Q&A with Joe Lewis, Grow Boating chairman

Posted on Written by Richard Armstrong

08_joe_lewisJoe Lewis, 56, is the owner and general manager of Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina, a dealership and full-service marina in central Florida with 94 wet slips and 140 drystack slips. He also is the chairman of Grow Boating, the industry program that promotes the boating lifestyle. Relaunched last year after several years of dormancy and reduced funding, it has embraced digital media as a way of spreading its message, particularly to young people.

Lewis is trying to do the same at his business, staying connected to customers through e-newsletters and a Facebook page, and he says it has become an essential part of doing business today. His marina is routinely ranked among the best in the country.

Lewis grew up boating with his family in Harrisburg, Pa. “When my parents split, boating was Dad’s activity, so we did a lot of it when I was a kid,” he says. After falling away from boating in his teens, Lewis returned to it when he bought his first boat, a Wellcraft Nova, in his mid-20s. That boat, he says, eventually led him to trade a career in outdoor power equipment distribution for one as a marina owner. He purchased the Mount Dora business in 1989 and moved to Florida.

Married with an 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, Lewis says his is a boating family — lots of wakeboarding and wakesurfing for the teenagers. When Trade Only caught up with him, the Lewis clan was vacationing in Key West aboard a 34-foot Rinker express cruiser. “I had just taken it back as a trade-in,” he says. “That’s the advantage to owning a marina.”

Q: You’re approaching the end of your term as chairman of the Grow Boating board. In what ways has the industry made headway in growing participation?

08_q_a_1A: When we started our Discover Boating marketing campaign in 2006, less than 60 million people were participating in boating. By the end of 2008 we had grown that number to 70 million. When the economy went south, along with our funding, that figure dropped back down to 60 million.

We restarted our Discover Boating marketing efforts in January of 2011. Since then, participation has started growing again. In 2011 we saw another substantial increase in adult participation, which I believe reached an all-time high [82.7 08_q_a_2million adults, 18 years and older]. All of this was during times of ill economic headwinds.

So I do believe Grow Boating has been effective and will continue to be effective.

Q: How has Grow Boating changed, post-recession?

A: Our budget is half what it was prerecession, so we’ve had to do more with less. That means being more creative in engaging people. Since launching the campaign in 2006, technology changed dramatically and social media exploded onto the scene. We had a lot of work to do reworking our website, making it more mobile-friendly. Fortunately the growth of social media was perfectly timed for us, and we’ve taken full advantage. Our Facebook efforts have been extremely successful. It’s all been good and is working well, but I’m looking forward to the day our budget allows us to restore some more traditional media to the mix. That will make all the foundation work we’ve been doing over the last 18 months even better.

Q: What are some of the Grow Boating initiatives — both short- and long-term —you feel most strongly about?

A: The social media component has just been a dramatic success. We launched our first Facebook page in 2010, and through the Movie Maker program launched in June on Facebook we’ve been able to reach and engage more people than ever before. Our Facebook page has close to half a million “likes.”

That’s quite a feat. It speaks well of our efforts and the allure of boating. I’m also extremely pleased with our Welcome to the Water message. In four words it explains what boating is all about and can be used in a number of ways. We recently partnered with [the Association of Marina Industries] and their National Marina Day, adding our WTTW message and logo as an example. It’s universal, versatile and inviting — all rolled into one phrase.

Long term, we set out to increase our budget by getting more sectors of the industry involved. Nothing happens in the marine business until a boat is sold. However, once it is, lenders, insurers, marinas, accessory and service sectors of our industry all benefit.

We developed several plans to enable all these folks to help us expand our budget and reach. I’m happy to report both the accessory and personal watercraft manufacturers have recently adopted funding models and are contributing.

08_q_aWe believe we’re getting closer to having the same thing happen with the lenders, both at the wholesale and retail levels. We’ll put this additional funding to work expanding our media reach.

Q: Attendees at the Growth Summit held last December and its follow-up in April discussed challenges facing the industry and strategies for meeting them. What do you consider the key challenges facing boating over the next 10-plus years?

A: Getting more kids involved and expanding our ethnic audience are the two big takeaways for me and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Discover Boating can play a role here and it has.

During June’s National Marina Day, sponsored by Welcome to the Water, we participated in a Demo Day promotion put together by the Marine Industry Association of Central Florida. We had a Middle Eastern family of four attend with a relative visiting from Dubai. They had never been on a boat before, but at the end of the ride, judging by the smiles on all their faces, this wasn’t going to be their last boat ride. That single ride created a memory — enjoying the moment as a family — that will never be forgotten.

Now have they bought a boat yet? No. But I’ll bet they’re thinking about one and I won’t be surprised to see them back soon, even if it’s just to rent one for the afternoon.

Bring a Buddy Boating programs encouraging boaters to take non-boater friends and family out on the water have worked well. Boat owners are our best ambassadors. Any dealer salesperson will tell you getting folks on the water closes sales. We just have to get more creative finding ways to make this happen.

Q: Consumers have never had more options for recreation. How do you convince them to try and to stay with boating?

A: Yes, they do, and one thing we can count on is there’ll be more competition for their time in the future. Boating is about fun, excitement and adventure, but most importantly it’s quality time with family and friends that just can’t be duplicated.

We need to be talking about that and selling it in order to convince them to try it. After that, our job is to make sure all those things happen. Through sponsoring outings, poker runs, scavenger hunts, destination cruises or something as simple as a cookout we’ll help set the stage. Making sure people are having fun with their boats is the best way to ensure they’ll stay with boating.

Q: Talk about the challenges of running a marina or dealership today through your perspective at Mount Dora Boating Center. Are we in the industry all facing the same challenges?

A: I think we are — from the boatbuilders, accessory makers to marinas and the dealers — we’re all doing more with smaller staffs. We all have to try harder than we ever did before and more.

Today the landscape has changed and so has our thinking. We have fewer customers. There’s a saying that goes, “The problem may not be our fault, but if it’s our customer it’s our problem.” That’s become our operating motto.

Today if a customer has a problem we do all we can to resolve it — quickly — regardless of the cause. I can’t say that was true in years past. We’ve learned to place a very high value on keeping our boaters happy.

Q: Talk about your business plan as we all adjust to the “new normal.”

A: Well, again, do more with less, with one main focus: Have fun.

Our staff at Mount Dora Boating Center is about half of what it was a few years ago, but we have staff meetings every two weeks, and one of the points I try to make is, ‘We’re all selling.’ Even if it’s handing a line with a smile as they come back in, you’re having a positive effect on that boater and their experience.

At a marina we see them when they head out and we see them when they come back, and we want to do everything we can to make sure they have fun and a positive experience.

Q: What are you optimistic about when you look to the future?

A: What I’m doing right now — boating on vacation in the Florida Keys. Boating is an activity that engages the whole family in a fun activity, away from the TVs and gizmos and other distractions. It’s an activity that pulls people together — offers an experience like no other I know of — and it’s been that way for generations. It’s boating’s ace in the hole.

One thing I’d like to add, if I may, is a thank you to all the manufacturers and retailers in the industry who’ve supported the Discover Boating Grow Boating initiative over the years. The program would simply not exist without you. Together we’ve accomplished a great deal, but we’re just getting started. Five years from now, I firmly believe we’ll be looking back at solid industry growth.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

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