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Registrations Boom for Event with Uncertain Future

The Marine Dealer Conference and Expo will take place this December in Orlando
Dealers will attend the last MDCE  to be held in Orlando. 

Dealers will attend the last MDCE to be held in Orlando. 

Even though this year’s Marine Dealer Conference and Expo has been announced as the last in its current format, organizers say registration is tracking on par with 2017, which was a record year for the event.

“Every educational offering is new this year,” says Liz Walz, vice president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, which has co-produced the event with Boating Industry magazine since 2007. “Every year, our team surveys the dealer community, asking them to share the topics that would be most valuable for them so we can provide the best education and training.”

Dealers who attend the Dec. 9-12 MDCE in Orlando, Fla., will be exposed to new ideas, strategies, trends, tools, technologies, products and services in the classrooms, in the expo hall, during networking events and during the Innovation Spotlight, which is a series of 15-minute educational presentations about trends in marine products and services.

Attendees who visit the Learning Lab can connect one-on-one with manufacturers, suppliers, industry stakeholders and experts. There also are dealer networking events and roundtables.

“If dealers are coming because they’re faced with workforce challenges, we’re going to have solutions,” MRAA president Matt Gruhn says. “If they’re coming because the customer experience at their dealership could be better, we have opportunities. If they’re coming because they want to stay in tune with what’s happening in the marketplace, we’re going to have speakers — new speakers and returning favorites — who will address that.”

The conference is expected to include one of its largest groups of marine retail professionals to date. Almost half of this year’s 25 speakers will be new to the MDCE, and the 13 returning speakers were invited after receiving high ratings last year, Walz says.

Opening keynote speaker David Horsager plans to deliver a talk called “Build Trust or Die in the New Economy,” Gruhn says, and will follow it up with a complimentary 10-week program for attendees. “You don’t just come and listen to the speaker — that’s not what this is about,” Gruhn says. “It’s about engaging with that content and gaining expertise from subject matter experts who help you apply what you’re learning.”

Closing keynote speaker Troy Hazard will give the talk “Future-Proofing Your Business,” designed to help companies become adaptable and predict issues before they experience them.

Almost half of this year’s speakers are new to MDCE. 

Almost half of this year’s speakers are new to MDCE. 

The MDCE will continue to offer workshops on four tracks — leadership, sales, service and marketing — as well as the preconference workshops that dealers responded positively to last year.

“We offer track sessions that are versatile enough to help any dealer and give new strategies to take home and apply,” Gruhn says. “I don’t think it’s one specific idea or concept they come for; they come because there’s an array of opportunities for them to learn something new that will have an impact on the success of their business.”

For the second consecutive year, MRAA will offer attendees a “commitment to improvement form,” originally offered only to dealers in the certification program. “They write out what they’re committing to improve,” Gruhn says. “They take one sheet home with them and leave a copy with us. That helps them remain accountable to what they want to change.”

The sessions are recorded, so people can access them after the conference at mraatraining.com, along with all the content, downloads and PowerPoint presentations, Gruhn says.

The Boating Industry Top 100 gala will cap off the conference for the last time, says Jonathan Sweet, who organizes that part of the event for Boating Industry.

MDCE organizers declined to discuss the ending partnership (see accompanying story), with Gruhn saying: “We want to keep our focus on a successful 2018 before we get too far ahead and look at 2019. We know 2018 is going to be the best MDCE we’ve had, and we know it’s going to be incredibly effective for attendees.”

Next year’s MRAA event will take place at the Tampa Convention Center. 

Next year’s MRAA event will take place at the Tampa Convention Center. 

Dealers Concerned About Future of Conference

A split between Boating Industry magazine and MRAA will replace MDCE with two separate events

The Marine Dealer Conference and Expo will change next year — a move that has some dealers concerned about the show’s future. The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Boating Industry magazine have agreed to end their MDCE partnership after a decade of co-producing the event.

MRAA plans to continue holding an annual educational event for dealers, and Boating Industry will take its Top 100 Dealers portion of the event to a new show called the Boating Industry Elevate Summit, slated for Nov. 22-24, 2019, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. Details are scarce for the future conferences, but Boating Industry says Elevate will be designed for more than just dealers.

“We have some elements that are going to be different, that haven’t been done at trade shows in this industry,” says Jonathan Sweet, program director for the Boating Industry Top 100. “It’s going to be focused especially on the services part of the industry, things like [finance and insurance], the paper profits part of the industry and software. But we’re really looking to serve not just the dealers, but potentially other folks on that side of the industry.”

Rob Brown, owner of Clark Marine in Maine, says he likes the way MDCE is run now, adding that his team probably won’t be able to attend both shows next year. “By the time we pay for the conference and food and hotels and travel, it’s $6,000 to $7,000 for four people to attend,” Brown says. “As a small dealer, I’m going to have to make a decision to choose one or the other. I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a negative thing. I’ve heard it’s going to be the week before Thanksgiving. You wonder how many people are going to want to travel at that time.”

Pete Beauregard at Colony Marine in Michigan also likes the MDCE the way it is, and he worries that between dealer meetings, boat shows and other conferences, attending will be tough. “You just can’t afford to be out of the office that many times,” Beauregard says. “To give you an example, I fly to Atlanta today for a Sea Ray dealer meeting, fly home tonight, fly to the Fort Lauderdale boat show Monday and then to France to meet with Prestige on Thursday. I’ve got to miss my son’s football game, miss my daughter’s dance recital, and somewhere in there I’ve got to run a business.”

Brown says he might send two people to Elevate and two to MDCE, to see what the benefit of each will be beyond 2019. “We’ve been involved with the Top 100 since it started,” he says. “When they came out with that questionnaire, it allowed you to become more focused on your business and track it year over year.”

The flip side is that MDCE provides the education to help improve the business each year. “I don’t want to dismiss the fact that we’ve been a Top 100 dealer for a long time — we take great pride in that,” Brown says. “But when it comes down to it, getting the award doesn’t help me pay my bills. I’d rather not have that and continue to become a better company.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.

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