Meet Katie McPhail

Seattle Boat Show Director

THE SEATTLE BOAT SHOW IS a huge annual undertaking, one that attracts visitors from up and down the West Coast and beyond. Exhibitors from the U.S. and Canada fill the CenturyLink Field Event Center and Chandler’s Cove in South Lake Union. Putting all that together takes time, effort, patience and coordination, and in charge of all that is Katie McPhail, the show’s director for four years now. We talked to her about that process.Katie McPhail

Sea: What are the tasks that occupy the bulk of your time?

McPhail: I spend the bulk of my time working with exhibitors. To date, we have 344 companies signed up for the show. Unfortunately, we can’t have a dress rehearsal, so making sure everyone knows the “wheres” and “whens” is really important. Selling show space and laying out the booth dimensions is a pretty complicated process too. It’s like solving an enormous puzzle — the puzzle pieces are business owners trying to maximize their company’s boat show results. What’s good for one company doesn’t always work for another. So while there might be an easier or more efficient method to handle exhibitors’ requests, it’s our culture at NMTA to provide a personalized effort for all of our members. It takes a good amount of time, but overall, I think we are better able to meet the individual needs of our exhibitors this way.

What was the most difficult or elaborate part of the planning process? When does planning for the next year’s show start?

If you want to see something really impressive, come down to the CenturyLink Field Event Center the morning the boats start moving in to the event center. It’s a pretty elaborate process to get hundreds and hundreds of boats all in one place, at the right time, and in proper position. It’s a dawn-to-dawn operation, requiring our boat handling company and some of our exhibitors to work nearly around the clock for five days.

We start looking at dates for the next show about a month after the show closes and then start ramping up planning in June.SBS 14

What are a couple of behind-the scenes jobs or processes that showgoers might not imagine?

After the red carpet goes down, you’d never know it, but every inch of all four display areas in the stadium gets mapped out ahead of time. First by me, using a CAD program on the computer, but then by the decorating staff at the stadium, using tape measures and floor markings. It usually happens in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning, before the setup crews and boats start to roll in.

Two years ago, we had the Seattle city arborist involved in the Boat Show! Our boat transportation company does a lot of work to make sure the big boats, sometimes 60 feet or longer, can make it to the stadium. Road construction, new traffic controls or, in this particular case, overgrown landscaping can prevent a trailer from making a turn and stall the arrival of a boat. A delivery driver with a box truck might not care if a tree branch runs across the side of his truck, but the boat dealer whose million-dollar yacht is on that truck sure does.

The on-water portion of the show, produced by our partners the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, has the unique challenge of essentially building a temporary marina that gets put together in two days. In addition to towing in over 1,500 feet of temporary floating docks, thousands of feet of electrical cable get run through the floats to power the show.

At what point does your schedule really start ramping up?

It’s gradual. Show applications go out in June, we select the advertising campaign in July, exhibitor deadlines start in September, and everyone in our office is in full “boat show mode” by November.

How far in advance of opening day does setup begin?

The first big boats will be staged in a parking lot near the stadium 12 days before we open. It’s almost a two-week process.

How far in advance do you have to start booking the entertainment?

We brainstorm year round and always have our eyes and ears open for new ideas. Boaters are a diverse group, and their tastes in music and entertainment vary as much as their hulls and propulsion do. Deciding what the entertainment hook should be each year is an entertaining process in itself. Waterskiing squirrel or stand-up paddleboard jousting or life-size sandcastle? You can’t make this stuff up, oh wait, we do.SBS 2

What keeps people coming back to the show year after year?

One of the most popular features year in and year out is the extensive lineup of free boating and fishing seminars and the advanced training classes for a fee through Boat Show University. Indeed, many out-of-town attendees plan their travel arrangements around the seminar schedule. Others buy a five-day pass in order to fit in all the seminars they want to attend. And it’s with good reason. No other show in North America matches the Seattle seminar schedule in terms of the quality, variety and number of seminars offered. For the 2015 show, we added 35 new free seminars, bringing the total to 235 and prompting the addition of a fourth stage on weekends. This year there are 20 new topics.

At the risk of sounding cliché, there really is something for everyone. Whether you want to learn about crabbing 101, life as a liveaboard, cruising to Alaska or Mexico, or the history of Capt. Cook, we’ve got you covered. Or if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, Boat Show University offers more advanced seminars in a three hour format.

What’s new for 2016?

This year we are incorporating the Seattle Boat Show into an industry workforce development effort. For the first time, we are reaching out to schools and encouraging educators to bring their classes to the show for free. Monday will be “Career Day” at the boat show and will kick-off with a marine industry-specific job fair at CenturyLink Event Center two hours before the show opens. Job fair attendees will also receive admission to the show after the job fair concludes.

Anyone interested in learning more about careers in the recreational marine industry will be welcome to attend. Whether you are actively seeking a job or just exploring future career options, this will be a great opportunity to learn what’s out there.SBS 11

Also, if you are among the 12,000 Seahawks fans on the season ticket waiting list (average wait time is 10 years), the Seattle Boat Show could be your fast track for seats for the 2016- 2017 season. We have a pair of season tickets to give away and are in the process of deciding how to do it.

What are a few “can’t miss” attractions for attendees?

Don’t miss Friday nights. On the opening Friday night, showgoers can participate in our “Uncorked” event and sip wine while wandering the show and shopping for boats or accessories. The following weekend the festivities repeat at “Sails & Ales,” our craft beer tasting event.

We have some exciting new options that we are considering and as of press time are narrowing it down to choose the final ones. The best place to get the latest information is on our website,, which is updated constantly.

What do you hope people walk away from the show saying?

I hope people leave the show excited to get out on the water. We want attendees to be inspired to dust off the old boat on a trailer in their garage, or to pull the trigger on buying a new boat, or to invest in new navigation gear, or sign up for sailing lessons, or discover a new marina in the San Juans, or take the kids fishing next weekend, or …???


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