What the FLIBS? How and why Fort Lauderdale chose to buck the ‘cancel culture’

Oct 26, 2020 by Lucy Chabot Reed

People across the global yachting industry were aghast when local government officials in Fort Lauderdale gave the owners and organizers of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show the green light to go forward, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Irresponsible,” some said. “Greedy,” said others.

But for the 61st time, whether to put the show on was never really in question.

“No. 1, it was feasible,” said Jimmie Harrison, vice chairman of the board of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the boat show. “Looking at the practicality of it, we could do it. That option was there.”

Then the 13-member board looked at “Should we do it?” The answer was yes. 

“The marine industry has fared well through this pandemic,” Harrison said. “It’s the one thing people can do. It’s funny; being an essential business, we’ve turned into an essential part of life. It’s the one way people are able to have some enjoyment and spend time with family.”

So as long as they are able — with no state or local protocols to stop them — MIASF and Informa Markets, which produces the show, continued their plan to open the five-day show on Oct. 28.

Wooden docks await assembly in mid-October. Photo by Bob Meagher

Yes, MIASF’s board members realize that most international visitors likely won’t be able to attend. And they know, too, that even domestic visitors from outside of Florida may choose not to come down. Yet they decided to do it anyway.

“In its 61-year history, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show has never been cancelled, despite various threats from events like hurricanes and economic downturns,” Phil Purcell, CEO/president of MIASF, wrote in a message to the group’s members in October. “You’ve heard me say many times that we don’t know how long we will be living with COVID-19 in our midst so we must find ways in which we can safely and securely conduct business and get people back to work to save individual livelihoods and the overall economy. 

“We have learned over the past six months that enhanced hygiene in the form of hand washing, wearing a face covering, and maintaining social distancing are the keys to stopping the spread of the virus and safeguarding the population.”

His board supports the show, despite their own personal reservations and concerns.

“The Informa group has put all the protocols in place to make the event safe and keep people as safe as possible,” said Doug West, chairman of the board of MIASF and president of Lauderdale Marine Center. “My biggest concern — and I deal with this at the yard every day — is making people follow the guidelines. It’s going to be tough to enforce. The association and Informa have done what they can do. Now it’s back to the individual participants — attendees and exhibitors — to make sure they follow all the guidelines.”

West acknowledged that the board struggled with what he called the optics of hosting a boat show in the middle of a pandemic. And that’s the facet that most detractors seem to have a problem with. 

“I do not think at this time it is a good representation of our industry,” said one respondent to our industry-wide survey in August and September. “Why should a large number of people be able to attend such a big event when children in South Florida are unable to attend school?”

“Throwing a huge event (while all other events are canceled) just for the elite seems a bit pompous and unfair to the other community members who can’t afford the risk of a massive breakout,” said another survey respondent. (See survey results and more comments here.)

The MIASF board discussed this concern, and still moved ahead.

“It’s about supporting the industry that employs a lot of people,” West said.

Should we stay or should we go?

Among exhibitors, the struggle over whether to be part of the show pulls from many planes. There is first the matter of the virus and the health of employees working the show. There is concern about inviting clients to meet with them there — a huge reason to do a boat show in the first place. There is worry that the investment in booth space will not pay off if they exhibit. And there is fear of losing their place next year if they don’t.

“At the end of the day really, as a businessman, what I look at is that the overseas people will not be there, around the country, only a fraction will be there,” said Rick Thomas, partner in the crane manufacturer Nautical Structures. “I’m already doing business locally; I don’t need a boat show to do that. And I’m concerned about my employees. It just didn’t seem to be a good business decision on so many levels. For us, it was an easy decision” not to exhibit.

MIASF knows that, too. But board members see it as their duty to support the show.

“The boat show has benefited my business,” said Harrison, who owns Frank & Jimmie’s Propeller and is a partner in Neptune Boat Lifts in Fort Lauderdale. “By supporting the boat show itself, it’s a give back. What’s helped us through, we’re here to help it through.”

MIASF member company Aere Docking Solutions, which does about 10 boat shows a year, large and small, will have a presence at the show, as it has for more than the past 15 years. It has cut back its booth space this year from 30 feet to 10 feet and will not have any employees there.

“We are putting up a static exhibit to have a presence to support the industry,” said Vicki Abernathy, COO of Aere. “We’ll have a QR code for people to scan, driving them to my website with a boat show discount.”

With no staff at the booth, she said she doesn’t expect the show to benefit her business as it has in the past. Still, Aere did not pull out.

“It’s partially to support the industry, and partially to make sure I don’t lose my seniority next year,” she said. “Basically, it’s almost a donation. The ROI is not there. … I’m very sad, but I’m not putting any employees there. I understand everyone wanting to get back to normal, I really do. But I don’t think the boat show is the way to do it. It’s very unfortunate. Nobody wanted this to happen.”

Boat Owners Warehouse, known for handing out the bright orange BOW bags and coupons at boat shows, is setting up an unmanned, partial booth display this year. Because of restrictions on handing out literature and its telltale bags, its booth will offer a QR code that attendees can scan for coupons.

“We feel we shouldn’t put the employees at risk to work in the booth at this year’s boat show,” the company said in our survey. 

‘Local’ show sweet spot for some

For some exhibitors, however, a smaller show with more local boaters just might be the right mix.

“There’s some trepidation [about doing FLIBS] obviously, but we’re sort of seeing that this can come off if we all follow the rules, wear masks, and [do] social distancing,” said Frank Ferraro, marketing director with Nautical Ventures. “We’re forecasting more of a local dealer show than an international show. For us, the local smaller-boat boater will be there. That’s our sweet spot.”

He noted that company revenue and units have both doubled year over year, and he credited COVID for much of that.

“We’re seeing, in our market segment, that people have turned to boating now for quality family time, freedom and safety,” he said. “We see this boat show as an opportunity for boaters who couldn’t buy what they wanted before because inventory is down everywhere and who might be still looking. … We don’t need a big crowd; we need the right crowd.”

Nautical Ventures has 120 employees, and they are all used to working with the standard safety protocols of masks and hand sanitizing stations. 

“It’s second nature to us now,” Ferraro said. “We’re cautious, but everyone feels safe because we’ve been safe. … The safety aspect of this whole thing is paramount for us. But I think, I hope we can have a show, be safe, help out the industry, and sell some product. We’re conservatively optimistic.”

Some companies that rely on the large yacht sector of the industry, however, are sitting this year out. In addition to the majority of builders that have created the SYBAss dock in recent years, others who will not exhibit this year include stalwart companies such as Thomas’ Nautical Structures, and Palladium Technologies, which creates integrated bridge systems.

“COVID is the reason they aren’t going this year, but the last couple years, we’ve been debating doing FLIBS,” said Karen Dudden-Blake, owner of Palladium with her husband, Mike. “We see more activity in the office than at the show during that week.”

When all the COVID dust settles, she said her company may well decide to sit out FLIBS in the future.

“COVID was the driving force why we’re not doing it this year,” Palladium’s Dudden-Blake said. “Now it’s an excuse why we might not do it next year.”

COVID has nudged some in the industry to reconsider boat shows as a whole. If the industry can survive — and some would say thrive — in the middle of a pandemic without boat shows, how vital are they really?

Heesen Yachts launched a video program called Yacht Talk in late September and discussed just that topic. Opening with the question “Will you attend FLIBS?”, the four panelists continued to discuss what they see as the future of boat shows. 

“We need to look at the boat show from the two different perspectives,” said Alessandra Nenci, CFO of Fraser. “If you look at them from a company perspective, there’s no doubt that they bring little or no return to the company. When you look at it from a client perspective, I think these yacht shows are really a social event. It’s part of the glamour and lifestyle of this industry that we cannot forget. They enjoy being there – it’s not necessarily the place that they decide to buy a yacht. This is why we need to re-think how to reach them and give them the experience and the glamour at the same time.”

Targeted micro-events may fill in for some yacht shows in the future, the panelists agreed.

“If you look at traditional boat shows, it’s a show of showing the sterns of boats,” Heesen CEO Arthur Brouwer said. “You have no moment in time to display your boat in a way which looks best – looking at the side of the boat.

“It’s very complex. You pay a lot of money to show off your products and talk to the clients and you show only a little part. It’s very hasty, very crowded and I would like to see a boat show where there can be attention paid to superyachts, working with a professional broker to make sure you can cater to your client’s wishes.”

Nenci said Fraser’s european contingent will not attend FLIBS this year, but the company will be present with its US team.

“It will be interesting because it [FLIBS] is the first real exercise on how to reformat or re-think a yacht show in these situations. Obviously, as a first exercise, it won’t be perfect but it’s a good start to move on for the next year.”

If Disney can …

All eyes are on FLIBS, and both Informa and MIASF can feel the glare. They began working months ago to create practices and protocols to meet government guidelines for safety.

“We proceed, but not dangerously,” MIASF’s Harrison said. “The same company was hired to help with the boat show as with Disney. Disney has been operating safely and without incident. We have a fifth the number of people in the same space. Can it be done safely? Yes.”

In early October, the New York Times ran a story under the headline “At Disney World, ‘worst fears’ about virus have not come true.”

Disney’s Magic Kingdom park in central Florida reopened in mid-July to limited attendance. While it has to lay off 20% of its workforce, the doors remain open and its safety protocols appear to be working, according to the health officials and worker union leaders interviewed for the story.

Detractors of Disney opening used words like “irresponsible” to describe that event as well. Yet in the three months since, there have been no reported coronavirus outbreaks among workers or guests, the article notes. 

According to the Times article, Florida had about 11,800 new coronavirus cases a day when Disney reopened. A month into operations, the number was about 6,400. In early October, Florida added 2,908 cases.

But the story also quotes epidemiologists saying that just because the virus hasn’t been seen to spread yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not spreading.

“Just because we don’t have ample evidence of it happening — yet — doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Times. “There is simply no zero-risk scenario here. When you create opportunities for large numbers of people to come together, you are providing opportunities for the virus to spread.”

It’s those opportunities that detractors are concerned about.

“I don’t feel that COVID-19 is completely under control yet and multiple days in a booth (as an exhibitor) is pushing my luck further than I’m comfortable with,” a respondent to our survey said. “Both foreign companies we represent are not sending anybody from the factory for the same reason. I may go one day but will leave immediately if people are not wearing masks or social distancing is not possible.”

“It is not in the best interest of the industry or public health to be hosting FLIBS this year,” another said. 

“People saying the boat show shouldn’t open, they are the same people who say everything should be closed until we have a vaccine,” Harrison said. “In my business, we’ve been continuing since the beginning. We have PPE [personal protection equipment such as masks] and hand sanitizing stations, and we’ve operated every single day. I know my business can operate safely through COVID. Is there zero risk? No. But there wasn’t zero risk before. There’s risk in everything. We mitigate that risk. … We’ve had people who got COVID, but we worked through it. Not everyone got COVID.”

“They are not being irresponsible,” MIASF’s West said of Informa. “The plan is well thought out. It’s got all the components it’s got so the event can be safe. And it’s not a greed issue. There are contractual obligations. Unless the government says you can’t do it, you have to do it.”

So the show will go on — at least, that was the plan as of press time in mid-October. 

“Of course, there will be some adjustments to be made that will require everyone to remain flexible as we navigate this new environment, but we know that by working together, finding practical solutions, and thoughtfully communicating throughout the process, we will deny the ‘cancel culture’ its stronghold and we will create a defining moment that helps turn the tide toward safely getting back to business,” MIASF CEO/President Purcell wrote to members. 

“The importance of FLIBS to the local and statewide economy cannot be overstated,” he said, noting the show’s $1.3 billion economic impact to the state of Florida. “Not only does the show have a bigger economic impact than any Super Bowl, FLIBS sustains the $12 billion South Florida marine industry and its 142,000 jobs for the remaining 360 days of the year, solidifying the region’s reputation as not just the yachting capital of the world, but the refit and repair capital of the world, as well.”

As likely as some are to criticize MIASF for hosting the show, perhaps as many more just want to see what happens.

“There are a lot of people who want to go to the boat show, and some who want to come to see how it’s going to work,” Harrison said. “We know we’ll have a strong local draw. And knowing that the boat show is a very visible event, it’ll lift the spirits and confidence of people in general. We can go on. Life isn’t changed in a negative way forever.” 

Harrison races boats in his personal time, and he said he likes to remember what his racing partner says:

“Champions adjust. You hit a wall, you figure out how do you get around it? You don’t throw your hands up and give up. You persevere.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor/publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.

All attendees can expect:

  • a contactless ticketing system
  • multiple new entrances (14 total)
  • widened docks, including the face dock, which is 30 feet wide
  • thermo imaging systems for temperature checks
  • high velocity air purification system with HEPA filters and UV lighting will filter air in each tent every hour
  • face coverings required by all exhibitors and attendees
  • customer lines maintain six-foot social distancing with floor markings
  • hand sanitizing stations throughout.
  • deep cleaning with disinfection each hour on all high touch points during show operating hours and after each day’s events
  • safety ambassadors throughout the show
  • extra cafes, and seating according to guidelines
  • contactless food delivery and service

All exhibitors must:

  • wear masks throughout
  • keep a log of all ticket holders for contract tracing
  • supply hand sanitizer
  • disinfect high touchpoint surfaces frequently
  • have floor markings for social distancing
  • limit space to 36 square feet per person
  • prohibit meetings of 10 or more
  • limit handshakes and embraces
  • use digital materials instead of printed
  • host no after-hours events 

About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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