Beneteau is running its Swift Trawler 34 through the Great Loop this summer in a bold 7,000-mile venture
Getting a product noticed is one of the tenets of any good marketing campaign. When you’re trying to market a product that might not be widely associated with a particular manufacturer in a particular country — and was introduced a year earlier — it’s easy for media outlets to quickly dismiss a standard press release.
So when Beneteau sought to raise the visibility of its powerboat division in North America, which it launched in January 2011 in Annapolis, Md., the idea was to create a bold marketing plan for its Swift Trawler line.
“We started with the thought of how can we learn what consumers want and need on the yacht in the U.S. market?” says Maryline O’Shea, marketing director for Beneteau America’s powerboat division.
The answer was an epic “road trip”: running a Swift Trawler 34 around the Great Loop, the circumnavigation of eastern North America. Between the tour’s May 15 start in Annapolis and its completion, which is expected in September, the boat will make a 7,000-mile passage of the Great Loop in 41 legs, most of them with different captains and crewmembers. Each stop will be used to open the boat up to the public — a traveling solo boat show of sorts.
“Beneteau wants to gather feedback from real boaters in order to make their Swift Trawler even more appealing and better suited to extended cruising in North America,” O’Shea says. “There’s no better way to show consumers what this boat can do — and do economically — than by taking it through the Loop.”
The captains and crews, made up primarily of staff from Beneteau dealerships in each region and members of the media, will change after most legs. “Our dealers are stepping up — for some of them at their busiest time of the year — to take part in this journey and help us captain the boat around the Loop and represent Beneteau to prospective buyers,” O’Shea says. “We would have never undertaken such a project without their support.”
Each stop is promoted on Beneteau’s website and social media pages days before the open house, and local dealers use the opportunity to bring potential customers on a tour of the boat. Journalists were invited to join and write about the the voyage. “We want to give access to the boat to as many people as possible,” O’Shea says.
The game plan
The idea for the project known as “The Greatest Loop” — it’s also the name of the boat — began in the spring of 2011 during a tour of the Beneteau plant in the Vendée region of France with journalists. Beneteau has been building power vessels for close to 100 years and has long established a leadership position in Europe, yet the builder is overwhelmingly known in the United States for its sailboats. Beneteau’s powerboats had a modest presence in the North American market for the last 10 years, but the company decided to ramp up its market push with the debut of the Swift Trawler 34 at the 2010 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show as it was gearing up to open its powerboat division in Annapolis.
The plan began to take shape with the decision to run a new 34 on an extended tour captained by Beneteau dealers and joined by marine writers from the United States, Canada and Europe. Specifically, it was decided that the Great Loop is the quintessential American cruising route, with appeal to everyday boaters, because its inland waters are less daunting to coastal cruisers than offshore voyaging. “The Great Loop is a dream destination for many boaters, so we decided to prove while we were at it that 1) the Swift 34 is an excellent option for this trip and 2) cruising can be fun and affordable,” O’Shea says.
Although Beneteau builds 44- and 52-foot versions of the Swift Trawler, it was the 34 — the smallest in the range — that was chosen. “It’s the perfect first-time boat for new boaters or sailors turning to power,” O’Shea says. “It’s also very manageable for solo or cruising as a couple.”
O’Shea is a 10-year marketing veteran, but she had started at Beneteau in October 2010 and had never done “anything of this scale.” The largest hurdle, she says, was that her annual marketing budget had already been set, and there was no funding for a 7,000-mile tour. “But we saw this opportunity,” she says. “And with the tight window dictated by lock closures and hurricane season, if we wanted to have the impact we were seeking, we needed to do this now, and it would have to be somewhat fast-paced.”
It became clear that the project was too big and too expensive for one company to pull off, so the Beneteau team began recruiting sponsors — manufacturers that were willing to donate products toward outfitting the boat or to help offset fuel and dockage costs. “Partners are the key to pulling something like this off,” O’Shea says. Cummins and Raymarine were among the first to come aboard the project, followed by Cummins Onan, Cruisair and Dometic Marine, along with providers of essentials, such as fuel and bottom paint (ValvTect and Interlux).
“For starters, Beneteau is one of Raymarine’s biggest OEM partners, so we were naturally inclined to participate,” says Jim Hands, Raymarine’s marketing director. “Secondly, it is just a cool idea. Boating is aspirational, and for the trawler-type boater, the Loop is one of the biggest adventures a cruiser can dream of. We just loved the whole concept.”
The benefit of essentially donating thousands of dollars in marine electronics is in marketing and showcasing Raymarine’s product to consumers “in the wild,” Hands says. “We saw The Greatest Loop as an opportunity to showcase Raymarine as the ‘right gear’ to boaters who are aspiring to make the Great Loop adventure,” he says.
Like Beneteau, Raymarine and other sponsors are incorporating social media and interacting with potential customers who are following the four-month trip on Beneteau’s dedicated Facebook page.
The well-equipped boat includes Raymarine’s latest navigation system, the e-Series, along with integrated thermal night vision cameras. As is, it would sell new for about $450,000. The commissioning dealer, Annapolis Yacht Sales, will list it at the end of the trip for $323,988. The dealer agreed to rig the boat. “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but I tried to come up with what problems could possibly come up and how we could handle them,” says Garth Hichens, president of Annapolis Yacht Sales.
The “go-to guy” for all things technical became Patrick Hopkins, the powerboat sales manager for Annapolis Yacht Sales. The responsibility fell to Hopkins and his crew to work with the sponsors and see that their products were properly installed. Further complicating Hopkins’ duties, which still included his day-to-day obligations at the dealership, was overseeing the videotaping of the outfitting process to showcase and market the project. Then there was the logistics — setting up a schedule, arranging for slip space, recruiting captains and crew for each leg. “I had an idea going in of the complexity of the project, but it brought even more elements than I anticipated,” Hopkins says. “It was a daunting task, with nine or 10 people who I’ve never met calling me and asking for measurements and various other requests.”
The preparation took about six to eight weeks from the boat’s March delivery, but the scheduled early May departure deadline was met. “It was a great team effort by everyone involved,” Hopkins says.
“Part of [taking on such a big project] may be a naiveté, but you just have to delegate, trust in your team and be open to changes,” O’Shea says. “In a way it’s not super-different from [setting up for] a boat show. It’s just a succession of smaller events, and they’re all mutually dependent. It’s project management.”
Out of the gate
A bon voyage party was held May 15 at Annapolis City Dock and representatives of many of the sponsors turned out to toast The Greatest Loop. A decision was made to post a running log on TheGreatestLoop.com — distance, average speed and fuel burn — on each day of each leg. And breakages or breakdowns are to be reported on the site. “We are leaving ourselves a little vulnerable because anything that goes wrong, everybody will know about it,” O’Shea says. “But Beneteau, along with Cummins, Raymarine and all our partners, are confident in our product.”
The schedule is realistic, though most Loopers would not complete the entire passage in such a contracted time frame. However, extra days are scattered throughout the schedule to allow for delays. “We’ve all been in the game long enough to know there will be surprises along the way, but that’s what this is about — taking a standard, off-the-shelf boat on this passage,” Hichens says. “We’re being fairly transparent about this so we can say, ‘This is what it takes, and this is what can go wrong.’ ”
Trade Only’s sister magazine Soundings had a writer on board for the first leg, which finished May 17 in New York. “It’s been a lot of work, but this trip to New York was an absolute blast,” Hopkins says. “The boat handled extremely well in the ocean, and we met some interesting people along the way.”
Hopkins took a train home to Annapolis the next day, when a new captain and crew relieved him. Two days later his phone rang at 7:30 a.m. Sunday. It turned out to be a minor glitch with the chart plotter, and Hopkins talked the new crew through it, but he figures there will be more calls at odd hours this summer. “My phone should be ringing quite a bit in the next few months,” he says.
For major problems, Hopkins and a member of his service department are prepared to travel to the boat if a sponsor cannot service its product. Hichens is on standby in case one of the captains cannot do a leg. The boat is carrying a spare prop and rudder — along with other spares — to expedite a speedy repair if necessary. “Preparation is the key,” Hopkins says.
As it turns out, preparation paid off. The Greatest Loop struck a submerged log in early June on the Trent-Severn in Ontario, bending two of its prop’s five blades. The boat was hauled at Crate’s Marina, and the spare wheel was installed.
By mid-July, more than 45 days into the trip, The Greatest Loop had made its way down the Mississippi River to the Florida Gulf Coast. The boat departed St. Petersburg on July 11 with Hichens and his wife, Sue, at the helm, bound for a July 15 reception at Conch Harbor Marina in Key West. A rendezvous was scheduled for Aug. 17 at St. Barts Yachts in Charleston, S.C.
The plan is for The Greatest Loop to return to Annapolis Oct. 11-14, in time for the U.S. Powerboat Show, where she will be on display. No refurbishing other than a cleaning will be done before the show, Hichens says. The boat was professionally surveyed before the start and will be surveyed again by the same team after the voyage. Results from both surveys will be posted.
“In the end, we want to be able to say to consumers, ‘You can do this trip in this boat, and this is what it will look like when you’re done,’ ” he says. “But you can do it.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.