Floats Your Boat

Jamie Keiles

Three types of people turned out last Sunday for the Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show: boat people, family people, and conventioneers.

The boat people flocked to McCormick Place for the boats. They bought boats (last year’s floor models), sold boats (“Rock-bottom boat show prices!”), and complained about things that were not boats (“Starbucks coffee is frou-frou!”). Atop the convention center’s lake-blue carpets landed boats formed a maze. In the alleys between the vessels, boat people talked shop, comparing specs on the various yachts, pontoon boats, and cabin cruisers on display.

The family people were not there for the boats. Children ran rampant and unsupervised across the convention floor, fingerprinting waxed fiberglass, kicking RV tires, and fishing for trout in the Huck Finn Trout Pond–basically a glorified baby pool with fish in it. For these kids’ parents, the boat show was merely this weekend’s alternative to a babysitter or a trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s.  From the sidelines of the show, the parents sipped sodas and looked relieved that the convention center’s attractions provided a momentary respite from the trials of parenting.

The conventioneers working the booths looked exhausted. For some, Chicago was nothing more than the fourth of many stops on the national boat show tour. Vendors arrived on Thursday equipped with bags of free giveaways, but by Sunday were running low on both energy and stock. They distributed the remaining promotional materials with an air of lethargy. Frequently, these giveaways had only tenuous links to boating. A kiosk advertising boat slips in Michigan offered free ChapStick. The Shedd Aquarium representative distributed chamois. Visitors enthusiastically hoarded these giveaways in promotional tote bags provided by Progressive, the show’s premier sponsor.

Cabela’s, an outdoor sporting outfitter, laid out one of the show’s more impressive spreads. At their booth, attendees fondled portable chairs, salivated over outdoor cookware, and camped momentarily in the display tents underneath the corrugated metal sky of the convention center. Touching the products was permitted. Though if it were not, it is doubtful that guests would’ve kept their hands to themselves.

One attendee, an Illinois resident who had just purchased a lake house in Indiana, attended the boat show in hopes of learning more about pontoon boats, a purchase he hopes to make in the future. Like many others, however, he seemed skeptical of the show’s capacity to turn a profit.  “I had a great time,” he explained.  “But I’m not really sure what kind of person actually buys a boat at these things.”

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