History of the New England Boat Show
February 14, 2016
What boat-show attendee hasn’t, at some point, considered the hundreds of gleaming new boats packed in bow to stern, and wondered, “How do they do this?”
It’s no easy feat, admits Joe O’Neal, who has managed the New England Boat Show (NEBS) since 1984. Yet somehow he and the exhibitors who fill the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center manage to pull it off each year. “You think you’ve seen it all in 32 years, but there are always surprises,” chuckles O’Neal.
Never a Dull Moment
Surprises like the “jinxed” 42’ Catalina that fell over—twice—while being moved into and out of the show in 1995. Or the time the entire show had to be disassembled in a mere 24 hours (it normally takes 60) to make way for the Boston Flower Show that was setting up the next day.
Of course, weather is the major wild card. “Snowstorms are a constant challenge,” says O’Neal. “If it’s a big storm, all of the wide-load highway permits are rescinded. You can imagine what that does to the move-in schedule!”
Yet despite such hurdles, some how, some way, the biggest boat show in New England comes together each February—a marvel of coordination and cooperation that’s endured for 60 years. With attendance often exceeding 45,000 during the 9-day show, NEBS has come a long way since the days when it was held in a forbidding, fortress-like building in the heart of Boston.
The New England Boat Show was launched in 1955 by the producers of the New England Home Show. Its first venue was the 50,000-square-foot Commonwealth Armory on Commonwealth Avenue. The Armory hosted the show until 1963, when it moved to Suffolk Downs in East Boston.
The 1960s and early ‘70s saw a rapid expansion of the show, and recreational boating in general, thanks to the boom in production fiberglass boatbuilding. Small, outboard-powered boats built by Boston Whaler, Mako, Grady-White and Aquasport were suddenly available to a wider range of consumers. Improvements in outboard-engine technology and electronics also fueled the growth of the marine industry.
In 1973, the show moved to Commonwealth Pier in South Boston, which offered 180,000 square feet of exhibit space. Yet eventually this venue proved inadequate, and after 10 years NEBS relocated inland to the Bayside Expo Center, a 250,000-square-foot facility. O’Neal took over show management in 1984, and in 2007 NEBS moved to its current location at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. In 2010, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) purchased the show, and continues to hold the event at the South Boston location. The venue offers a lot more room to breathe with 525,000 square feet of floor space and is well equipped to handle the complicated set-up and breakdown process. Plus it’s conveniently located for visitors arriving by car or public transportation.
Changing Times, Changing Trends
Over the years, NEBS has reflected many trends in boating as the industry follows the ebb and flow of economics, technology and changing demographics. “Clearly, the sailboat market hit its peak in the ‘70s and ‘80s in terms of new units sold,” notes O’Neal, who has seen the number of U.S. sailboat manufacturers shrink over the last 30 years, while European builders have risen to fill the void.
O’Neal also witnessed the meteoric rise of the large center console fishing boat in the 1990s. “I remember the buzz when Grady-White was introducing their first outboard-powered center console over 30’. Now Grady has a 37’ center console with triple 350-hp outboards, and there are even bigger outboard boats available.”
More recently, there has been a trend towards manageable and efficient craft such as pocket trawlers, pontoon boats, and dual consoles as baby boomers seek to downsize. “I think overall, we’re seeing a lot of people going back to a simpler form of boating,” says O’Neal. “They’re just looking for an easy way to get out and enjoy the water.”
As boating trends come and go, with manufacturers adapting to the changing marketplace, the New England Boat Show will be there to showcase the latest boats, marine products and services. Come see it for yourself and witness New England boating history in the making.
This year’s New England Boat Show takes place February 12 through February 21 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. You can go to their website for details by Clicking Here.