top50stl economic development idea of the week: Mississippi River Boat Show

I know a lot of people who go down to the Lake of the Ozarks. It St. Louis, we typically just refer to it as “the lake.” It’s a place that people are willing to drive the 2-½ hours it takes to enjoy a little recreation on the water. It’s amazing to me that “the lake” is the favored water destination for many Saint Louisans given the fact that our city is physically located on top of one of the largest waterways in the U.S., the mighty Mississippi. In my opinion, “the river” (which nobody really calls it) is not considered by many as a go-to destination. Partially, because the riverfront is not particularly attractive or conducive to recreation on the water. It’s very industrial and a bit dirty. It just doesn’t have the best vibe which is a shame because it doesn’t have to be that way.

A few summers ago, I visited Grafton, IL for the first time. It’s a nice town and they seem to own the fact that it’s a river town. Oddly enough, everything sort of points towards the river and it’s really quite pleasant. My friends and I enjoyed a splendid afternoon sipping beer and wine at the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus. The river is wide in Grafton and the Mississippi there really feels more like a lake than a river. Of course, there are still barges that float by but also recreational boats with riders having fun. There are docks nearby that highlight the areas use of the river for recreational purposes. Although not too far from St. Louis, Grafton has an entirely different vibe than the city’s waterfront.

A few weeks ago, my family and I attended a Boat Show at the St. Charles Convention Center. Coincidentally, it was the Lake of the Ozarks Boat Show….for St. Louisans. It was nice in the fact that it kept my kids busy for about an hour and there really wasn’t much of a crowd so it was pretty relaxing. But, as an experience it was rather subpar. As far as I can tell, the boat dealers essentially dropped off their boats for people to look at and created a showroom in the middle of the convention center. I’m conjuring up memories of a similar experience (or lack thereof) when I attended the St. Louis Car Show at the end of January. Most of the salesmen seemed more interested in talking to their coworkers than engaging attendees and the only real experience was that you got to touch and feel the vehicle. Now, I was told that attendance was down at the Lake of the Ozarks Boat Show because the St. Louis Boat & Sportshow was being held the same weekend (at a building formerly known as the Edward Jones Dome). This seemed a little counterintuitive to me, but I’m not in the business of selling boats.

If I were in the business of selling boats, I’d add a few more experiences. I’d consider the experience from the customer’s perspective. We are entering the golden age of the experience economy and I think people are looking for a little bit more than just an event space with booths full of products or vehicles sitting in a giant showroom with salespeople that don’t really want to engage customers. What I think we need is a way to not only see but feel what it’s like to have a boats…….to have the experience.

So, I’m proposing that the St. Louis Boat Show go outside, on the river and make it the Mississippi River Boat Show….and make it a spectacle. Why not coincide with an Aquapalooza Concert? Why not hold some boat races? Can prospective buyers actually get a ride in a boat, maybe even steer it?

The St Louis Convention Center wants to spend more money on building a larger event space but I think with our boat shows, car shows and every other trade show they’re missing the point. We don’t need more space; we need more experience. Let’s maximize the experience that everyone has and then see what happens.

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