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The History and Evolution of the Cleveland Boat Show

Boat Show

The Cleveland Boat Show is among the biggest boating and fishing shows in America. It involves boats of all kinds: fishing boats, jet skis, sailboats, pontoon boats, among many more. However, it probably would not be in existence if not for the foresight of Cleveland's mayor from 1890 to 1896, George W. Gardner. He has been referred to as the "father of yachting," a name that befits him given his contribution, locally and nationally, to the world of yachting. He was even inducted to the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We will take you through how the show came to be born in 1957 and its evolution over the years to become the annual magnet it so today for all boat enthusiasts.

Recreational Boating Becomes an Organized Sport in Cleveland

Gardner observed that the railroad laying tracks would take over the lakefront; hence he decided to establish the Cleveland Yacht Club in 1878. He remained its commodore from then until 1894. In 1884, during summer, Henry Gerlach invited Gardner and other members of the Cleveland Yacht Club to the Put-In-Bay where they all arrived in Gerlach's boat named Lulu. While there, Gardner noticed that Put-In-Bay would be the ideal site for a regatta comprising all other clubs in Lake Erie. He called a meeting in Cleveland on January 17, 1885.

The meeting was successful; thus, the Inter-Lake Yachting Association was born and once again, Gardner became its commodore from 1885 to 1894. The association, according to Cleveland Sports Hall, was to create a handicapping rule for sail yachts, thus allowing various boats to compete in the regattas. It was also aimed at fostering camaraderie among the Great Lakes yachtsmen. Consequently, the first major regatta happened in August 1894 at Put-In-Bay. By 1896, steam-powered yachts and naphtha-powered launches were competing in the race. Moreover, other clubs, both in American and in Canada, joined in the regatta resulting in the need for a governing body. Therefore, according to an article by Case Western Reserve University, the North American Racing Union was founded thanks to efforts of Ernest W. Radder of the Cleveland Yacht Club. The union later came to be known as U.S. Yacht Racing Union. The first major race was in 1901, and it honored Gardner thus racers competed for the Gardner Bowl. News of the race reached Cleveland prompting boat enthusiasts to compete, and before long in 1914, the Winton Cup Race which paid tribute to Alexander Winton was up for grabs.

The Birth of Cleveland Boat Show

The Greater Cleveland Boating Association was created in 1946 hoping to pressure the city, state and federal governments into advancing water recreation; although the main goal, today is to ensure safe boat operation. The association also lobbied for the clubs and effectively repealed property tax in boats and inclusion of a 0.05% to facilitate boating facilities; construction and maintenance. The Cleveland Area wanted more autonomy in recreational boating; hence after 40,000 signatures were presented to the mayor to allow small-boat launching facilities, the Department of Port Control was founded. Later on, the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association was born in 1956.

In 1957, according to, the Progressive Cleveland Boat show came to be; it was initially called the Mid-America Show, but everyone referred to it as the Cleveland Boat Show. It was, therefore, no surprise that in 2018, the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association President, Michelle Burke, thought it best to change the name to the more befitting one. Norm Schultz explained that "Mid-America" was supposed to make the show sound like it was a big deal. Since it already became a big deal being informally known as the Cleveland Boat Show, it was only appropriate to rename it.

The moment it was introduced in 1957, the show was a success. It lasted for eight days at the Cleveland Convention Center and even had a beauty pageant. It evolved to incorporate more such that in 1962, it included the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Glenn Miller is hailed as the most successful dance bandleader of the 1930s and 1940s, and the orchestra brings together lovers of jazz, swing and even couples. The show grew by leaps and bounds such that by 1986, it could no longer be held at the Convention Center hence the move to the I-X Center. While the Convention Center measures 410, 000 square feet, the IX center measures 2,200,000 square feet thus is one of the largest centers in the United States. Norm, who headed the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association from 1973 to 2007 recalls that in its peak, the show had 1,200 boats covering every inch of the IX Center.

The Cleveland Boat Show Hits a Rough Patch

The 2001 recession lasted eight months, but the damage to the economy lingered for much longer. One of the victims was the Cleveland Boat Show, and just when things were turning around for the better, the 2008 Great Recession made it worse. From a boat show that attracted 1,200 boats, the number of boats reduced to 300. Activities that attracted more visitors to the boat show decreased and the impact could be felt over the years. In 2019, Norm finally saw the silver lining in the cloud that had been hanging over the boat show for the last ten years. For the first time since the Great Recession, the show attracted 450 boats making Norm hopeful that it would take off again.

He was right because, in 2020, the boats were 454 but besides that, there was an introduction of a fishing Expo. Both the boat show and fishing Expo covered 447,250 square feet of the IX center. The projected figures for the January 2020 show was 50,000 visitors, 10,000 children under the age of 12, 5,000 visitors who would fish trout at the fishing Expo and 3,000 personnel to man the entire Expo and boat show. There were many attractions including expensive boats and as Microsoft News explained, whether you are a boat owner, hoping to be one or admire the good things in life, the show is the ideal destination.

A Virtual Show is Being Developed for 2021

Since 1986, the Cleveland Boat Show has been held at the I-X Center, but according to Fox 8, the center has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As per the news, the I-X Center has not paid its rent since April 2020 thus the arrears by October 5, 2020, amounted to more than a million dollars. With the COVID-19 shutting down many businesses, the center has not been spared, and it has not held any events since then.

Michelle Burke was concerned. She was hoping that by November 2020, she will have a definitive answer regarding the reopening of the center because the boat show is usually slotted for January every year. She even talked to the city authorities to explore the options, but the problem goes beyond the rent arrears by I-X Center. The center is owned by the airport that still has years left on the lease, and the city stands to lose $2 million every year in lease payments for as long as the I-X Center remains closed. Michelle is hopeful that the boat show will still be hosted at the IX-Center although Cleveland City Councilman, Charles, did not hide the fact that negotiating a new lease is a challenge.

Still, even when the future is uncertain, the Cleveland Boat Show is insisting that it will be held at the I-X Center since going back to the downtown convention is not an option due to limited space. Therefore, on Great Lakes Scuttlebutt, fans are encouraged to save the dates between January 14 and 18, 2021 where both the boat show and Fishing Expo will be held at the I-X Center. Charges are even displayed with kids under 12 not being charged while anyone above 13 will pay $15. Senior citizens, on the other hand, will pay $13, which will only be charged at the door since tickets are not available online.

Since the pandemic seems to roll over to next year, the boat show has implemented ways to ensure safe distancing for all exhibitors and attendees. On their website, they explain that strict measures, including safety protocols, admission checks, cleaning and others, will be in place. For the first time, the show will have a unique Virtual Show experience as they boast of putting up a never-before-seen digital show. The virtual experience is still under development and will comprise exhibits, boating seminars, interactive features, concerts, among other activities.

Why is The Show Important?

You might ask yourself why go to all this trouble every year to arrange an exhibit and fishing Expo, but if you were a boat dealer, you would thank the heavens for whoever came up with the idea of the Cleveland Boat Show. Just like any Expo where as a supplier you get to display everything you have to a wide range of customers, the boat show provides boat dealers with a chance to make a killing. Norm Schultz said that while it may look like having fun to the ordinary visitor, for the boat dealers, it means serious business. They only need to display their boats in six shows to make half a year's gross sales because the five days are enough to attract loads of potential customers. For instance, in 2020, South Shore Marine displayed a $299,762 Chris Craft Catalina 30 while Clemons Boats showed off their $499,985 Boston Whaler Realm 350, a family-centred cruising boat that broke from the company's norm of manufacturing unsinkable fishing boats. Norm explained that not many customers visit boat dealerships.

The boat show also provides an opportunity for people to appreciate the local history, which is well documented in the Lyman Boats Works Museum. The museum showcases wooden boats that date back to 1875 when the first one was manufactured in Cleveland. It gives the visitors a chance to reminisce the good old days when their forefathers owned the boats. The company built 60,000 wooden boats, of which 15,000 still cruise in the Great Lakes. Besides, there are many more things to do at the boat show, and Michelle Burke said that the boat show presents more than just a boating experience; it offers a wholesome lake lifestyle and each year they strive to incorporate more activities.

The Activities Included in the Boat Show

Since its founding in 1957, the boat show has continued to evolve with more activities being included in catering to all age groups. The fishing Expo was one of the latest fun activities to be included in 2020. It comprises hands-on demos, virtual fishing simulators, fishing tackles and seminars conducted by professionals. Creativity for kids is enhanced through the kid zone where they can now test how well they know the Lake Erie Islands, using a large puzzle. They also have a nautical flag alphabet and chance to show off their coloring skills. The children also practice fishing in the trout pond, and for motivation, the show includes a fishing rod give-away.

However, the fun activities are not limited to these: sometimes staring at the boats and soaking in their beauty is still fun, especially when you know you might never own any of the highly-priced boats. Alternatively, if admiring from afar will not quench your thirst for boats, maybe driving a virtual Boston Whaler and getting bounced around in the sailboat simulator will. Shopaholics are well catered for with everything from nautical t-shirts to coastal décor to glam their homes. You can then wind up the day with some music from various local celebrities. Additionally, you can use the visit as a learning opportunity as you get to know how the weather is forecasted in the water and how to stay safe when boating.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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