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Just at the moment you thought you had lived through our industry’s highest highs and lowest lows, the boating industry’s tablecloth got jerked out from under you when Covid hit.

That new lowest low, marked by shuttered businesses and toilet-paper-hoarding consumers, caused a momentary panic that your business may topple, but the fear was soon replaced by the highest highs our industry has ever seen. It’s demand so strong we can’t produce, ship, sell or deliver boats fast enough. Dealers and manufacturers are arguing not over too much inventory, but instead about how they can get more boats into the pipeline.

Now, projections suggest this environment will continue as far out as late 2023. No one really knows for sure, of course.

In early 2020, industry pundits predicted 2- or 3-percent growth — and that’s a 2 and a 3 without a zero behind them, which is what actually happened. As far as estimates go, 1,000 percent off the mark isn’t the data you should be planning your future with. The point isn’t that the pundits were wrong; it’s that no one knows what the future holds.

To underscore the point, today’s industry projections run the gamut of possibilities. Yes, new-boat production is largely preordered out to the 2023 model year, demand remains strong, and it feels like this may be the new normal for a while.

Matt Gruhn

Matt Gruhn

However, in October’s Pulse Report, put out by Soundings Trade Only, the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Baird Research, one dealer noted: “This is going to end in a brick wall. All the new boaters will leave and return to their ‘normal’ lives and travel. The free money and free time will disappear. Boat dealers will be competing with a huge supply of newer used boats on the market in the next 18 months. The happiest day is the day you buy and the day you sell if you’re not a real boater at heart, and you just bought the boat for something to do during Covid.”

So how do you cut through the clutter of the endless possibilities that await you? You do what you should always do to find success: Focus on your market, your circumstances and your opportunities to improve. At the risk of contradicting this “no one knows the future” message, here’s where I think you should get started.

First, while we don’t know when it will happen, we do know that the current demand and market conditions will come to an end. Will you be ready? We all know the old axiom by now: Good habits are formed during the tough times; bad habits are made during the good times. We are unarguably in some of the best times we’ve ever seen. What bad habits are you developing? What shortcuts is your team taking? When things slow down, where will you face emergencies in your processes?

Second, whether you’re working in the highest highs, the lowest lows or somewhere in between, what always matters is the experience you provide for your customers. In today’s market conditions, an outstanding customer experience can seem unrealistic. Your staff is overwhelmed. You can’t get parts. Boats are showing up late and at higher prices. The questions you should be asking are: What can you control? And what can you influence? Then you and your team should focus on those things. All you can do is help your team and your business run more efficiently and more effectively in service of your customers. How are you doing that?

Third, we know that all too often, we treat sales as the front door of our businesses, with service relegated to secondary status. But in today’s world, with no inventory to sell, service is the most forward-facing part of the dealership. It’s defining your competitive advantage. How well does your service department run? Are you scheduling business or trying to figure it out first-come, first-serve? Are you working to diagnose boats more quickly? Are your technicians as efficient as they could be? Is your shop rate in line with industry averages? Now’s your chance to focus on and create the best-run service department in your market. Don’t waste the opportunity.

Fourth, understand that marketing systems, processes and technology remain some of the fastest-changing parts of our businesses. The methods we use to connect with customers and nurture leads shifted dramatically when Covid shut businesses down. You adapted quickly, sure, but have you fully evolved? Do you know how to market your business in a low-inventory environment? Are you nurturing leads so you can prolong the upswing into a future where you’ll once again be paying inventory costs? Or are you content with today’s business to the point that you’ll figure out the rest later? And when we get to “later,” will you be able to catch up to the new channels of lead generation? Technologies change frequently, and if you take a year or two off from updating your processes, you can be sure they will be far behind when you need them again.

Here at the MRAA, we focus our entire mission on helping you figure out the best answers for your business. And it doesn’t matter if it’s late 2019, March 2020, or November 2021; we create tools, resources and educational opportunities that are designed to help guide you and your team through the most critical issues of any marketplace.

In December, for example, in a grand return to an in-person dealer event that you will not want to miss, MRAA’s Dealer Week — held in Austin, Texas — will offer hundreds of dealers the latest solutions, insights and best practices necessary for preparing for what’s ahead in 2022 and beyond. Will you take advantage of that? Or will you hope for the best?

At Dealer Week, we will tackle strategies for filling the gaps in your workforce; for planning what’s next for your business; for creating a marketing plan when you have no inventory; for building a brand that everyone wants to connect with; for sharpening your service and parts departments; and for delivering an incredible customer experience.

As if that won’t be enough to upgrade your outlook for 2022, we are following up our in-person Dealer Week (Dec. 6-9) with Dealer Week Online, to be held Jan. 11-13, with nine more workshops to build on what you learned in Austin and to help you kick off the year in a powerful way. To maximize the impact these programs can have on your business, attend Dealer Week in Austin and gain free access to the online event.

I don’t think there’s a better way you could prepare for whatever 2022 will deliver to your storefront. n

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

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