A savvier dealer corps

Posted on Written by Richard Armstrong
More than 600 dealers were among the record 1,130 conferees.

More than 600 dealers were among the record 1,130 conferees.

MDCE participants come home loaded with ideas after their three-day cram course in Orlando

The more than 600 dealers who attended this year’s Marine Dealer Conference & Expo generally came for three reasons: networking, new ideas and to nurture or develop new vendor relationships.

With 2013 marking the 35th annual gathering of what started as the Marine Retailers Association of America’s annual convention in 1978, the MDCE had the best-attended event in its history and conferees spoke of being energized by its format, content and direction.

Matt Gruhn, president of co-sponsor MRAA (now the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas), documented the rise with total attendance figures from the past seven dealer conferences: 97 in 2007; 198 in 2008; 431 in 2009; 740 in 2010; 950 in 2011; 1,071 in 2012; and 1,130 this year.

Dealer attendance was up 20 percent, to 614, from last year’s high of 512, and 39 percent of the dealers attended the MDCE for the first time.

“Ninety-nine percent of the feedback we’ve had has been extremely positive, with a lot of dealers telling us it was the best version of the event yet,” Gruhn says. “At the same time, the exhibitors say they also had a great experience.”

Wall-to-wall learning

The loudest buzz at this year’s Nov. 18-20 gathering at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., was over the nearly wall-to-wall schedule of workshops, seminars (or “tracks”) and top-flight speakers.

“We try to cram as much content in there as we can and let the dealers decide what they want to take in,” Gruhn says. “Educational sessions are the core concept of what we do.”

The options at this year’s MDCE: seven pre-conference workshops, 18 educational “track” sessions, a keynote address, an MRAA session, the Industry Leaders panel discussion and one session for manufacturer’s representatives.

Co-producers the MRAA and Boating Industry magazine say they doubled the budget for speakers this year — and conferees took notice.

“This year’s venue was the best yet; the quality of speakers and content was by far the best to date,” says Darren Plymale, vice president/general manager of Galati Yacht Sales, who has attended the MDCE annually since 2007.

“This is such a great shot in the arm,” says Fred Pace, managing partner at Legendary Marine in Destin, Fla., which was a repeat winner in BI’s Top Dealership rankings this year. “The speakers seem to only get better and we get a great deal of content we can take back to our dealership.”

Speakers, led by keynoter Jeffrey Gitomer, a best-selling author and a sales and leadership authority, gave informative talks on management, customer service, service departments, growth and profitability, financing, marketing, social media and branding, among other topics.

A new element this year was a roster of seven 90-minute workshops that were held the morning before the MDCE opened. The intimate small-group discussions — attended by more than 150 early arrivers — touched on such key issues as developing an action plan for growth, boosting show sales, maximizing profits through service and several mobile and online topics.

The flock gathers

Lynn Fiorenzano, president of Silver Spring Marine in Rhode Island, says she attends every two or three years to get fresh ideas, network with other dealers and take the pulse of the industry.

“Even if you go away with three little ideas, it was worth it,” she says, noting that she easily met her quota. “You’re never going to learn unless you get out of your dealership and mingle with other dealers and the industry. You have to get out of your box.”

Joe Lewis, general manager of the Mount Dora Boating Center in Florida, brought two of his service department managers to this year’s event with the goal that he and they would return with three ideas apiece about streamlining operations and improving customer service.

“We believe if we do that, profitability will follow,” he says.

“I come here to measure how I’m doing against the rest of the world before we go back to the dealership — back to the cocoon,” Lewis adds. “You get new ideas, and sometimes you get validation that what you’re doing is right.”

Among the dealers who had never attended the MDCE was Michael Myers, owner of Boston Yacht Sales.

“As a first-time attendee I concentrated on seminars geared toward management and sales while Rhonda Corey-Myers, who handles business development for us, attended sessions focusing on marketing-related content,” Myers says. “Initially we were hoping to leave with a few new ideas and a read on the forecast for the industry. We received so many viewpoints, solutions and constructive ideas beneficial to our business that we will be happy if we can incorporate four or five of them within the next year.”

Josie Tucci, vice president of marketing at MarineMax, also attended for the first time. She was one of 12 people from the retail giant who were at the conference.

“We came to see if some of the education component works for our team for the next year,” Tucci says, citing new products and networking as incentives.

“This serves as a good kick-start to a lot of very good conversations,” she says.

Rick Neal, vice president of Hall Marine, a South Carolina-based chain of six Sea Ray, Boston Whaler, Scout, Meridian and Harris FloteBote dealerships, says his group comes to support the industry and to network.

“We’re here getting to meet all of our brand buddies to see how each brand is doing in a particular area,” he says.

“What MDCE has done is help us be a better dealership — beyond revenues, but with customer service,” says Pace, of Legendary Marine.

The showroom floor

About 100 exhibitors displayed products and services across more than 100,000 square feet of exhibitor space, with several introducing new products at the expo.

Dominion Marine Media used the expo to unveil DX1, a cloud-based software system that provides end-to-end management of inventory, leads and sales for dealerships. “We believe this will revolutionize the way you do business,” senior vice president Ian Atkins told a gathering at the company’s booth.

Of more than 30 boats displayed on the convention center floor, pontoons were the dominant design, with three from Crest Marine; three from Smoker Craft; three from Forest River Marine; two from Bennington; and one from Larson.

The 100 exhibitors at the conference included several pontoon builders.

The 100 exhibitors at the conference included several pontoon builders.

The Larson Boat Group re-entered the pontoon market last summer and brought its new Escape 25 to the show, along with three other boats.

“We’ve had so many people give it a look and say, ‘I didn’t know Larson made pontoon boats,’ ” says Theresa Lisson, sales and marketing coordination manager. “I think being diversified in the market is one of the Larson Boat Group’s strong points. We are excited to jump onboard in the pontoon market, and being part of this trend enables us to replace some of the business that we were seeing being taken from the runabout market.”

Phil Smoker, vice president of sales, says Smoker Craft has attended the past several MDCE events and comes to meet with the company’s dealers and cultivate new relationships.

“We have over 400 dealers, but we’re always looking to pick up more,” he says. “Attending MDCE is really about starting a conversation and getting to know each other.”

The company brought three pontoon boats, including its new Sylvan S5, and three Starcraft runabouts.

Crest brought its new Savannah 250, which features an eight-speaker, 1,000-watt Roswell sound system and can reach 48 knots with a 300-hp Verado and lifting strakes.

“We’re hoping to sign up two or three new dealers from this show,” says regional sales manager Shane Torzy.

Premier Pontoons decided against bringing a boat this year, national sales manager Jim Antolik says.

“First and foremost, we come to support the MRAA,” he says, “but we did not do this specifically to get new accounts and that’s why we didn’t bring any new product. Right now we have a good backlog that takes us through February, and we still have dealers putting orders in.”

Still, Premier came away with “several very strong leads” for dealers who could be onboard for the 2015 model year, Antolik says.

Bob Blum, sales director at Apex Marine, brought its unique Paddle Qwest model, which is powered by an aluminum stern paddlewheel. Last year, Apex added an electric motor option to the pedal-powered pontoon boat. This year, a solar panel was mounted aft that produces close to the six amps needed to perpetually run the electric motor-powered paddlewheel without pedaling.

Other exhibitors included accessory and toy manufacturers such as Gibbs Sports Amphibians, which makes the Quadski PWC/quad motorcycle hybrid that tops out at 45 mph both on water and on land.

“At this show we picked up at least 15 hot prospects — way beyond the five or so we expected,” says Dan Proffer, sales and marketing manager. The Michigan-based company is looking to build its dealer network of about 15 members to 100.

Trailer Valet is a steerable trailer hitch attachment with brakes, gears and pneumatic tires that make maneuvering a trailer a one-man job.

“We came to MDCE to get visibility, and on the first day I had a couple of dealers in the Midwest interested in the product for packing boats in tight quarters for winter,” says John Kichton, a sales representative for the start-up company. By the end of the show, Kichton had sold a pallet of 24 Trailer Valets to an Alaskan dealership.

Now hear this

The roster of speakers at the MDCE featured a Murderer’s Row of perennially popular presenters, including David Avrin, Don “The Sales Heretic” Cooper, Steve Cohn, Sam Dantzler, David Parker, David Spader and John Spence.

More than 200 people packed a hall at the convention center for “business guru” Jeffrey Gitomer’s keynote address.

Gitomer came to the conference with a prime business pedigree as the author of 11 best-selling business books and as a consultant for companies such as Coca-Cola, BMW and IBM.

Those unfamiliar with his lectures quickly discovered that he also comes with a biting sense of humor. Riffing on the government shutdown, poor airline service, boat salesman cliché lines — even his failed marriages — Gitomer’s rapid-fire delivery mixed laughs with insight about sales and customer service.

The dumbest question in sales: “What’s it going to take to get your business?” he says. “Why don’t you just ask ‘How much do I have to cut my price to get your business?’ ”

Gitomer blended blunt honesty with his humor. Mocking AOL and Blackberry for hemorrhaging tens of millions of customers, he says the companies had only themselves to blame. “Lousy service and low technology: Keep that in mind if you want to keep your customers because it’s a new world,” he says.

Gitomer talked about how technology is changing the business world and how companies that refuse to adapt will be left behind. Maintaining an online and social media presence is critical to long-term success, regardless of a company’s size.

“What are you waiting for?” he asks. “It’s free.”

Gitomer’s main focus was how to sell and how not to sell.

“People don’t like to be sold, but they love to buy,” he says, adding, “People buy for their reasons, not yours. So find out theirs and sell them on it.”

Gitomer suggests asking questions such as “What was your first boating experience like?” as a means of forging an emotional connection. A positive attitude, belief in company, product and self, honesty, sincerity and friendliness remain universally powerful sales tools, he says.

“Trust is built slowly, over time,” he says. “You can’t do it in a day, but you can lose it in a second.”

Spence was the featured speaker at the annual MRAA meeting, and he delivered a message that opportunities come with this changing world of ours.

He urges conferees to stop wasting time and energy worrying about factors outside their control — the economy, their competition — and focus on “the finite and manageable” elements within their control and concentrate on improving those.

Spence advised owners to strive to improve their businesses through change.

“Create a clear vision for successful change and communicate it relentlessly,” he says, “and empower your employees to act. If they have ownership, they’ll commit to change.”

One avenue of improvement is found in other successful businesses. Spence urged conferees to become “awesome at swiping” good ideas. “You should go through your entire day saying, ‘Where’s a good idea I can swipe and bring back to my dealership?’ ”

He also says little day-to-day victories should be celebrated.

“It’s not going to get easy again. This is the new normal,” Spence says of the modern business world.

He stresses that having a core philosophy and hiring top talent are things that should never change and that credibility and keeping the trust of customers are essential to long-term success.

“When you begin accepting mediocrity, you become a magnet for mediocrity,” he says.

Big picture

Amid the learning, networking and deal-making, conferees also were quick to share their perspective of the industry today and where it may be heading.

Like others at the event, Lewis, of Mount Dora Boating Center, says that in his discussions at the conference he sensed that “the mood is very upbeat. Everyone seems positive about the trajectory of the market.”

Neal, of Hall Marine, concurs.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to are doing pretty good,” he says. “People are spending money again.”

Fiorenzano, of Silver Spring Marine, says those still standing, the survivors of the Great Recession, have emerged committed to making the boating experience better for customers.

“The technology is more sophisticated, so you have to run your dealership in a more sophisticated way. Today’s customer doesn’t show up with a toolbox in their hand,” she says. “We made it through the downturn; we’re here to stay; now we have to do the best job possible.”

Myers, of Boston Yacht Sales, sees customer service as the biggest key to success moving forward.

“The overall sentiment is that we are recovering as an industry and there is continued cautious optimism, but this is the new normal,” he says. “We see the marketing structure changing and adapting to the times: less print unless it’s story — or content-related; more social media; and the need to concentrate on the importance of customer service, even in these ‘Internet’ buying times.”

Larry Russo, president and CEO of Russo Marine in Boston, says he has attended the conference in each of the past 30 years and was impressed with the 2013 version.

“Considering how damaged our industry has been over the last five years, this is a dynamic event. I’m hearing nothing but positive coming from this year,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.

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