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Hands-on training can be a winner for dealers

Is an educated boater more confident at the helm? Is he or she more likely to use the boat more often and go farther? Are they more prone to stay in boating and even buy up? Are there many current boaters that would respond to more education and training if available?

I say yes to all of the above and here’s some solid evidence to support it.

At the Tampa Boat Show, for example, a pilot program dubbed “Take the Helm” was introduced in 2011 and its success triggered a significant expansion last month at the 2012 show last month. A part of Discover Boating’s “Welcome to the Water” program, “Take the Helm” featured a selection of hands-on, on-the-water learning experiences aimed at taking a participant’s boating skills up a notch.

Now, you might be assuming any free on-water lessons at a boat show would be popular. But these weren’t free. In fact, depending on the clinic or seminar chosen, participants paid from $10 to $125 per person. Moreover, most of the sessions were sold out, including daily three-hour morning training sessions in both powerboating and sailing.

The program was coordinated by Tom Knighten, director of development for the Recreational Powerboating Association, along with an equally competent team from the American Sailing Association. The clinics ranged from introductory sessions for beginners to advanced training for experienced boaters. All were hands-on aboard boats ranging from center consoles to cruising sailboats. But it’s the registration survey data — from two Tampa shows and last winter’s Miami show where “Take the Helm” was also conducted — that tells an interesting story about hands-on training.

While not scientific, here’s what the registration survey revealed. Of 1,504 respondents, 59 percent (884) called themselves new/beginner boaters; 35 percent (526) said they were intermediate level; and 6 percent (94) called themselves advanced. One conclusion is hands-on learning appeals to all experience levels of customers, but especially new boaters. Another conclusion could be that dealers offering hands-on learning experiences could be in a much stronger position to sell newcomers and continue to engage customers.

When it came to actual boat ownership, 1,187 responding: 38 percent (454) did not currently own; 9 percent (102) were past owners; 53 percent (631) were current owners. Some conclusions: Opportunities for some hands-on learning could be an effective tool for introducing non-boaters, demonstrating they “can do it.” Also, improving skills of current customers increases their enjoyment and makes them less likely to be boating dropouts.

As to prior training, among 1,155 respondents, 31 percent (358) said they had no formal training; 31 percent (359) said they were self-taught or by friends/family; 13 percent (153) said they had formal U.S. Power Squadrons, Coast Guard Auxiliary or US Sailing training; 25 percent (285) said they had formal Recreational Powerboating Association or American Sailing Association training. Notably, 62 percent had no formal training but obviously wanted to sign up for some, and even pay for it, at the Tampa show.

How about the age breakdown? Of 1,192 respondents, a mere 2 percent (27) were ages 18-24; a slightly better 12 percent were 25-35; the largest group at 47 percent (566) was 36-54; and the 55-and-over age group accounted for 38 percent. There’s little surprise here that we have an aging ownership base and we must find ways to make boating appeal to younger demographics.

To the question “Want more hands-on training?” the overwhelming majority (83 percent) said yes. It appears boaters of all experience levels will respond to training opportunities. That, in turn, presents opportunities for dealers to engage their prospects and customers in what is obviously a mutually beneficial way. It takes a commitment to do it.

Finally, who was ready to buy? Sadly, 37 percent were not. But 63 percent confirmed intent to purchase with timing from immediate to more than 12 months out. So call it “experiential marketing” or just the advancement of boating safety, but there is every indication that education in all forms, particularly hands-on training, can be a winner for dealers who find ways to pursue it.


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