The Marine Dealer Conference & Expo ended its 10-year run in Orlando, Fla., with a solid turnout among dealers. Now those same attendees will have to decide whether they want to go to one or both of the spin-off shows next year.
Praise for the December event came from both the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and from Boating Industry magazine, which co-produced the event for years. The number of dealer attendees was down from 650 in 2017, though organizers say preshow attendance was a record 691.
“The exhibitors seemed to be pleased with the connections they made, and our dealers were happy with the quality of the educational content,” says Matt Gruhn, MRAA president. “We’re thrilled with how well everything went.”
Jonathan Sweet, managing director of Boating Industry shows and Top 100, says post-show surveys also were good a week after the event concluded Dec. 12.
Teams from the MRAA and Boating Industry worked the seminars together, offering high fives as they transitioned on and off the stages. The MRAA has held a dealer conference for 43 years, and last year’s MDCE was the 10th event organized by the two companies. This year’s event had the usual show expo, lectures and seminars, MRAA Awards Night and Boating Industry’s Top 100 dealer dinner.
“It was fantastic,” says Roger Moore, CEO of Nautical Ventures Group, with Florida locations in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Moore brought three other executives to the event from his dealership: the director of marketing, general manager and sales manager. “Every one of us were enlightened by the seminars,” Moore says. “My biggest concern is being able to boil down all the great ideas so we can implement them at the dealership level.”
Laura Ponder, director of marketing for Captain’s Marine in Kalispell, Mont., echoed similar feelings. “I learned so much; it’s going to be hard to decide on what we can actually implement,” she says. “I participated in all five marketing track sessions, which exceeded expectations. The experience was delightfully exhausting.”
Now the former partners must decide how they can exceed expectations as they put together their respective shows for next year. Both organizations praised MDCE for its 10-year run, even lamenting the end of the relationship.
But now the MRAA and Boating Industry will be competitors, though neither is actually saying that.
“What we’re trying to do with Elevate is create a new event, not just build MDCE 2.0,” Sweet says of the show that is scheduled for Nov. 22-24 at the Orlando Convention Center. “We’ll have a lot of new content and educational possibilities, along with an expo hall and our Top 100 gala on the final night.”
Tim Hennagir, Boating Industry editor-in-chief, says the new event will have educational tracks that include seminars as well as general sessions. “We have an incredible amount of industry data that we plan to leverage in these seminars,” Hennagir says. “We’re trying to build the education around a typical marine business infrastructure. That might include taking a deep dive into F&I, or the best way to manage customer service.”
Sweet says the three-day event will include business experts, including an economist who will discuss trends in the marine industry. “We want to have subjects that people who run a business care about,” he says. “We also want to leverage the expertise in our Top 100 and 40 Under 40 programs. That might include a Top 100 panel where we talk about the best practices of those top dealers. Hopefully it will be more interactive than just a speaker lecturing at the front of the hall, though we’ll have those as well.”
Most dealerships view the Top 100 dealer and 40 Under 40 designations as strong marketing tools. That will undoubtedly be a strong attendance incentive for retailers who receive those awards. But Sweet says Elevate is intended to be an all-industry event, rather than one just for dealers. “We want this to be like an in-person version of our magazine, with data and analysis, that appeals to a broader industry audience,” he says.
Dealer Week, which is scheduled to run Dec. 8-11 at the Tampa Convention Center, will be aimed squarely at dealers. “Our goal is to provide more value to our dealers,” Gruhn says. “We expect attendance to be up significantly compared to last year.”
The MRAA has been responsible for the educational component of MDCE over the years, with vice president Liz Walz setting up the curriculum. This year’s event had an educational component that included 20 track sessions, two keynote presentations, 11 preconference workshops and five innovation “spotlight” presentations. MDCE also organized 10 new speakers.
“The courses have achieved net-promoter scores of 72 and 77 percent, according to third-party surveys,” Gruhn says. “Those are considered world class in NPS standards.”The MRAA plans to retain much of the educational curriculum for next year’s Dealer Week, while also expanding it, partly by forging closer relationships with exhibitors and sponsors, which Gruhn refers to as “partners.” He believes it will increase the impact of Dealer Week, both in the classroom and across the exhibit floor.
The MRAA held a strategic planning meeting in October with 60 stakeholders that included some of the industry’s largest companies and MDCE sponsors. The intent, Gruhn says, was to solicit ideas to create a new format for Dealer Week.
“As we were building the vision for this new event, we were doing it with these partners,” Gruhn says. “We had dealers, partners and MRAA staff sitting at the same tables. During the discussions, we focused on ways we can all deliver opportunities and be more involved with our dealers.”
Gruhn says the exhibitors wanted a deeper level of involvement in the educational tracks. “We think these partners can deliver a more impactful education program by offering real-world solutions to our dealers,” he says. “It’s one thing to have a speaker on stage offering insight and inspiration. But we want our dealers to retain more by also interacting with the partners. We want to show them how what they learn can be brought to life immediately in their businesses.”
The MRAA staff recently attended a trade show in another industry with educational sessions that incorporated frequent breaks, so attendees could move away from theory and discuss practical business solutions with industry experts. Gruhn plans to incorporate that technique and others into Dealer Week.
“The idea is to work together to drill down into the details,” Gruhn says. “Our business partners can bring answers to the table, be it technology, software or services. We want to fast-track specific solutions to dealership problems.”
The conference, Gruhn says, could represent a sea change for the dealer association. Gruhn has promoted a much closer relationship between boatbuilders and dealers than any of his predecessors at MRAA and believes the dealer base has benefited from that. He wants to extend this cooperation further across retail networks to include key suppliers.
These partnerships, Gruhn says, will be crucial to the industry’s future because it will create a better consumer experience.
“Working closely with these partners is a natural progression for us as an organization,” Gruhn adds. “They are helping to set our strategic agenda. We told them that aligning their goals and vision with ours, which is to help our members succeed, will help the dealer win every time. That is what we all want.”
In terms of sponsorships, Dealer Week is off to a strong start, having garnered the support of industry heavyweights Wells Fargo, Brunswick Dealer Advantage, Volvo Penta, Correct Craft, CDK Global and Brunswick Boat Group. Boating Industry has yet to name any sponsors on its Elevate website.
“MRAA has already gotten a number of MDCE’s presenting sponsors, which is a big financial component of the event,” says one veteran dealer, asking not to be named. “They also have the educational edge over BI since that has always been MRAA’s primary responsibility — and the main reason for attending MDCE. There is clearly going to be a winner.”
Many exhibitors from MDCE’s expo hall may need to decide between attending one show or the other, given the shows’ close dates and heavy schedule of other winter boat shows. Gruhn says he expects attendance at Dealer Week to be significantly higher than at MDCE, thanks to a number of scholarships being offered by the new event’s sponsors, and free passes from boatbuilders to their dealer networks.
For Moore, the choice between the two events is academic. “We’re going to need to do more research on these,” he says. “Right now, we’re more concerned about getting ready for the Miami show.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.