The Marine Dealer Conference & Expo this past December had recurring themes, and they weren’t sugarcoated: Workforce shortages desperately need to be addressed, and boat dealers must embrace a retail landscape that has completely changed from the one that existed just five years ago.
Using today’s tools to make the marine industry more attractive to new workers, as well as to new boaters, will be essential to its survival, many said during the content-packed sessions at the MDCE, which was held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., and organized by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
Embracing and producing a variety of content — not sales pitches — will ultimately dictate whether boating thrives or fizzles, according to more than one speaker at the three-day event. Video was a huge point of focus, as was social media, search engine optimization and using data like Google Analytics to measure marketing return on investment.
MRAA educational director and vice president Liz Walz and MRAA president Matt Gruhn gathered feedback on the biggest issues and challenges dealers face to help address them year-round.
Walz said 674 dealers registered for the Dec. 10-13 event; 641 attended last year. Not only was dealer attendance the highest ever, but 118 exhibitors, also a record number, were at the conference.
“While the numbers are still being finalized, it’s clear that we had our biggest show yet,” Walz said. “We’re honored to have had record numbers of dealers register for the show and record numbers of manufacturers and suppliers exhibit. But our mission is to create a strong and healthy boating industry by providing dealers with opportunities to improve and grow.”
Attendees seemed to take the messages to heart. Wanda Kenton Smith, a renowned public relations manager and Trade Only columnist who received the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award at the opening dinner, said the MDCE is one of the most important development and educational events she attends each year.
“The MRAA does an outstanding job of lining up great speakers who address relevant topics in key areas of focus, including sales, marketing, service and leadership,” Kenton Smith said. “I appreciated the fact that this year, that they identified the recommended experience level for each session in advance so you knew whether it was fundamental or basic content, intermediate, advanced or open for all skill levels.”
The event is a one-stop shop, said Lou Sandoval, who recently took on a business development position with Brunswick Corp.
“I’ve got to give it to Liz and Matt because all the things they delivered on are things we talked about five years ago when we kicked off the [Recreational Boating Leadership Council]: How do we get the industry out of the 1990s and into the 2000s? There’s still a lot of tech anxiety in the industry. And we also hit on skills development to address the workforce shortage. The long wait times can ruin your boating season, which gives people the perspective that the two best days of a boat owner’s life is the day they buy it and the day they sell it.”
Kirt and Kathy Lee Senft, owners of A-1 Auto Service Inc. and Xpress Boats dealers in Quincy, Fla., were first-time attendees. They only recently became new-boat retailers, but they have been in business since 1989, repairing boats and engines and serving the auto industry.
It has been eye-opening for them to learn how different the two industries are, Kirt said, adding that the boat industry hasn’t quite gotten out of a 2008 mentality.
“We’re dealing with the end consumer,” he said. “But if I buy that boat and there’s something wrong with it, a lot of boat manufacturers won’t do a thing about it until it’s sold. Then they put it through as a warranty claim,” which leaves buyers with a bad taste in their mouth from the get-go.
Hot Springs, Ark.-based Xpress Boats has been responsive to the Senfts, which is partly why they chose to carry the line. But being new to new-boat sales made it important for the husband-and-wife business owners to hear from other dealers, particularly because many MDCE attendees have been in business for generations.
“What stood out to me over the four days we were there, the dealers that had 25-plus years sitting next to me in a class and asking questions … that gave answers to questions I did not know I had,” he said. “Dealers that would sit down and discuss problems they face today, which are many of the same problems we have.”
A bigger showing
This edition of MDCE was the first opportunity that Minnesota-based River Valley Power & Sport had to take multiple employees from all departments: management, sales, service and marketing, said CEO John Wooden, who brought nine staff members with him.
“We have 85 employees, and 10 of us were there,” said Jared Gumtow, sales team lead at River Valley. “It was a commitment from the store and a commitment by the people we took because they’ve got to come back and share what they’ve learned with everyone.”
River Valley has been growing at a fast pace, has added improvements and has seen an annual increase during the past four years, he said.
“When you have opportunities to go get training from the best in the industry and stay ahead of the curve, you take that opportunity and go,” Gumtow said. “If you stop learning, you fall behind.”
His favorite session was done by Kirk Armstrong, a trainer, speaker and sales coach who focused on using technology to get more sales.
“It’s more about how you talk to people using technology,” Gumtow said. “We still do print ads, but people are also fixated on video. We have two millennials working in our marketing department, and social media is their world.”
The River Valley team was also at MDCE with Luke Stoker, who comes from the automotive industry and is helping the marketing team develop a stronger presence online and with video. Staffers who attended various sessions later put on presentations for members of their sector who did not attend.
“We’re definitely going to be back next year,” Gumtow said. “The owner wants to continue to give all the team members an opportunity to go and expand their ability to do their jobs. That’s one thing we really like here, to adapt and change.”
Using the knowledge
One of the more challenging aspects of the MDCE does not appear until afterward, when business owners and principals struggle to make changes or decide what they can and should do after so much information is handed to them.
The MDCE is not about one week of learning, Walz emphasized. It’s about what businesses can bring back and implement.
“That thinking that this is not just about one week, it comes from our listening to all of you,” Walz told dealers at the event. “It’s the stories you tell us about how we’re servicing you well and how we can do better.”
The MRAA launched a 19-page document called “Guide to Dealership Improvement” at the show as part of its endeavor to assist after the event.
“When we have the chance to hear dealers’ stories of how the education, tools, resources and relationships they accumulated during the show have been put to work in their businesses to boost their results, that’s when we know that we did our job well,” Walz said. “We work really hard to build MDCE with that goal in mind.”
This year, the MRAA is doing even more to help attendees implement what they’ve learned.
“For the first time this year, we created a carbon-copy Commitment to Improvement form that dealers at MDCE could fill out, share with us and bring home,” Walz said.
The idea is that the MRAA often hears from attendees who were overwhelmed by the to-do lists they created. The commitment form allows them to focus on areas where they can take immediate action and create a plan for doing so. “By sharing their commitments with us, we have the ability to check in on their progress and offer our help,” Walz said. “This is the first year for this program, and we have 37 forms that were turned in. That number might not seem very high to some, but when you think about how those commitments can make a difference for not only the individual, but their team members, their customers and the dealership at large, well, we’re pretty fired up about the opportunity to play a part.”
A recurring theme
Some MDCE speakers seemed to have at least one common thread, regardless of the subject matter — and it was tied in to the idea that although marine industry players seem receptive to information, they don’t always change accordingly.
“I’ve been saying this for seven years, but I’ll keep saying it until you all listen,” says Marcus Sheridan, whom The New York Times called a marketing guru after he saved his swimming pool company, River Pools, simply by giving consumers honest information on his website.
Sheridan’s message was to share more candid information about boats and boat ownership online because in the digital age, people want to find answers before they start shopping. If those answers aren’t there, potential buyers will become frustrated and may leave.
“If you don’t ask 20 people specifically why they do business with you, I won’t talk to you,” said John Spence, another sought-after speaker on the national circuit who specializes in delivering superior customer service. “I won’t take your money. I won’t consult you. I won’t have breakfast with you. There are a lot of people I won’t talk to anymore. And only one out of five of you will do this.”
Spence, like Sheridan, thought his advice had fallen on deaf ears. And they weren’t alone.
“They know they should be doing it, but they don’t make the time to do it,” popular speaker Sam Dantzler said of ongoing dealership training, the subject of his first speech. “They’re trying to convince themselves that because they don’t have a big employee turnover, they don’t have a problem. We play in three industries, and they’re all the same regarding this.”
Dealers reacted overwhelmingly positively to the content at MDCE, so why wouldn’t they take the ideas back and implement them?
“If you look at it as a dealer, you come here and get inspired; then you get on the plane and go home,” Dantzler said. “You’ve got social media to deal with; you’re jumping back into the retail swirl. You can understand how they are overwhelmed. But the fact is they can’t run a company like they did five years ago, let alone 20 years ago.”
Scenes from MDCE 2017
Opening up to youth
One encouraging sign at the conference was the number of 20- to 35-year-olds taking notes and convening around dealer roundtables. One notable roundtable on the first day was marked “social media and video,” and five of the nine members who attended were under 30.
Corey Phillips of Prince William Marina in Woodbridge, Va., explained how important it was to follow video and social media mentors to keep up on trends and technology. “You have to stay up on it,” Phillips said.
“It all changes so quick anymore,” said Tayler Petticolas of Hagadone Marine in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
The third generation at Prince William Marina, Phillips has been spearheading social media for the dealership. Before that, the work was not getting done. “You can’t sell the product if you can’t sell the lifestyle,” he said.
“One of our hashtags is, ‘You only get 18 summers with your kids,’” said Honey Tejero of Boulder Boats in Colorado, prompting several people to make a note.
When people get busy, social media takes the biggest hit because there’s no one person doing it and because it’s not tangible, as many other tasks at the dealership are, Petticolas said.
That comment struck on another major theme of the whole conference: With the retail environment so drastically different now versus five years ago, the marketing department has a lot more responsibility and pressure to reach people at various points of the sales funnel because those people are no longer coming to dealerships seeking answers.
That means the marketing department has, in many ways, taken over for the dealers who used to make calls and work leads. Increasingly, those potential buyers are not on dealers’ radar yet. So marketers have to be savvy about reaching them and keeping them interested.
Yet the marketing department is still one of the first things to get cut when times are tough, Sheridan pointed out during his session.
“I think there’s a disconnect between dealer principals” regarding how important social media and video are for reaching consumers earlier in the decision-making process, Petticolas said.
Phillips, Petticolas and Tejero — all in their 20s — exchanged ideas for keeping viewers engaged in video clips and discussed the equipment they use and how they try to allow viewers to customize their experiences.
“The first 350 Scout that showed up, that’s a 70-mph boat, so we’ll show a joystick move in the first 30 seconds to keep them engaged with what they’re watching,” Phillips said about videos he shoots, which are more than just walk-throughs. “The bigger the boat you do, they’ll run eight to 10 minutes long, and that’s when you start cutting it. Anything over four minutes” has to get cut.
That’s challenging with bigger products, so you have to figure out what to focus on, he said. However, he’ll keep a full-length video for people who inquire about it — and people do, Phillips said. “We’ll have four videos of that same 350 outboard.”
Petticolas agreed that the variation was a good idea: “It totally customizes the customer experience, which is key. They want to see things how they want to see it, and when they want to see it.”
Younger generations seem to be less competitive with one another than the boomers, several noted. “This discussion shows the industry is not stingy with its knowledge,” said David Nichols of Eric’s Outboard Marine Service Inc. in Miami.
A friendlier approach to competition was also a topic at another roundtable, which focused on employment problems and had several people younger than 40 attend. Susan and Rory Duquette, owners of Massachusetts-based Lakeview Marine, said they will refer a customer to competitors if they can’t meet that person’s needs, something the prior owners would not have done.
“As older people are moving on, we have a much better relationship with our competitors,” Rory Duquette said.
The roundtables helped facilitate the collaboration, said Gumtow, who also noticed more young people than usual at MDCE events this year.
“Millennials are very willing to share, and that generation is one of the first that is going to be able to adapt and change, versus older generations,” Gumtow said. “They’re very much about, ‘We’re going do this and be better, and we’ll share what we know with anyone.’ ”
Sharing might be an area in which younger people can influence some industry veterans. Finally, it seems, the elders are starting to listen when it comes to keeping up with technology and meeting consumers on their own terms.
Rob Brown, general manager at Clark Marine in Maine, said their son talked him and his wife, Nancy, into a customer relations management system. He gestured to 25-year-old Patrick Fortier-Brown, and brought Ian Sikora, a 32-year-old in parts and accessories, to the conference.
“That’s our next group we have to appeal to as an industry, so the sooner we learn to talk to them, the better off we’ll be,” Rob Brown said.
At least 10 of the younger people in marketing departments that talked with Soundings Trade Only had stories about how it took their bosses or principals time — two years was mentioned often — to agree to whatever new technology or marketing vision they were trying to spearhead.
Ryan Swaims, 33, built the virtual-reality system at the Chaparral and Robalo booth. It allowed visitors to “test-drive” the latest boats. “It took me two years to convince them, but after they saw it they were like, ‘I get it now,’ ” Swaims said.
Dealers were eager to test Robalo’s system. There were lines, and several dealers bought versions for boat shows and other events.
“The boaters of tomorrow don’t look like the boaters of today,” Sandoval said. “Their on-boarding has to be vastly different” than what the industry has traditionally offered.
Tim Sanders remembers pitching Blockbuster on digitizing the company’s business. Netflix had recently emerged as a competitor, but Blockbuster executives were unconcerned, thinking that streaming content was a passing fad.
Three years later, Blockbuster tried to compete by offering its own DVD mail service, but it was too late, said Sanders, the keynote speaker on Dec. 11.
“What I learned about that process over the course of those years is that dealing with change is hard,” Sanders said. “It’s a big change to move from trade shows, hand-to-hand contact and newspapers. It’s emotionally upsetting, and I understand that. We fight change. Most of the time when something comes along, like getting DVDs in the mail and never pay late fees, that is seriously disruptive to your business. Most people go through shock.”
But time is of the essence, Sanders said, and marine dealers who don’t adjust to the digital demands of customers will get left behind.
“People stuck at the bottom of the roller coaster, they die,” he said.
Sanders was on the ground floor of the quality movement, the launch of the mobile phone industry and the birth of the Internet. He was an early member of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s broadcast.com, which had the largest opening-day IPO in history.
After Yahoo acquired the company, Sanders was tapped to lead its ValueLab, which enabled sales teams to close hundreds of millions of dollars of new business through rapid collaboration. In 2005 he founded Deeper Media, which provides consulting and training services for leading companies, trade associations and government agencies.
One way for dealers to reach consumers how and when they want to be reached, he said, is video.
“For SEO, video is really important,” Sanders said. “Seventy percent of consumers are more likely to purchase a product if they watch a video that explains the product.”
And videos need to address a variety of needs, not just the shopping journey, he said.
“How do you use the boat? You want product content across your site that answers key decisions,” he said. And the more companies use data to measure how effective their marketing dollars are, the more they will arrive at the same conclusion: post more video.
“The better we get at marketing, the more we get our market to grow,” Sanders said.
“Change is painful, and empathy is the only way as a builder, or leader, to have your people grapple with and embrace change,” he added. “The reality is it scares the heck out of people in retail to make that change. As owners, we need to recognize it’s hard for them to do that. It’s a different world, where we feel lost.”
New strategies needed
When Marcus Sheridan’s business tanked along with the economy, his fiberglass pool company was on the brink of bankruptcy. So he decided to start to answer customers’ questions on his website. It was a radical idea.
“Marcus, if you just obsess over the questions you get every single day from your customers and are willing to address them, and are willing to talk about them, through video, texts, on your website — if they ask, you answer,” Sheridan said during his marketing track session. “You know if you don’t, somebody else will. That’s how you’ll earn that magical thing called trust.”
But most businesses in the boating industry adhere to ostrich marketing, Sheridan said. And when 70 percent of the buying decision is made before a customer meets a dealer, it’s crucial for the industry to provide information customers want to find on iPads and smartphones, he said.
Sheridan put up on his website a small post explaining the pricing of fiberglass pools, information that traditionally had been unavailable unless you were talking with a salesperson.
“One of the first questions potential pool owners want to know when they call our company is, ‘How much does a fiberglass pool cost?’ Although this is a very difficult question to answer, I will do my best here to explain some general pricing guidelines,” he wrote on the website.
That post drove so much traffic to his site that he made more than 200 appointments that resulted in $4.5 million in sales.
“We know as the buyer that they know they, as the business, have the answer to my question,” Sheridan said. “Because they have the answer and are not giving it to us, we feel like they’re hiding something from us. We started a ‘You ask, we answer’ page, and today we’re the most-trafficked swimming pool website in the world. It happened because we said, ‘We’re going to be the Wikipedia of pools.’ It went so well, I started getting sales leads from all over the country.
“We don’t talk about it until we’re face to face, and because of that, websites like The Hull Truth run this,” Sheridan added. “Third-party companies are controlling the information that they get when they research anything about price.”
A first-time boat-buyer study by Grow Boating showed that the industry has lost nearly 1 million first-time buyers during the past 10 years. Overall, 66 percent of lapsed shoppers said they did not have a helpful experience at the dealership, and 64 percent said they didn’t believe that they knew enough about boats to buy one.
Attack digital consumption, Sheridan said: “Consumer ignorance is no longer a viable sales and marketing strategy. It’s gone. Even the uninformed will eventually become the informed.”
MRAA and dealer health care
Health-care costs have been one of the biggest challenges for boat dealers, making it difficult to retain workers, and the workforce has been top of mind as service technicians are increasingly tough to find and keep on the payroll. The MRAA is addressing both challenges, Gruhn said during a state-of-the-industry address at the MDCE.
Dealers will be able to save 25 to 30 percent on health-care coverage because of a program the MRAA announced at the MDCE. The average savings per employee will be about $1,600, Gruhn said.
“One of the biggest challenges we have in our businesses when retaining employees is health care,” Gruhn said. “I stood here two years ago and said I’m looking for a health-care program we can bring our membership.”
The plan comes through Bukaty Companies — a distinguished partner with all the major carriers that’s licensed in all 50 states — and includes major medical, dental, vision, wellness programs, health savings accounts and health reimbursement arrangements.
“The best part of this, in my opinion, is, other than the cost benefit, you can get the best program for you,” Gruhn said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all program.”
In the pilot program, one dealer saved more than 25 percent and offered the same benefits; the second dealer hasn’t signed yet, but shows savings of 30 percent.
The MRAA also has partnered with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association and its executive director, Wendy Mackie, on an industrywide initiative that addresses the growing workforce problem.
Customers now face long waits at dealerships for service and repairs on boats and engines, Gruhn said. That leads to frustration and people leaving the sport.
RIMTA is building a business plan, and the MRAA expects to roll it out early next year.
Don Galey of Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif., was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Galey, who has more than 62 years in the industry, grew up in his parents’ appliance, boat and motorcycle store and worked there through high school and college.
Galey has been instrumental in shaping the industry by helping to create the MRAA, launching the Spader Business Management/MRAA 20 Groups and introducing floorplan financing for marine dealers.
He was a board member and chairman of the MRAA and the Southern California Marine Association. He sat on numerous manufacturers’ advisory boards, and he found time to chair local organizations, including the Better Business Bureau.
“I have many fond memories of the original six dealers working to create MRAA and the hurdles that we had to overcome,” Galey said via a video shown at the opening dinner. “It makes me very proud to see the incredible growth fueled by Matt and his crew.”
Kenton Smith, chief marketing officer of Freedom Boat Club and president of the Marine Marketers of America, won the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award.
“I was and am totally humbled to receive this prestigious recognition and to join the circle of outstanding women who have previously won this award,” she said. “I’m grateful for the 37 years I’ve had the pleasure of working and serving in this industry, and for the mentors and colleagues who have positively impacted my life and my career.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.