Hands-On Skills Training by Discover Boating, which made its Palm Beach International Boat Show debut this year, is a program born during the recent recession that is evolving into an effective post-downturn sales tool.
“HOST was started in 2010 as an ‘edu-tainment’ event for National Marina Day,” says Tom Knighten, director of development for the Recreational Powerboating Association and contracted as the director of skills training events by Discover Boating. “Once we saw what the response was, Carl Blackwell [NMMA senior vice president of marketing and communication] saw the potential for this. It’s been a running program ever since.”
The numbers bear out that potential.
From its 2010 inception through February of this year, at the rate of 10 to 12 HOST sessions annually, nearly 4,800 people have participated in one- to two-hour on-water boat-handling skills training sessions at boat shows around the nation.
“Our studies show there is a 41 percent greater likelihood of a purchase if you can get someone behind the wheel and engaged in the product,” Knighten says.
Participants are surveyed on the day of their training session and again several weeks afterward. Of the HOST participants in power or sail training, 17 percent of follow-up respondents say they bought a boat.
“It really does shorten the decision-making time for those that are considering buying a boat and reinforces the notion in people who are considering,” Knighten says.
Along the way, organizers have tweaked the program to filter out some of those who are more interested in a boat ride than a purchase.
“When we started out, we offered them free and had a pre-registration, but we were averaging 40 percent no-shows,” Knighten says. “Now we charge $20 for an hour and $90 for three hours and average only a 3 percent no-show rate.”
He says the modest cost seems to have little effect on those who are interested in investing their time to focus on a particular skill.
“The quality of the contact from the business perspective went up immediately,” he says.
Participation cuts across the experience spectrum, with 41 percent of participants labeling themselves “new/beginner,” 47 percent “intermediate” and 11 percent “advanced.”
The focus from the certified instructors is on the practical and geared toward skills such as close-quarters maneuvering, open-water seamanship and advanced docking.
“We want to show how much fun being on the water can be and that anyone can do it,” Knighten says, noting that sessions are also designed for experienced boaters who want to polish their skills.
“For people who have left boating — and we get a lot of those, too — we want to reignite their passion,” he says.
The participants are surveyed on the day of their HOST training session with six simple questions about their boating background and experience and whether they are interested in buying a boat. It ends with the question: Are you interested in additional training?
“Eighty-five percent answer yes and 63 percent say they are considering a boat purchase,” Knighten says.
The program is designed to entice potential customers to on-water training, but the opportunities for participating dealers are just as integral. Any dealer who provides a boat for a HOST event gets the names and contact information of all participants.
“If a dealer provides boats, we provide the instructor and handle the rest,” Knighten says.
“Some dealers recognize this is an excellent prospect development tool, but I think a lot of dealers look at it as only taking people out for boat rides. What they need to realize is we have people come to these training events that normally would not come to the show.”
As for the 37 percent who say they are not considering a boat purchase, Knighten says dealers should see HOST as a chance to reverse that sentiment by focusing on the experience.
“When 85 percent of those surveyed say they want additional training, that tells me that if I were a dealer doing a post-show follow-up, they should consider offering some kind of legitimate continuing training program and invite them,” Knighten says.
“In order to be even more successful, we need the industry to step up and participate. We want dealers to support us so we can help them sell boats,” he adds.
At the the Palm Beach HOST event, two boats (a 33-foot Doral with twin inboards and a 29-foot Cobia with twin outboards) with captains were available for the training. It was held from Thursday through Sunday, and 90 of the 100 potential seats were filled, Knighten says.
“I consider it a success,” he says. “We got a lot of interest and questions from show-goers.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue.