When Ron Hoover RV & Marine first took on boats to sell and service in 2000, company president Chris Hoover said the reason behind the move was a simple one: “We felt like there weren’t a lot of really good boat dealers compared to RV dealers.”
Customers of what was then Ron Hoover RV had asked the company to take on boats because of the positive experience they’d been having with their motor homes and travel trailers. Today, the company’s headquarters are in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Ron Hoover RV & Marine has 10 locations on the Texas Gulf Coast from Houston to Brownsville.
On the marine side, the dealerships carry Carolina Skiff, plus boats built locally, including Majek and Blue Wave. The majority of the company’s boat sales are in bay and flats boats, with some offshore models being sold, as well. At some stores, if a boat can’t run in 6 inches of water, the dealership won’t even put it in inventory.
Hoover estimates that the overall sales breakdown for the company’s 10 stores is 65 percent RV and 35 percent marine. And his company is not alone: At Alpin Haus, which is based in the Albany, N.Y., area, president Andy Heck says RVs account for about 75 percent of the business, with marine taking about 15 percent. The company also sells and services downhill skiing equipment, swimming pools and golf carts.
Selling and servicing more than one type of recreational product gives sales personnel an opportunity to make more commissions and keeps service departments busy year-round. There are similarities in how dealerships sell and service boats and RVs, but there are significant differences, as well.
Ron Hoover started his company in 1987 and remains CEO. The business began with motor homes and towable trailers, and now carries everything from pop-up campers to fifth-wheel trailers to Class A motor homes at seven locations. Boats are sold at eight locations, including Ron Hoover Marine Center in Galveston. As mentioned, Chris Hoover is the president, and his brother Dustin runs the store in Donna, Texas, plus a couple of other locations.
“He’s done a good job with that market,” Chris says of Dustin. “It’s a heavily ethnic culture because it’s so close to the border.”
Chris Hoover says many customers cross over between boats and RVs, and that adding boats made sense because it created another revenue source for the company’s various departments. “We already had finance, service and salespeople,” he says. “We can maximize our service writers the same way.”
Hoover says both industries could eliminate some secrecy when it comes to pricing. “When it comes to MSRP, the RV side is a lot closer to an automotive window sticker,” he says. “The marine business, I see a lot more nationally advertised stuff. Robalo does it; Tracker does it. They say we’re going to have these five models at a nationally advertised price.”
The RV side is doing a better job of providing an entry-level experience. “If I think back to 20 years ago and I look at my travel-trailer pricing, if a family of four had $20,000 to go camping, they could buy an RV and go camping,” he says. “Today, a family of four can still go camping.”
Conversely, a 17-foot Carolina Skiff with a 40-hp outboard that would likely feel crowded to a family of four prices out around $20,000, he says. A 21-footer with a 140-hp outboard is around $32,900. “The dollar seems to go a lot farther on the RV side,” he says. “My concern for the marine industry is that the volume is going to drop off a little bit.”
Because different boats are used for different purposes, Hoover says, the marine side has a more regional feel. By contrast, a “27-foot travel trailer with bunk beds in the corner and a queen in the front that sleeps a family of four is the same in Texas as it is in New York as it is in Florida,” he says.
For service, the dealership took a program it had always used on the RV side and implemented it for boats. “On the marine side, we see service managers who are hands-on, but in our companies, our service managers run a business inside a business,” he says. “We take some guys who might be a general manager at a smaller dealership and make them a service manager for us.”
Because marine technicians also have to deal with engines, he says, an RV technician can do some work on a boat, but that stops when it gets to the propulsion system. From a warranty standpoint, it’s easier to get an RV manufacturer to cover a component that’s on the vehicle, but with boats, if it’s a brand-name accessory, the service department spends more time on the phone trying to figure out how to get it covered.
“We want [boat manufacturers] to call and get with Garmin if it’s a Garmin problem or Rule if it’s a Rule problem,” Hoover says.
From Skis to Boats
Alpin Haus started as a ski shop in Upstate New York under founders Bud Heck and John Daly in 1964. Today, the company has more than 200 employees at three stores, and it sells RVs, boats, snowmobiles, skis, swimming pools and golf carts.
For boats, Alpin Haus carries Barletta and Berkshire pontoons, Tracker fishing boats, Chaparral runabouts and cruisers, and Sea-Doo personal watercraft. Company president Andy Heck says the strongest sales on the marine side are in pontoons; Alpin Haus was an early adopter of jetboats, and PWC sales remain solid.
“We’ve gone through the ups and downs of many manufacturers coming and going,” says Heck, who took over as president in 2008. After attending college, he spent some time working as a certified public accountant at Ernst & Young Global Limited before returning to the family business.
Looking at the similarities between RV and marine, Heck says the processes, systems, and parts and service are closely aligned. He says profit margins are better on RVs, but selling territories aren’t as well-protected in the RV industry compared to marine. “RVers are willing to travel several states away to pick up an RV,” he says. Additionally, RV manufacturers won’t necessarily tell a dealer not to sell to a customer who comes to him from another state, even if there’s a dealer in that customer’s backyard.
Alpin Haus has implemented programs from the RV side into how it manages marine, including performance-based pay plans for employees, and incentive programs for parts sales. Key performance indicators that the management team tracks include warranty repairs being completed in less than 30 days and having unclaimed warranties finished in less than seven days. The dealership also strives to keep a model in inventory for less than 300 days.
Like Hoover, Heck is concerned that boating is getting more expensive compared to RV, especially at the entry level. “Is it getting too pricey for boats?” he asks. “That’s a big challenge.”
Heck says evidence of this trend is the average age of buyers, many of whom are baby boomers. “The parents are buying boats because they want their grandkids to have the same experiences, and by default people in their 30s and 40s are using their parents’ boats,” he says.
Heck adds that sometimes it can be more difficult to sell an RV because of the broader selection of vehicles available. “With an RV, there’s so many factors and color schemes, it becomes analysis paralysis because they’re worried if they’re making the right decision,” he says. “That makes it more challenging for a dealer to decide which RVs he should keep in inventory.”
On the marine side, the biggest challenge is being based in the Northeast, where the season is more compressed. There is a sense of urgency to sell as many boats as possible from early spring through the July Fourth holiday. Heck compliments Tracker for its upfront pricing and straightforward approach to standard and optional accessories.
For service, Heck says larger RVs require more because they have more integrated systems. “The boats are built so well nowadays that there isn’t a lot of service” he says. “The biggest issue you’re going to have with the boat is the engine, and with today’s motors, they’re so reliable.” He adds that boat owners are more inclined than RV owners to follow a recommended maintenance schedule.
Trying Something New
When Dan Craffey bought Moose Landing Marina in 2000, the Naples, Maine-based company had 30 customers. When he sold the facility on Brandy Pond to Steve Arnold, owner of Yarmouth Boat Yard in Yarmouth, Maine, Moose Landing Marina had 800 storage customers.
Two years ago, Craffey, who owns local supermarkets and real estate in southwestern Maine, bought Lee’s Family Trailer, an RV dealership in Windham, Maine. The dealership was founded by Lee Gardner, and after his death, Craffey purchased the business from the family.
Craffey says the similarities between Moose Landing and Lee’s are that both of the dealerships sell and service fairly sizable items, and that customer service needs to be the priority. “Whoever figures out service first wins,” he says. “You have to be service-oriented.”
Lee’s Family Trailer has 10 technicians, and just as in the marine industry, finding good service personnel remains a challenge. The company has 14 service bays in two buildings that cover about 12,000 square feet, and the main retail store and offices are in a 9,000-square-foot building. Craffey estimates that there is about $1 million worth of inventory in parts and accessories in the retail store.
While some dealerships are on a small parcel with a few units in stock, Craffey has always believed in keeping a healthy inventory of models. The approach seems to have worked because sales for Lee’s Family Trailer have tripled since he took over.
One of the bigger differences among his marine and RV customers is that owning and towing or operating an RV, unlike operating a boat, is a skill that most people already have. “It’s something that just about anyone can do,” Craffey says. “The nice thing about this is that we also have something for everyone. We have a camper that a couple can get into for under $100 a month.”
Craffey also says that with RVs, sales are more consistent year round, compared to the hard springtime push for new boats. In January, the dealership sold 25 units, so making sure they were delivered on time kept his employees busy.
“I don’t think either one’s an easy business,” Craffey says. “That’s one similarity that all dealers would probably agree on.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.