A New Deal for Dealers

With a new format that included educational sessions, networking and a field trip to an RV center, Dealer Week was a fresh departure from previous events
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About 600 dealers attended the MRAA’s new conference, which included more than 100 exhibiting companies.

About 600 dealers attended the MRAA’s new conference, which included more than 100 exhibiting companies.

The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas’ Dealer Week brought about the biggest change in program format in more than a decade, including a field trip to three non-marine businesses that offered lessons for today’s economy. The four-day event, which took place Dec. 8-11 at the Tampa Convention Center in Florida, also included educational Pathways, Ted-style “10 x 10” lectures and extended networking sessions with other retailers and exhibitors. It attracted about 600 dealers and 100-plus exhibiting companies.

“Dealer Week wasn’t intended as just another four-day event,” says Matt Gruhn, MRAA president. “It’s a long-term vision for impacting the future of the marine industry, a vision to deliver solutions and opportunities for our industry’s dealers and to bridge the divide between industry resources and those companies on the front lines of delivering world-class experiences to today’s boaters.”

Gruhn’s words might sound a bit grandiose, but his idea is that the boating industry is a community that functions much better when the participants are working closely for the common benefit of the industry.

Dealer Week’s format was intended to be highly practical so that the lessons learned in the classroom could be applied directly to the dealership. The format included courses with solid, usable takeaways. The 90-minute “Pathways” courses gave the event its educational foundation by focusing on the customer, employee and dealership experiences. There were more than a dozen sessions during Dealer Week. On the first day, Carrie Stacey gave a Dealership Pathway presentation on “Succession Planning for Dealers,” and Eric Smith’s presentation, “Combating the Local Tech Shortage,” was part of the Employee Pathway.

Other notable changes to the educational format included a move away from lecture-hall-style seating. Instead, the speakers used round tables for a smaller group approach that allowed more interaction. The 10-minute “10 x 10” talks were more immediate and informative. They included Thom Dammrich’s “Boat Prices and the Internet,” Phil Smoker’s “Crack the Affordability Code,” Cecil Cohn’s “Create More Boaters,” and seven other talks.

Cohn, president of Brunswick Boating Services, which recently acquired Freedom Boat Club, promoted the idea of boat clubs during his presentation. He says Brunswick Corp. benefits by selling boats to dozens of franchises throughout the country and overseas to create new boaters. What some dealers see as competition, others see as a ready-made client base prepped to convert from rental to ownership.

Attendees also were encouraged to spend time in the exhibit hall, where about 115 vendors had booths, including boatbuilders and service providers. Gruhn says the focus was to have attendees spend quality time with vendors, who focused on conversations and product demos tuned to individual needs. “It’s part of making stronger connections between dealers and their suppliers,” he says.

One of the event’s highlights was the field trip on the Sunday before the official opening. Designed so dealers could experience best practices outside the boating business, it included exploring the changing Tampa waterfront, talking with the head of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning about dovetailing with community events, and learning about succession planning from the fourth- and fifth-generation owners of Columbia restaurant in Ybor City.

The most anticipated stop on the tour was Lazydays RV Center, where dealers gained fresh ideas about product management and customer service, and learned how the megafacility operates 400 service bays with 100 trained technicians.

As with the marine industry, the RV industry faces challenges in recruiting and retaining service labor. Lazydays techs average 14 years of experience each, and its method of rotating work orders from quick fixes to more complicated repairs improved technicians’ sense of accomplishment, created more efficient service bay scheduling, and made better use of technicians who focus on plumbing, electronics and finish carpentry.

“That visit provided excellent insight. We wanted to identify areas where we can shorten the repair cycle, increase cash flow and profit, and still deliver the experience a customer expects,” says marketing consultant Valerie Ziebron, who spearheaded the field trips. “Just having to move product numerous times to complete lengthy job tickets leads to additional delays, such as lot congestion and sometimes damage from moving boats too many times.”

After the field trip, the group took part in classroom education sessions on creative approaches to solving local tech shortages. Ziebron spoke about how dealers could apply the best practices to their own dealerships. “The field trip really exceeded our expectations,” says Liz Walz, MRAA vice president. “The leaders who opened their businesses provided a tremendous number of insights and best practices.”

At the end of Dealer Week, Gruhn said he was pleased with the first year and its wider mission. “This is just the start of the impact we can have as an organization and as a network of partners who believe in and support that mission,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Bruce Van Wagoner, president of the marine group for Wells Fargo. He says the lessons learned in the past decade, especially when it comes to dealer inventory, are a direct result of manufacturers and retailers working closely together. He supports the idea of dealers taking advantage of educational opportunities.

“The recreational marine industry is an ongoing challenge of change for dealers,” Van Wagoner says. “Those that prepare for the possibilities will survive and even potentially thrive with the right preparations.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.

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