Born in Baltimore

“You know what I’d really like to see?” said Baltimore Boat Show Manager Tara Davis, “I would really like to see some videos to promote what we’re doing at the show.” That sounded good to me. So, Chesapeake Bay Magazine and the Annapolis School of Seamanship are doing just that.

Davis and I were meeting to put the finishing touches on new educational programs for the 2017 Progressive Insurance Baltimore Boat Show. As we got up to leave, I thought about how a coincidental meeting nine years before had led to so much innovation.

I first met Davis on the floor of the Baltimore Convention Center where she was coordinating the load-in of the 2008 Baltimore show. Chesapeake Bay Magazine had asked if I could “cover some seminars” at the Baltimore Boat Show. I agreed without knowing what that would become. Having worked with the magazine before with seminars in Annapolis, I figured this would be no problem. However, after unsuccessful attempts to reach the show manager, I decided to call the next name on the list. Davis answered immediately, and after hearing me out, replied, “I have no idea what arrangements have been made, but why don’t you come down to the show, find me, and we’ll figure it out.”

With trailers moving in and out, forklifts loading crates, boats and people moving in all directions, the convention center floor was organized chaos. I spotted a young woman standing in the middle of it all. She was holding a radio in one hand and a clipboard in the other, and I guessed that she might be able to help me figure out where to go. This was Tara Davis, and within thirty minutes I was set up with a projector, screen, microphone, chairs and a stage.

That year, the show filled the convention center and lasted nine days. But it was also the year that marked the beginning of the Great Recession, which had severe impacts on the economy, especially the recreational boating industry.

Several months later, I bumped into Davis at a sailing industry meeting. She had been promoted to show manager and had a huge challenge in front of her. The budget had been substantially cut. The show space was reduced to half of the convention center floor and the schedule was shortened to four days. To make matters worse, a persistent rumor circulated that the show would be canceled. In fact, two other area boat shows were canceled, but not Baltimore. Despite the recession the Baltimore show has grown every year since Davis took the reins. In 2014, the show moved to the larger side of the convention center. In 2015 it was completely sold out of space, and the attendance was the highest since 2008.

As the sailing industry meeting wrapped up, I pulled Davis aside and offered to produce seminars for her. That launched a partnership that has lasted and grown. What started with seminars in a room off the show floor has grown into a series of interactive educational experiences in Baltimore and across the country sponsored by Progressive Insurance and promoted as the Progressive Boat School. The creative process has played out over eight years of coffee meetings and lunches, which have produced a robust array of programs, such as Take the Wheel (2009), Nautical Trivia Challenge (2010), Boat School (2011), Dock & Dine on the Chesapeake (2012), Women at the Wheel (2013) and Jr. Captains (2017).

When you ask Davis about the early days after she took over the show she recalls, “I had a job to do. The local industry needs a winter boat show. I had to figure out a way to grow this show. It wasn’t all me. It was a team effort.”

Davis’ team is an eclectic blend of National Marine Manufacturers Association staff, contractors and volunteers including a cadre of exhibitors who bring hand-trucks, forklifts and muscle to set up the show.

The Baltimore show is an incubator of interactive features in a dynamic boating market. This year’s new offering is our Jr. Captains Program, a hands-on boating skills experience for kids aged eight to 12.

“I get my ideas from my everyday life as a mom and a fitness instructor,” Davis says. “We will keep trying new ideas. Some of them make it, some of them don’t, and some of them get big and are picked up by other shows.”

When you go to Baltimore this year, look for the person with the radio and clipboard. She’s the one who pulls it all together and makes things happen.

John Martino, Annapolis School of Seamanship