25 years ago, the Melbourne boat show had over 50,000 visitors at the old exhibition centre across a ten-day period. Back then caravans were an obstruction on our roads and boats were king. In stark contrast, the Melbourne boat show today struggle to get 20,000. I am using the Melbourne show as an example as I know it very well having been its advertising manager for three years. I’m sure this trend could be related to other shows in other states and other industries.

So, what happened, and why the big swing away from boats to caravans?

There is one reason alone and we will get to that and others opinions on this subject.

Some marine industry insiders are adamant that today there are too many other options to choose from like overseas holiday’s and many other activities people can enjoy, with some even blaming caravans for taking customers away from boating. While some of this is true, it’s not the cause and certainly not the only reason. I have heard this from other industries and they all have the same thing in common.

The caravan market could also make this claim but they don’t, so what’s the actual cause of the shift?

Right now, in 2020 caravans are riding high. Here’s how they did it and more importantly why they had to.

The why part is a simple, survival. Their industry was dying and being completely dominated by people buying boats, cars, houses and motorcycles over caravans back in the 80’s & 90’s.

We have to go back in history to find where and why this switch happened so please bear with me as I have carefully researched and studied this and consulted with others to actually nail down the key reason.

Back when boats were king there was lots of advertising and not just at boat show time like it is today. Throughout the year between boat shows, individual boat brands and some dealers would advertise much like the car brands did back then and continue to do so today. Car brands get it. They know that to sell a car you must tell people about it continuously. Tell them, tell them again, then remind them why you told them. This is advertising 101 and it works.

Back then boats were not just advertised in the odd fishing or boating magazine; television, radio and newspaper advertising played a large part and lots of brands and dealers regularly advertised. TV and papers in the 80’s did have larger audiences but advertisers also paid much larger fees to reach them.

If you strategically place any brand in front of the masses on a fairly consistent basis, your products will sell. At that time caravans did hardly any advertising apart from some individual dealers like Doug Thorley Caravans, who in the mid 80’s was Australia’s most successful dealer and he sold lots on a weekly basis for years. On a typical weekend in Doug’s yard you could hardly move for people buying the dream. That’s how effective his campaigns were. His focus was radio, tv and print. But Doug was almost alone in the landscape, so caravans as a choice of the masses were not front of mind and the downhill slide for the industry continued. One man could not hold it back the tide.

At a similar time, marine advertising dropped off to just about zero. The rot of complacency had set in. Things were going well so let’s not spend on any more advertising and just ride the wave. Unfortunately like all waves they eventually fade away and this is what happened.

Then along came a bloke called Rex Hunt who started a fishing show and others soon started their own fishing show. By the late 2000’s there were eighteen fishing shows on Australian TV and I owned one of them. I started River to Reef in 2002 with Glenn Knight. It was the first fishing and boating lifestyle show that took a boat on the road and actively promoted the brands that supported it and the lifestyle that went with boating.

When we started, Rex had wound up his show and Jason Kennedy’s Fishin Trip was the only other fishing show on TV, all the others came later.

I am telling you this because River to Reef was all about selling boats and other products. This was how the brands that supported us became front of mind in their marine market space and why those brands sold lots of products. Put simply, I had a vehicle (the TV show) a conduit from the brands that supported us to the viewers (the brands ideal customer) the TV show connected them together and the rest is history.

Today a hand full of boat brands and just about all of the motor and electronics brands support a fishing TV show of some flavour with very few of those shows actively promoting the brands that support them. Let’s not forget these are fishing shows not boating shows. There is a big difference.

Combine the fishing shows with a once per year boat show advertising campaign in each state and that’s the sum total of marine advertising. There is no ongoing weekly showcase of products or enticements for people to get involved in a boating lifestyle, and no advertising from one year to the next.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s and a caravan industry under pressure from its dealers who were being targeted by a start-up caravan tv show. That show promised to showcase caravans and the lifestyle every week. This is what the dealers wanted, they just had to make it happen and they did. It continues to this day and its strongly supported because it works.

That show combined with other in tandem initiatives pulled the industry out of the doldrums. They did this by promoting caravanning and its products to a mass TV audience while the marine industry with the exception of the fishing shows do nothing.

Caravans are selling faster than they can build them. Jayco who are the largest manufacturer with a 48% market share are running 24/7 shifts in its Dandenong assembly plant and still can’t keep up with dealer orders, and we are talking now, in a covid-19 period. Other caravan manufactures are in a similar situation.

So, what happened was the caravan industry ramped up its advertising and promotion all year round, while the marine industry became reliant on a once a year local boat show.

It’s as simple as that, and that’s how caravans became the new king.

We have created The Boat Show as a mass market marine promotion vehicle, much like the model used to put caravans on the throne. By supporting and advertising all manner of marine products, services and the boating lifestyle to the masses, we can regain 25+ years of lost ground, but there is no quick fix and it requires the entire industry to support it, that means manufacturers and dealers. Together we can fight back.