Traditional boat shows will not occur at most locations this year. It is unfortunate but clearly the best way to keep mass gatherings from spreading the virus. But all is not lost. Most of these shows have been replaced, in part, by the virtual boat show.

I have attended many virtual shows over the last couple of months, which now seem to occur almost daily as we approach the boat show season. I’ve seen numerous variations of the theme to showcase a product without the physical presence of crowds. A broker might do a one-on-one video smartphone call with a person who made an appointment to see the boat at a specific time. During the appointment, it is a real-time walkthrough, and the broker switches the phone’s cameras back and forth during the running dialog.

A separate cameraman sometimes videos a broker interviewing a builder’s representative, and the walkthrough may be pre-recorded or done in real time. A broker may also conduct a boat tour with a slide presentation using Zoom or other application to a larger audience, muted to the one-sided conversation. During such events, there is usually provision to ask questions during the inevitable Q&A session at the end using a chat function.

I have also seen brokers filmed as they walk the docks, speaking in detail about each boat, or they may offer more informal comments about the cruising boats on the docks that are listed in the company’s brokerage section.

Below: Seattle Yachts' Martin Snyder does a live Facebook video walk-through. This same type of tour can be done privately for you through Facetime or other applications.

Yet another variation isn’t virtual, but rather an individual showing by appointment, all PPE and gloves required, followed by the complete sanitizing of the boat before the next appointment.

As much as I see great potential for successful virtual shows, I can tell you it is no slam dunk. I registered and attended a virtual RV show last week that lasted for several days. Each session in the three-day event consisted of both pre-recorded and live walkthroughs of various RVs, as well as discussions of equipment, insurance, and how to get started. Wanting to learn more about Class B camper vans, I registered for two 45-minute episodes, as well as an event about Class C vehicles under 30 feet. I was curious how these tours would be done for comparison, as the similarities between RVs and cruising boats are obvious, and both currently enjoy significant consumer interest.

What struck me during the RV event was the unscripted nature of each session. The salesman asked a company rep to talk about the vehicle, while a third person stood in front of them with a video camera. As the salesman then rambled on about the many ways to adjust the outside retractable awning in a light rain, he used up precious minutes of the allotted time for this RV. And when he asked the company rep about features in the cab of the Mercedes Benz 3500 chassis, they spent most of the remaining time talking about the 10-inch multi-function display on the dash, lane assist, swivel seats, and drink holders.

They ran out of time before the cameraman had a chance to do much more than sweep behind the cab to show the interior of the RV, its galley, wet bath, sleeping accommodations, or storage. I saw extraordinarily little of the general layout and no details whatsoever. I thought it was completely ridiculous, but I kept watching hoping there might be something new to learn.

The same “let’s wing it” approach was repeated for the other two RVs in that 45-minute program, interspersed with the canned sales pitch to text the company to lock in show pricing. I tried again the next evening for the under 30-foot Class C units, but I was again disappointed. How many minutes in a such a limited amount of time should one spend talking about the quality of the convertible couch’s throw pillows?

I contrast that to a virtual boat show months ago at Seattle Yachts’ docks in Anacortes. I signed up to tour the Nimbus mid-size cruising boat I have yet to see in person. The virtual show was set up to work with Zoom’s “rooms” features. After a receptionist’s greeting, who asked which boat I was interested in, she introduced me to broker Rob Fuller on a Nimbus 365, ready to walk me through the boat and answer any questions. It was a one-on-one virtual boat tour. We chatted about what I was interested in and how this design integrated some interesting new features. He explained what we were looking at while he panned around the interior. The boat was all new to me, and I took it in as we went through the boat.

Below: The 365 Coupe from Nimbus Boats has been a popular request for virtual tours.

Nimbus 305 Coupe

I have since attended many other virtual events that fit squarely between these extremes, which continue today at a steady pace.

And I now have some thoughts on how to get the most value out of this new format of boat show.


Preparation is Key

When you register to attend a virtual event, it really helps to do your homework. I was totally unprepared to walk through the Nimbus, although I was more interested at the time in the process, not the details.

Make a checklist of what you want to see or know about and be ready to explain your priorities to the presenting broker if you have the opportunity. What you are looking for, how you intend to use the boat, and other things that help define your requirements and needs.

Research as much as you can ahead of time, particularly from the builder’s website, as it will identify more questions and specific areas of interest. Unfortunately, many online brochures are more about young couples enjoying the boat in perfect conditions, rather than detailed examination of the engine room and systems. Many builders are marketing the dream rather than providing details to help align your needs with a particular model. Nothing new there.

Once I understand my accommodations requirements, for example, I move onto the areas of safety and convenience, and my number one priority is accessibility. That is never in a brochure.

Below: Many builders and dealers now have 3D virtual tours that you can explore yourself from home. We recently did a Matterport Virtual Tour of our Regency P65. Click here to view it.

virtual tour matterport 

Add Value to Your Virtual Tour

When these virtual events first began, it was more of a curiosity. Grab a beer, sit back, and be entertained as we collectively learned how to experience these walkthroughs. There was a steep learning curve. But today, many realize it can be a substantial selling tool.

Armed with my checklists and notes, I come prepared to attend these walkthroughs with specifics things I want to see or learn about. If there is a chat function on a group session, take advantage of it and ask questions. In the case of my virtual one-on-one with Rob Fuller, had I specific questions, it would have been a more productive session than just viewing the layout. He could not read my mind:

• Are there sufficient handholds inside and out?
• Are side deck railings and stanchions sturdy and sufficiently high for security on the side decks?
• Are the entry steps into the saloon at a relaxed angle or is it a ladder?
• Are boarding gates and doors located where one will feel comfortable getting on and off the boat?
• Is there adequate dining and saloon space for your needs?
• How is the visibility from the helm?
• Is the helm and adjacent seating comfortable for both of you to do the Great Loop or a trip on the ICW, or SE Alaska?
• Is there adequate ventilation, or will you need air conditioning in the living spaces all the time?
• Is the engine room access and space adequate for inspection and routine maintenance?
• Can one get to major systems without being a contortionist? How about the stuffing box and raw water pump?
• Are there spaces for tools and spares in lockers and drawers?

These are just some of the questions I would want to know when I am interested in a boat. It is more than one can expect to answer during a walkthrough of either a live or virtual tour, so it will be necessary to schedule a follow-up inspection if the general layout and interior appointments appeal to me.

Another thing I recommend, even when attending a boat tour as a member of a larger audience, is to learn how to take screen shots with your device, whether a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. When the presenter pans across a space on the boat, it is a great time to capture what you are seeing for later review, if the broker does it slowly, keeping it steady. A shot of the helm and forward view outside will be great to look at later where gauges are mounted and where there might be room for other electronics without blocking forward visibility.

Below: A yacht broker who will let me take a screenshot like this of the virtual tour gives me something to continue to examine after the fact.

screenshot of engine room during virtual tour 

A panoramic sweep or wide-angle view of an engine room will give me plenty to examine later if I can grab key images of the space to see fuel system plumbing, battery, and pump installation. A broker who becomes experienced in virtual tours will learn to do this on purpose, and perhaps use it as a tool to instruct the audience as he or she gives the tour. Attendees will learn things, which is always a good thing.

In every virtual tour I attended, the brokers encourage the attendees to follow up with the company to take it to the next stage, with more specific and personal attention, which is how it should be. These companies want to sell product as they continue to improve these virtual sessions. All of us are learning the virtual world and its possibilities.

I understand that one can now research and buy a new car and have it delivered to your home, without physical contact with anyone. That would have sounded absurd not too long ago. But the world has changed.

And so must we when it comes to buying a new cruising boat while staying safe.