS of the American market is that it really demonstrates the succession of people moving up through a product.’ In the absence of the Superyacht Village and the major European shipyards who would typically occupy it, yes, Phil tells us, the show did look different this year. But wouldn’t it be strange if it didn’t?

The economic benefits to local industry of hosting the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show this year was, to put it simply, huge. The hotel business experienced their highest rates of activity in the past ten months, likewise Fort Lauderdale’s famous yellow water taxis were able to hire back some 65 workers through the end of the year. Ripple effects were felt throughout the rest of the hospitality sector; the impact of which cannot be understated after the last few months. 

‘FLIBS has reset the community to be able to do business and showed not only our industry but hopefully others too - FLIBS is the only event that will be able to take place of that size in America. And we did it safely; we wouldn’t have done it if we couldn’t do it safely.

By partnering with Informa Markets and Broward County, City of Fort Lauderdale, all parties were able to come together to ensure the necessary safety measures would be implemented. This ‘Public Private Partnership’ was bolstered by the event expertise of Informa Markets, who stage over 500 trade shows globally and over 100 in the US every year. Phil tells us that the group looked at models set by Disney World and Universal Studios, who had already re-opened in June / July this year and were admitting huge amounts of visitors on a daily basis, for their protocols and practices. 

‘We took measures like when you walked in, the docks were wider. To get into the show, we used thermal imaging like they do in Asia. There were sanitation stations everywhere, and sanitation ambassadors reminding people to put masks on,’ Phil explains. ‘We also placed markers to remind people to remain six feet apart, with public service announcements throughout the show.’

And for any businesses who had been unsure about taking the risk of exhibiting, the records show it was a gamble that more than paid off. While certainly no Top 100 superyacht contracts were signed on the docks of Bahia Mar this year, many exhibitors were able to capitalise on the opportunity FLIBS represented. 

Fishing boat builders Yellowfin and Contender both experienced their best show on record, with the former selling some 11 boats. Phil tells us how prolific dealership MarineMax was able to activate their various locations around the US to capitalise directly on the show by using FLIBS as the driver, making over $200 million in sales - some $50 million more than every other year on average. Other commercial success stories from this year’s show include yacht and superyacht builders Ocean Alexander, Fliteboard, Viking Yachts and Neptune Boat Lifts.

To what does Phil attribute the huge commercial success of these exhibitors? ‘The FBOs had the same amount of traffic as they normally do for our show,’ Phil tells us, referring to incoming flight traffic. ‘Different people just showed up.’ Predictably, there were more visitors at FLIBS this year from the Americas than ever before. ‘The midwest region really activated this year. We also had a very strong Puerto Rican presence showing up and buying product.’

Recreation makes up 2.2% of the GDP in American, with boating and fishing taking over half of that. So while this was not the year for selling off transatlantic fleets, Americans quickly snatched up the opportunity to get out on the water with their family in celebration of a long-held maritime tradition. 

And there is no shortage of awe-inspiring sights to see on the American waters. ‘Even here in Florida, we’re home to the world’s third largest barrier reef. A lot of Floridians don’t even know that.’

So the show, while incredibly commercially impactful for exhibitors, also served as an opportunity for Americans to re-discover yachting in their home waters and revive the local economy in so doing. But the work the MIASF is doing, incredibly, doesn’t stop there. 

Phil concludes with an incredible anecdote. An oceanographic hub formed five years ago by the association, dubbed the Marine Research Hub (MRH) and comprising a number of local universities is working on a groundbreaking mission. MRH member Florida Atlantic University is conducting research which looks at how and why sharks and deepwater sponges never get cancer, in the hope that this may lead to inventing a cure. ‘These are the stories our industry can tell,’ Phil says. ‘We don’t want to just use FLIBS as a vehicle to move product. Our industry has personal relationship context that could even cure cancer.’

The late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave some $8 million to Florida International - another member of the MRH -  to fund this research. ‘When most people land on the tarmac at our show - yes they are going to get engaged and look at product, but if they can get engaged in some of the solutions around the earth also - that’s huge.’

The Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and the work done by its owners is about more than just stimulating our industry. ‘Our job is to activate the incredible opportunities here,’ says Phil. ‘Not just product, but bringing in relationship capital with the Paul Allens of the world, that can move mountains.’

Whether it’s providing crucial jobs throughout the supply chain, or reviving a local Floridian’s love for the water, the impact of the show is widespread and ongoing. From relationship-building to crucial cancer research, the role of FLIBS as an engagement driver is utterly critical to our industry and beyond. And further still, the show serves as a beacon of hope for the next few months that yachting events can be conducted with the necessary measures in place to great commercial success, albeit with different demographics. We are certainly glad it went ahead.

"We don’t want to just use FLIBS as a vehicle to move product. Our industry has personal relationship context that could even cure cancer."

Phil Purcell, CEO / President of Marine Industries Association of South Florida

"We don’t want to just use FLIBS as a vehicle to move product. Our industry has personal relationship context that could even cure cancer."

Phil Purcell, CEO / President of Marine Industries Association of South Florida
By Jenna Mehdi
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