Why are thousands flocking to boat shows?

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Why in the world would anyone pay parking and admission to go to a boat show and be hustled by a flock of salespeople when virtually everything they could want to know about a new marine product or dealer is available free at their fingertips? Answer: the experience.

Sure, the Internet has made shopping for a lot of things easier and faster. These days, there likely isn't a product, or even a dealer, that hasn’t already been "reviewed" by people on social media. If there's unprecedented access to pictures, videos, data and details, why do show visitors still cite seeing new products as their first reason to come to a show? The only logical explanation is that it delivers what the Internet can't and that’s the experience.

Our boat shows are still so relevant and popular - witness how well most are doing around the country. It's the chance to experience the products by "feeling" them, viewing them live, and directing questions face-to-face to a person. In fact, according to National Marine Manufacturers Association research, a hefty 40 percent of buyers ultimately make their purchase from a salesperson they met at a boat show. Moreover, on average, buyers attend three boat shows before writing the deposit check and that usually doesn't happen until three or more months after the last boat show.

Accordingly, for a dealer, measuring the success of a show simply by the number of deposits taken during the event is misleading. The value of the show is considerably higher when it's more accurately measured by comparing actual sales over an extended period with actual leads recorded from a show. Many dealers indicate up to half their annual sales can be directly tracked back to boat shows.

So the greatest benefit of exhibiting for dealers is the leads the show will generate. After all, a dealer is not really buying space, he's buying access to the show's qualified audience of thousands that he couldn't come in contact with any other way, including the Internet.

Lead acquisition and a system to capture them is critical to a dealer's show success. So says Bob McCann, director of education for ARI, which teamed up with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas to provide sound advice on e-business sales processes. Since most winter boat shows are still ahead of us, here are a couple of strong recommendations from McCann who recently covered boat shows as part of the "Digital Marketing Masters Series" produced for MRAA members:

"Lots of traffic in your display is nice," McCann says, "but unless you’re collecting hard leads, how can you possibly measure your boat show success?" He urges all dealers to go into each show with a specific goal for the number of leads targeted for takeout.

It's also important to note that not all leads are created equal. For example, if you’re offering a drawing for a free prize, you can't just leave entry forms on a counter, log in the names later and think you've got something. Instead, position your salespeople out front to meet new customers. Most important, designate a person to enter customer contact information into a tablet or some database system on the scene. That will make it much easier to follow up with those prospects. And the follow-up should begin right away, McCann says.

Here's a shocker for you - 91 percent of show attendees claim they never hear from a dealer after the show. I must say I find that number hard to believe. However, assuming it's anything like that, every salesperson should be trained in the dealership's lead system. In addition, when meeting a good prospect there is no reason to wait until after the show to reach out to them. Today's digital capabilities make it easy to send even a simple thank-you email immediately from the show floor that night. If appropriate, it can even have a link to the boat(s) they're interested in. Such quick contact can go a long way.

Don’t stop there, McCann urges. After the show ends, follow up again with an email that speaks directly to the prospect's interests. Let them know you are there to answer any questions and provide guidance. It's not hard to assume good follow-up is what drives the 40 percent to eventually buy.

For MRAA members, the complete "Digital Marketing Masters Series" is catalogued on the MRAA members site.

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