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Hopeful crowds pack dealer conference

First year in Orlando sees increase in attendance and exhibitors as groups look to a recovery


Seasoned industry veterans, as well as newcomers, hailed this year's Marine Dealer Conference & Expo as a success for an increase in educational seminars, exhibit hall space and peer networking opportunities.

"I've gone to every MRAA conference there has been in the last 25 years. In 25 years, this is absolutely the best conference I've ever attended," says Larry Russo Sr., owner of Russo Marine. "It exceeded my expectations."

For Douglyss Giuliana, who was attending his first dealer conference, the experience proved invaluable. "I have been to similar conferences in other industries and the amount of actionable, valuable information was much higher at MDCE than at others," says Giuliana, co-founder of Advantage Yacht Sales, in Newburyport, Mass. "It was definitely worth both my time and money to attend."

More than 740 people attended this year's event, held Nov. 16-18 at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla. There were 439 dealers in attendance, representing 228 dealerships. The event also featured 76 exhibitors. Those figures represent a marked increase from the 2008 MDCE, when 248 people attended, representing 198 dealerships. Also in 2008, there were 41 exhibitors. About 40 boats were on display in the exhibit hall this year, compared to two at last year's conference.

"I was very, very happy with the attendance. In fact, I was overwhelmed with the attendance, that in this trying economy we would have that many people," says Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America. "It blew me away."

The MRAA co-produced the event with Boating Industry magazine, with which it has a five-year licensing agreement. This was the second year the organizations worked together on the conference, which featured nearly 20 educational sessions that for the first time were divided into tracks: sales and marketing, service department and lending. The keynote address, "Leading through Turbulent Times," was presented by Disney.

Sessions ranged from "The Dealership of Tomorrow" and "Recovery and Growth in Today's Market," to "Marketing Your Service Department" and "The Six Cs of Lending." A panel discussion on the state of lending and two final panels featuring manufacturers and dealers discussing the most pressing industry issues closed out the conference.

"I think that maybe the lineup of speakers attracted [attendees]," Keeter says. "I was amazed at the fact that those people started at 7:30 or 8 o'clock in the morning, and they stayed until 6 at night. Those sessions were packed and they were pretty well distributed on both sides."

Also, Keeter says, the change in venue from Las Vegas to Orlando may have helped drive attendance. Surveys from last year's event in Vegas showed more than half of the attendees wanted a change in venue and half of those wanted a move to Florida, Keeter says. He says attendance usually trails off after the opening session, but that wasn't the case this year.


"It was fantastic. There were a lot of really good speakers. I think it was really good for camaraderie among the industry as well," says Carly Poole of Buckeye Marine, in Bobcaygeon, Ontario. "It was great to see a lot of manufacturer turnout, too. I have nothing but really good things to say about it."

The increase in manufacturers was evident, with the exhibit hall resembling a miniature boat show. Some boatbuilders held their own dealer meetings at the conference.

This was the first year Everglades exhibited, and the company says the experience proved beneficial. "We feel confident that we will sign two new dealers from the show immediately and potentially several more, based on how the marine market reacts to a perceived economic turnaround," says marketing director David Glenn. The company plans to participate next year, he says, and would like to hold its dealer meeting at the same time as the conference.

"We were pleasantly surprised at the attendance and the number of builders displaying products," says Cobalt Boats president Paxson St. Clair. "On the whole, we were pleased with it and look forward to participating, probably in a bigger display, next year. We have a fairly mature dealer network, but at the same time we do have some holes and were successful in developing relationships with some new dealers. That was one of the missions and it worked well."

Educational sessions

With three tracks of seminars to choose from, attendees packed the lecture halls all three days of the conference. "I took more notes at this conference than I ever have," Russo says. "At every session I sat in on, I opened my notebook and I wrote down things that I could take away."

Rob Morton, of the Disney Institute, opened his keynote address by discussing similarities between Disney and the boating industry - most notably the fact that no one has to come to Disney and no one has to own a boat. He then discussed ways to make the experience of boat ownership valuable to consumers in order to keep them coming back and he used Disney's methods as an example of how to achieve customer loyalty.

"Take care of the wants before they become a need," Morton says. "It may not be our fault, but it is our problem."

The second day of the conference was filled with sessions on sales and service. Consultant Noel Osborne talked about the dealership of tomorrow, stressing the importance of productivity, service, used product, inventory control and pipeline management. He called upon dealers and manufacturers to work together to forge a better industry for the future.

"I suggest that this conference needs to call for an industry summit to address our future," he says. "The time has come for us to collectively address these issues."

Giuliana, of Advantage Yachts, says Osborne's session was one of the best at the conference. "His concept of geometric marketing is something we can start doing immediately and his comments on the changing consumer demographic and the importance of revenue from service and brokerage have us considering strategic changes in the coming year," he says.

Dealer consultant Joe Verde discussed how to grow in today's market, noting that the old rules no longer apply and that "everything has changed." The four areas dealerships need to grow are skills, work habits, attitudes and choice of customer.

Eighty percent of sales are made after the fifth attempt, he says, but 75 percent of salespeople make only one attempt. Making a sale, he says, is more than just dropping the price if a customer says no the first time. "There is an opportunity to sell more," he says. "Attitude is everything."

Bob McCann, director of education for Channel Blade, presented a seminar on ignoring sales leads, noting that in the boating industry the average time to respond to an Internet lead is nearly 24 hours. However, there's only a 2 percent conversion rate for leads responded to in four hours or more.

By comparison, leads responded to within one or two hours have a 20 percent conversion rate.

McCann suggested salespeople need to respond quickly to Internet leads, plus follow up with phone calls. "The Internet doesn't sell boats, the good dealers do," he noted.

Poole, from Buckeye Marine, says she also was impressed with the amount of good advice given by speakers. "Everybody had an emphasis in the market of bringing things closer to home - focus on getting your service department and your sales department to run more efficiently, focus on the customers you have and market to them, try to bring in more business that way," she says. Those were just some of the ideas Poole took away from the conference.


A number of awards were given out during the conference. Cobalt's St. Clair was honored with the Irv Rosenthal Award, given annually to someone who has made a difference to marine dealers.

The Bill Ferguson award - named for the first leader of the MRAA - is given annually to a trade association that has gone the extra mile to help dealers. This year the National Marine Trades Council received the honor.

The MRAA Educational Foundation presented $1,500 to the Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey marine trades groups for scholarships. The associations must promise to match the award to present a $3,000 scholarship to the recipient of their choice.

The foundation also announced $3,000 technical scholarships awarded to Manuel Valente a student at The Landing School and Kelvin "Graydon" Meeks from WyoTech's Daytona campus in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Brunswick Corp. was named the MRAA's manufacturer of the year for its dedication to its dealer network. The Darlene Briggs award, presented annually to a woman in the marine industry, was given to Nancy Smith, co-owner and vice president of the Colorado Boating Center.

The Jerry Martin journalism award was presented to Beth Rosenberg, associate editor of Soundings Trade Only, for support of the marine industry and recognition of marine retailers.

The conference ended with a gala honoring Boating Industry's Top 100 Dealers. The 2010 MDCE is scheduled for Nov. 15-17 in Orlando.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.



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