The Big Show
My family didn’t own boats when I was younger, but we went to the Seattle Boat Show. I was never sure why my dad dragged me down to the Kingdome to look at boats and fill a goody bag with trinkets and coupons, but we went. Every year. Looking back, it may be those trips to the boat show that started my love affair with sailing and the fantasy of someday being out on the water in a boat of my own.
The Seattle Boat Show is the largest such show on the West Coast, and is easily one of the best in the country. With the announcement of Bell Harbor as a third location and the addition of hundreds more boats and exhibitors, there will be even more to do and see at this year’s event January 26 to February 3. This is great for those of us who look forward to the show as soon as the first dark clouds of autumn roll into town.
It also creates a problem: how do you get the most out of this huge show? I’ve strolled the aisles and docks of the show for years as a sailor, a fisherman, and a motor cruiser. The Seattle Boat show is a place of both daydreams and pragmatic equipment shopping. As a boat show addict and aficionado, I’m here to help you do the Seattle Boat Show right.
You’re going to want more than one day to visit all three locations, attend the seminars you are interested in, and see all the vendors and demonstrations. Check out the schedule of events on the show’s website and mark your calendar. Weekdays are the least crowded, of course, but don’t shy away from the weekend if that’s when you can go. Whatever works out, go whenever you can commit the most time to the event. You need at least a full day to see everything, and multiple days are highly recommended if you can pull it off.
When choosing which days to attend, be honest about why you’re going in the first place. If you just want to wander and dream about your next boat purchase, you can hit the show any time. Maybe take advantage of the Sails & Ales event on February 2, when brewers from around the region feature their beers that you can sip on as you stroll among the yachts. It’s hard to go wrong when you combine beautiful new boats and craft beer. A $45 ticket gets you into the show, access to the tasting, six pours, and a souvenir glass to keep onboard.
Wine lovers should attend opening day, which also happens to be the night of the Uncorked event. Similar to the Sails & Ales, this opening night tradition is a wonderful introduction to the show with local wines.
If you are in search of expertise and want to make some purchases, plan to be there during the week and first thing in the morning. This guarantees more time with vendors in a relaxed atmosphere.
Most importantly, make time to hit the show twice during its run. I know not everyone can get away from work, but if you have a schedule flexible enough to do so, carve out two weekdays for your visits. I like to spend a day at the beginning of the event and one near the end. On my first visit, I wander about, make note of products that I am interested in, and generally get a feel of the show. Having more than one day at the show ensures viewing everything you want to see without being a hurry.
It’s Seattle. It’s winter. Much of the show is outdoors on the water. You don’t need to wear your offshore foul weather gear (actually, please don’t), but be prepared for the weather forecast. And wear deck shoes. Many of the boats at the South Lake Union and Bell Harbor locations are privately owned, and you want to respect the owners.
Don’t overdress, though. When you get inside at the CenturyLink location, you don’t want to be lugging around heavy jackets. Alternatively, if you adhere to my rule of spending at least two separate days at the show, plan one for the outdoor locations and one for the indoor exhibits.
As wonderful as it is to simply wander among the boats and vendors waiting for something new and interesting to catch your eye, you will see more of what you are after if you do a little planning. The redesigned Seattle Boat Show website has constantly updated lists of seminars, exhibitions, vendors, and special events. Put the seminars you want to see in your smartphone calendar so you don’t miss anything.
Plan your parking and transportation as well. With the addition of Bell Harbor this year, there will be free parking available at the Bell Street Pier Garage. Shuttles will move attendees between the three locations, so park where it is most convenient for you and use public transportation to make sure you get to each venue during your visit.
My tip on transportation and parking is this: if you aren’t planning to buy a lot of merchandise, park off-site and ride the train into King Station. Or do what we’ve done in the past: reserve a night at a downtown marina like Elliott Bay, stay onboard, and take a cab or rideshare into the event.
No matter what else you do, buy your tickets online before the show. This year an online ticket comes with additional perks like free parking, a coupon for a one-hour kayak, SUP, bike, or skate rental from Mountain to Sound Outfitters, a complimentary order of french fries or seared green beans at Quality Athletics, $10 Gift Certificate per order to Chandler’s Crabhouse and Daniel’s Broiler, and more.
We save many of our big purchases for the show, hoping to make the most of the deep show discounts and the expertise of brand representatives.
Last year we used the boat show as our opportunity to upgrade the electronics on our new (to us) 34’ trawler. Being able to talk directly with someone who knew the ins and outs of the product, interface, and installation was invaluable. They had installed equipment on boats like ours before. We got a good price and had the representative’s business card in our back pocket in case we had questions later. You simply don’t get that when you order online or even from a local shop.
You can also use your purchasing power to your advantage at the show. When I was refitting our old sloop, I knew I was going to be spending a big chunk of money on an engine, electronics, and sails. When vendors know you are a serious buyer, they will spend time with you and work with you to get the best deal possible. And little things add up. The electronics suite I installed required specialty wiring and connectors, all of which they threw in for me. If I had purchased the suite on my own, I would have paid for every single little part. A similar thing happened with the new diesel engine that I put a down payment on at the show. Small upgrades, wiring harnesses, and plumbing fittings were thrown in because I was working directly with the experts. That year I saved at least 25 percent on things I was going to have to purchase anyway. The boat show saved my budget. Don’t be afraid to negotiate and haggle. Don’t be afraid to ask for free swag.
Also, don’t expect every vendor or shop to give things away for free, but if you see that there are trinkets or giveaways at a booth, stroll up and ask what it takes to get what they are giving away. If you lay down your credit card for thousands of dollars in chart plotters and radios, it isn’t unreasonable to ask if you can have a hat or T-shirt. If you are shopping for big ticket items, part of what you are doing at the show is creating relationships. The women and men who represent the products you are buying are experts, and perhaps the greatest benefit of boat show shopping is having access to these experts going forward. When I was installing the diesel engine I purchased at the boat show, I called the lead mechanic for the company as I worked through the more technical aspects of the job. Invaluable. He even sent a rep out to help me, free of charge.
If you are using the show to complete a project onboard, come prepared. Bring a shopping list. Carry a list of dimensions, sizes, colors, and other information you might need when making large purchases. This keeps you on task and helps make sure you are getting everything you need. Load up your phone with photos of your project as well. This makes explaining projects or choosing equipment even more efficient.
Near the end of the show, some discounts get deeper and the giveaways get a little more aggressive. Anyone who has worked a trade show of any kind knows that vendors would rather unload their remaining merchandise than pack up and ship it home.
For many people, getting downtown is a hassle. Traffic and parking can be stressful, and there is often pressure to get the most out of a small time window. The Seattle Boat Show partners with several local hotels who offer discounts for attendees.
Staying downtown for the show allows you to take advantage of multiple visits. You can even sneak back to the room to rest and recharge between visits to the three locations. Perhaps best of all, staying overnight downtown creates an opportunity to make the experience more appealing to a reluctant first mate. A day at the show, dinner downtown, and a hotel stay? That is a heck of a date night.
Check the Seattle Boat Show website for details on hotel partners. I can’t recommend this strategy enough. The hidden bonus is that most of the retailers, vendors, and exhibitioners stay in town at the same hotels, so you might get some “bonus” time with industry experts.
This year’s Kids Aqua Zone will have plenty of fun activities for the junior crew, and sharing the boating experience with the little ones is a good way to ensure you will have crew for the coming years. When my kids were little, I loved watching them explore the new yachts on display. They would imagine themselves living aboard and stand at the helm to pretend they were navigating the high seas. As we walked away from every boat, they would beg me to buy one. I had to admit, I was always easily sucked into their fantasies.
The show is a safe, fun environment for kids. Many vendors give away trinkets and samples, and kids treat each booth like a nautical trick-or-treat adventure. If your junior crew is up to the challenge, devise a scavenger hunt for them and set them off in search of treasure.
The show is big, so be sure they are comfortable and know where to meet you when they are done. Pro tip: a set of cheap two-way radios work great at the indoor show. You can stay in touch with your young ones as they explore the show on their own.
If you are shopping for a new boat, you need to take the whole team with you. Get everyone onboard a few boats. Try out the space. Think about cabin layouts and sleeping arrangements. Especially on smaller boats, it really helps to have the whole tribe aboard to see how the boat might work for you on the water.
And speaking of being on the water, make sure to get out to the docks at South Lake Union and Bell Harbor with the family. Even moored to the dock, there is something more “real” about being aboard on the water. If you are porting little ones with you, bring their life jackets to keep them safe on the docks and onboard the yachts. There are always loaner PFDs available as well.
Your family and friends are great. They might even be good crew. And yes, there are a lot of things for the kids to do at the show. However, if you are on a mission at the show, nothing beats a solo trip. Take the family on one day and then come back on your own for a more focused show experience.
Navigating the show alone gives you total freedom to explore, linger, relax, and shop. You can circle back and take your time. You don’t have to worry if your crew is bored with your obsession with the new fishing gear.
Enter every drawing. Sign up for every mailing list. Take every free giveaway. Marinas give away free nights. Boat yards raffle off haul outs. Years ago, we opened an email account just for boating-related communication. This is the email we give to people we meet at marinas and anchorages around the Northwest. It is the email we use when we buy products online or sign into boating user groups. Give everyone at the show your “boating” email address. This way you can enter all of the drawings and sweepstakes, get all the advertising blasts, and keep it all separate from more tedious communications, like from your boss.
If you don’t already have one, consider making up a business card with your name, email, and boat information to hand out to people you meet. We keep a stack of these cards onboard, and I carry them with me to events like the boat show.
Finally, if you have recently bought or sold a boat, done a big refit, or spent any time with a shop or mechanic, ask them about their connection to the show. Your marina likely has a booth where you could spend a few hours handing out information in exchange for free entry. Brokers and shops have comp tickets to give away to their customers.
Whatever your boat show plans, please make time to swing by the Northwest Yachting booth (East 614!). We’d love to say hello, hear your feedback, and share our latest issue of the magazine.