No slowing down for Sydney at 50
As Sydney stages its 50th boat show, we chart its rise from humble beginnings to world-class event.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that prior to the staging of the first Sydney International Boat Show in 1968, boats were typically displayed to the public as part of the Sydney Motor Show, almost as if boating was an adjunct to driving. That connection carried on through the 50s and 60s until, in 1967, the National Marine Association of NSW, the precursor to the Boating Industry Association of NSW, decided to host its own standalone show.
The first Sydney International Boat Show (SIBS) opened on 29 July 1968 at the Sydney Showground at Moore Park where it took up five pavilions. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 20 cents for children.
Since then, SIBS has gone on to become one of the premier boat shows in the world and a major drawcard event in NSW and beyond. And the Sydney Motor Show? Well, it hasn’t fared quite so well…
That fact alone highlights the continuing success of SIBS in not only surviving but thriving in an era of rapid economic and technological changes. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs, different venues, recessions, industry consolidation etc but, for many in the marine industry, it remains a fixture on the boating calendar and the most important single business event, one at which a significant number of deals get done each year.
Back the 60s, the early show rode the boom in recreational boating as the industry shifted from the craft of wooden boat building to more modern production techniques such as fibreglass and aluminium. Affordable, family-friendly boats powered by a new wave of outboard motors fuelled a growing interest in the appeal of boating as a leisure pastime.
From the very beginning, the show aimed to entertain and instil in people a love of all things to do with boating. Organisers built a ‘dryland’ marina with scaffolding so people could experience being aboard larger cruisers and yachts. There were fishing clinics and a water ski demo pool – which, rather predictably, burst. Photos from that era reveal big crowds, queues and lots of activity. It looks like a lot of fun.
“The BIA recognised from day one we had to make boating attractive and overcome some of the negatives like safety aspects,” said Roy Privett, former BIA NSW general manager and an instrumental figure in making the show what it is today. “There were educational seminars and clinics to teach people how to use boats, and that philosophy still applies.”
In addition to attracting the public, the show also became a showcase for local manufacturers and suppliers, offering an opportunity for people working in the industry to see what was available and to compare new products.
“It encouraged yacht builders to visit to see what was available,” said Bob Basham from RWB Marine who has been a show regular since the beginning. “We also had, and still have, a lot of interstate clients coming to the show to look at the new gear, see how the imported boats were doing things, and that became another focal point.”
Getting out on the water
The success of the Sydney show encouraged the BIA to stage other events around NSW, including the Cabarita Boating Spectacular in the 70s which was a first attempt to stage an on-water boat show. In 1984, the BIA held an on-water show during the summer at a marina in Pyrmont and then in 1986 SIBS left the Showground for good and took up residence at the Pyrmont site for three years.
Exhibitors from that era often recall the exhibition halls that leaked and the rickety wharves but the Pyrmont venue also helped to establish the blueprint for the modern boat show, combining exhibition space with marina displays. The 1988 show drew 50,000 visitors, 250 exhibitors and occupied 15,000m2 of hall space. Even that success, however, paled in comparison with what was to come.
“The real game-changer came in 1989 with the inaugural Darling Harbour show, which combined a large floating marina with an Exhibition Centre just 200 metres away,” said Roy Privett. “There’s not many shows around the world which have that, and it ushered a new era of presentation.”
The 1989 show drew a then-record attendance of 86,391 visitors. The following year, the show ran for 10 consecutive days over two weekends – pity the poor exhibitors.
Reports from that era reveal something of the pressures facing the industry at the time, not least the flood of imported boats, mainly from the US. Prior to then, the main overseas competition had come from across the Tasman with the ‘New Zealand Collection’ held in one hall at the Showground.
In contrast the 1989 show featured 540 boats of which it was estimated about half were imported, a figure which, according to one report, had “many industry officials deeply concerned about the possible long-term ramifications to the already fragile boat manufacturing sector”.
The imported boats often displayed a quality of finish and standard features that the local manufacturers couldn’t match, a state of affairs which quickly caught the eye of the most discerning buyer.
“Blokes would do the research on a certain fishing tinnie then their wives would come to the show and veto the whole thing, choosing one with nice seats and carpeted floors,” said Peter Hunt at Hunt Marine, one of the original founders of the show. “The poor bloke would buy a Bayliner then have to fish out of it.”
The highs and lows
The crowning moment for Sydney came in 2004 when 93,000 visitors attended and the BIA had to turn away 60 disappointed exhibitors. Then, just a few years later, the double-whammy of the GFC and the demolition of Darling Harbour dealt a potentially fatal blow to the show – as it did to the Sydney Motor Show. The BIA, however, was determined to keep it afloat.
“The NSW Government constructed an interim facility at Glebe Island after considerable lobbying,” said Domenic Genua, BIA events director. “We were in real danger of having no venue at all, and to go three years without a land-based show would have been devastating.
“In 2014 we lost 17% of our visitors compared to our last year at Darling Harbour and our attendance never recovered.”
The show, nevertheless, must go on – and it has. After three years with a split venue during which time attendances have hovered around the 45-50,000 visitor mark, SIBS is reunited this year in its new home at Darling Harbour. While it may be too much to expect this homecoming will see a return of the golden years, there’s no doubt this year’s show will be bigger than any in recent times. Expectations are high of a landmark event.
As a new era for the show dawns, SIBS remains one of the leading boat shows in the world and a key driver of business for the local marine industry. Life begins at 50? There will be many in the industry hoping this is the start of an exciting new chapter.
Many thanks to the Boating Industry Association for allowing access to its SIBS archives in the preparation of this article.