Since Matt Gruhn joined the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas as president in October 2011 he and his team have systematically remade the MRAA’s flagship event, the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo.
“MDCE is our No. 1 benefit, as rated by our members, and we put every ounce of our heart and soul into producing the event,” says Gruhn. “It is the pinnacle of our year and our best opportunity to connect with our members.”
This year’s edition, set for Nov. 15-18 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., continues that evolution. MDCE 2015 will deliver more of its popular preconference workshops, more educational sessions, greater opportunities for one-on-one meetings with experts and a new Web-based tool to encourage better audience interaction.
“Dealers are on the front line with consumers, so our intention at MDCE is to engage our attendees at the highest level and give them more than their money’s worth,” says MRAA vice president Liz Walz. “At the end of the day, if our members can’t make the most of their time here and put what they learn into practice with their business, then we’re not doing our jobs.”
As of the end of September, dealer registration was up 4.4 percent from the past two years, which were all-time highs for the MDCE. More than 675 had registered as of mid-October and more than 1,200 dealers are expected to attend. MDCE attendance has risen steadily since the Great Recession, climbing from 198 in 2008 to 431 in 2009, 740 in 2010, 950 in 2011 and 1,000 or slightly more during the past three years.
The theme of this year’s show is “Made New By You,” which Walz explains is the result of organizers’ decision to survey MRAA members before each show, then immediately after the show and again the following spring — all to gather data about what they like, don’t like and want more of.
“Listening is the foundation the show has been built on,” says Walz. “We have made it a priority — and the core of our strategy — to go out to the dealers and ask for their feedback.”
“Ultimately, what makes the show successful is we work really hard on delivering what dealers ask for,” adds Gruhn. “It comes down to how can we listen better, and we work on that every year.”
Whereas three years ago conferees placed instruction on increasing sales at the top, during the last two years their No. 1 priority has beeen leadership, Walz says. The MDCE program has been tailored to meet that demand.
This year’s event, which will take place at the Orange County Convention Center, Rosen Plaza Hotel and Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, features 12 preconference workshops and four concurrent educational tracks, including sessions on leadership, sales, marketing and service, plus an MRAA special session and keynote speakers at the opening and close of the show.
In all, MDCE 2015 includes 35 educational offerings. Conferees are invited to choose whatever combination of sessions best fits their needs. All of these educational offerings are included with MDCE registration, with the exception of the 12 preconference workshops, which require a separate registration fee.
To help people choose, organizers have developed a system of recommendations that rate each session as fundamental, intermediate, advanced or all skill levels. In each session attendees will have a new option this year with the addition of Sli.do, a Web-based program that allows “non-hand-raisers,” as Walz describes them, to submit questions to those leading the session.
“One of the goals we have is to encourage that person-to-person interconnection at this large gathering of members, and we think Sli.do will help us do that better,” she says.
Also new this year will be a session devoted to the sharing of dealer strategies and experiences in every educational track. Tony Jeary, known as “the results guy,” is a facilitator who has worked with multiple industries. He will lead dealer-to-dealer conversations on three topics: growing the customer base, competing on value and increasing service profits.
The MDCE Learning Lab is another new resource. The lab will be a booth on the expohall floor where conferees can receive expert advice, a virtual training course from dealership consultant Sam Dantzler and takeaway summaries of what they have been taught.
“The feedback from our dealers is they want to get a lot of one-on-one interaction, so we wanted to take that to the next level,” says Walz. “We call the Learning Lab formula an educational trifecta.”
Among the educational offerings will be an MRAA special session devoted to solving the industry’s chronic shortage of qualified technicians. The special session will be held before the opening keynote address and will include a panel of dealers, manufacturers and trade school officials discussing ways of proactively addressing the issue. Service expert Valerie Ziebron, who will moderate the panel discussion, also will host a session in the service plus track that is focused on strategies to attract and keep new technicians.
The MDCE will open with a keynote address by Steve McClatchy, an authority on leadership, performance and work/life engagement who will discuss four keys to effective execution, three skills that the most organized executives possess and numerous ways to manage interruptions and improve efficiency.
The closing keynote address will be given by someone outside the industry, but one whose story will resonate with conferees, Walz says. Capt. Mike Abrashoff assumed command of the worst-performing ship in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. While keeping most of the crew intact, he turned it into the Navy’s best performer.
“Abrashoff will be addressing fundamental leadership principles that apply across any industry,” Walz says.
For the first time, three dealers will be attending on scholarship, thanks to a partnership between the MDCE and Soundings Trade Only.
“We believe in the power of education to help our industry improve and grow,” says Trade Only publisher Dean Waite, “especially when that education brings marine businesses together to build a better boating lifestyle for our customers.”
Each scholarship includes an MDCE standard dealer registration, as much as $450 in travel reimbursement and a three-night stay at the Rosen Plaza or Rosen Centre Hotel — a total value of $1,396. For more information on the program, visit mraa.com/MDCEScholarships.
Looking ahead, the MDCE’s 2016 dates have been changed in response to a new schedule for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which was moved back a week, beginning this year. MDCE 2016 will be held Dec. 5-8 in Orlando.
“Given the overlap, from an industry perspective it seemed like the right thing to do to not conflict with those dates,” Gruhn says.
The MDCE is co-produced by the MRAA and Boating Industry magazine.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.