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Where dealers go to ‘get smarter’

Nov. 11-14 Marine Dealer Conference & Expo is a treasure trove of ideas, networking and new products


What do you get when you put a Harley Davidson 20 Group moderator, a social media guru and an exhibit expert in a room? You get this year’s Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, which will blend new speakers with highly rated past favorites.

“The dealers have always asked us, ‘Why don’t you bring us outside industry thinking?’” says Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, which, with Boating Industry magazine, is producing the annual conference Nov. 11-14 in Orlando, Fla. “I think this one is going to be the best one we’ve ever done.”

Early numbers suggest it might also be the biggest. Over the summer, 72 people signed up for the First Time Attendees Program, which Gruhn calls “phenomenal.” Booth sales as of mid-September were well ahead of last year’s total (85 this year; 72 last) and early bird signups were up 5 percent.

Many U.S. boat dealers who attend the conference say it’s a necessary part of improving their businesses, networking with other dealers and providing an unusual venue for retailers — one at which they are not trying to sell. “The biggest thing I’m getting out of it is … I bring back stuff every year to implement and improve my business,” says Phil Miklo, owner of Oak Hill Marina in Iowa.

Miklo, who just celebrated 20 years in the business, says at first he didn’t go to the show, but he’s attended the last few. “I was pretty young and thought I knew it all, as most young entrepreneurs do,” he says. “I just stumbled onto this conference at a buying convention for Lorenz and Jones.”

Since then, he not only has attended each MDCE conference, but he also brings staffers to gather ideas to implement in specific departments such as sales, service and accounting. “I can’t take everybody every year, but the people I have taken think it’s priceless,” he says.

‘Jam-packed’ tracks

This year’s conference features three educational tracks — sales and marketing, powering profits and service and marinas — that are “jam-packed,” Gruhn says. The “Powering Profits” track will feature two sessions with Sam Dantzler, a 20 Group moderator for Harley-Davidson. One presentation will focus on driving repeat business and the other will concentrate on selling the service department, Gruhn says.

To make a point, Gruhn offers his own boat sales experience. He says he bought his boat nine years ago and never heard from the dealership’s service department. Dantzler will talk about adopting a style similar to that of the auto industry, in which dealers automatically send emails to customers. The emails come at designated times — prior to winterization, for example, or within certain dates as reminders for service needs.

There will also be a smaller conference featuring five digital strategies for dealerships to use in 2013, Gruhn says. “We’ll have specific topics to capitalize on what technologies are out there,” he says. “We have four or five individual speakers that will come up and speak for 15 minutes on Pinterest, mobile marketing, developing a website, using texting in business, and creating powerful online reviews.”

Josh Chiles, founder and CEO of Engaged! and a member of Marine Marketers of America, will lead a session on social media, and Mike Mraz, of Exhibiting Services, will make a presentation on “taking full advantage of boat shows.”

Grow Boating pavilion

Grow Boating chairman Joe Lewis, owner of Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina in the Orlando area, is looking forward to a pavilion dedicated to helping dealers use the Grow Boating tools available to them. “We’re having a hard time breaking through to manufacturers and dealers about all the resources we have available on our website,” Lewis says. “We’re inviting dealers to the pavilion, and we’ll try to staff it so that if they want to have pieces like the boat selector tool embedded on the spot, we can do it for them.”

Discover Boating tools are just one of the MRAA member benefits that will be featured, Lewis says. This year, the benefits will be grouped together so dealers can more easily familiarize themselves with the benefits of MRAA membership.


As a dealer who has a lot of MDCE experience, Lewis tries to use the seasonal fall lull to assess his business so he can determine potential areas for improvement. “There are a whole bunch of things being offered there, so I try to preselect what my business could most benefit from, areas of improvement, and take back one or two ideas and try to implement them and do them well,” Lewis says. “The first time, I was kind of overwhelmed and came back with all these ideas and tried to do them all. And guess what? I didn’t do any of them well. Now I just look at it from the perspective of, where do I think I can profit the most?”


Larry Russo, of Boston-area Russo Marine, says the networking opportunities are just as important as the information-gathering. “It is just a must-attend event for any retailer that cares about learning, education, new ideas, new initiatives and new products,” he says. “It’s an annual event where everyone can get in a room and get smarter. Everyone can network and share and gain by opportunity.”


As the only conference dedicated to dealers, the various tracks address only retail needs, Russo says. “You go for specific sessions that you have an interest in, but it’s the downtime, the camaraderie, conversations, and the networking that goes on — retailers benefit from that kind of exchange of information, from dealer to dealer,” he says.

Miklo says the networking opportunities helped him make business decisions and shaped his approach to hiring staff. He met Neal Harrell, of Brooks Marine Group Associates, at MDCE when Harrell presented a seminar about hiring. “He talked about always hiring people and bettering yourself and your business, and always keeping your eye open for talent coming along,” Miklo says.

Instead of making hires once you have an opening, Harrell says, dealers should always be looking for talent. Miklo says this stuck with him, and when he saw an article Harrell wrote on the topic later, he began to implement the practice. “It talked about how to hire, where to hire, and it brought me two talented individuals that I probably would’ve bypassed because I probably would’ve thought I didn’t need them,” Miklo says. “But I hired them and put them into positions I thought they’d be good at, and moved some other people around, and the move upped the overall professionalism of my business.

“If you don’t see the benefit,,” he adds, “then you should be up there speaking and telling us what you’re doing that helps you be so successful.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.


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