Propelling partnership

Even before the 2009 Marine Dealer Conference & Expo got underway, the event had a story to tell.

From an industrywide viewpoint, that story appeared to be the year-over-year growth the event, held Nov. 16-18 in Orlando, had demonstrated from 2008. Overall attendance, in fact, had grown by 199 percent, and dealer attendance had jumped 120-plus percent. Growth had also been realized on the exhibit side, as nearly twice as many exhibitors filled more than 50,000 sq. ft. of space, with nearly 10 times the number of boats on display compared to the year prior.

But those facts played a supporting role to the main storyline.

From start to finish, the 2009 MDCE was a story of partnership. A story of working together for the betterment of the marine industry. And a story of collaboration toward a stronger future for an industry that has seen its share of tough times. The collection of marine industry leaders at the MDCE rarely acknowledged the difficulties of the last 18 months, however, instead choosing to look opportunistically toward the future.

“Knowing that the economy has been in the tank for more than a year and the industry has been on such an incredible decline, it’s certainly a pleasant surprise to us that we could entice a record turnout,” said Ed Lofgren, chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America and owner of 3A Marine Service in Hingham, Mass. “But then, again, this entire event was designed to help these dealers overcome the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.”

Indeed, that was the mission behind the theme – GPS: Growth, Profitability and Solutions for Navigating Today’s Market – created by the co-producers of the MDCE, Boating Industry magazine and the Marine Retailers Association of America. The main storyline of the event connected the pieces that are integral to not merely survive but to thrive, even in these tough market conditions.

The educational content was selected to reinforce that message (you can read more about each session in the sidebars that accompany this article or online at and the event kicked off with a keynote presentation that underscored the mission: “Leading Through Turbulent Times.” The opener coupled the leadership theme with a message that outlined how dealers can build customer loyalty to their own brand.

While Disney presenter Rob Morton shared a number of stories to demonstrate how his company has fostered brand loyalty, the one message that seemed to resonate with the dealers in attendance was that when a customer has a problem, it should be treated by employees as though, “it may not be my fault, but it’s my problem.”

The biggest problem in the marine industry has been the economic downturn that has ravaged dealerships across North America, and the MDCE sought to position dealers to succeed in this climate. Organizers doubled the amount of content offered when compared to the year prior, offering a two-day sales and marketing track, a one-day service track and a half-day lending track.

“After surveying a large contingent of the dealer body, it was clear to our team that dealers were seeking answers in all of these areas,” said John Vallely, Jr., chairman of the MDCE convention committee. “We’re all looking for ways to grow sales back to what they once were, but we’re also trying to find lenders for our customers and to grow our service department profits while unit sales are expected to remain flat. This two-track format allowed us to arm attendees with the knowledge and tools that they need right now in order to strengthen their businesses, capture opportunities on the horizon and to set themselves apart as one of the best dealerships to do business with.”

The dealerships of tomorrow
Much of the content was focused on the future of the industry. The leadoff session for the sales and marketing track — “The Dealership of Tomorrow” — for example, outlined the performance metrics that dealer principals should set their sights on as they continue to refine their businesses for the current market.

“Sales levels will remain lower for the foreseeable future,” suggested presenter Noel Osborne of Osborne & Associates. “Consumer demographics have changed dramatically. Inventory stocking levels will have to continue to change. Marketing will have to become more cost-effective. Dealer service revenue must improve significantly.

“The dealership of tomorrow will have to do more with less, and both manufacturers and dealers will have to operate with new business models.”

Osborne’s presentation set up the remainder of the MDCE educational topics as he gave an overview of business planning, productivity needs, inventory control, marketing, lending and attracting and retaining quality employees. In the service track, there was both a presentation and a dealer panel discussion on how to improve service productivity and profitability before the track moved into providing the audience with expert tips and best practices on service department success. Osborne then wrapped things up with innovative ideas for marketing a dealer’s service department.

On the sales and marketing side, six topics followed the Dealership of Tomorrow opener. Well-known trainer Joe Verde went into detail about how dealers can create processes to help them strengthen their sales efforts. Spader Business Management’s Patrick Kennedy outlined how dealers can revamp their inventory management programs. Boating Industry magazine’s Liz Walz moderated a panel that included six dealerships and a best practice from each, while ARI/Channel Blade’s Bob McCann impressed upon the audience the need for effective online lead response strategies.

And finally, two lending topics — the 6 Cs of Lending and a lender panel discussion — rounded out the educational tracks.

The sessions were structured to provide dealers with actionable insight into how to improve their operations. And post-session and post-event surveys indicated that many dealers did take away ideas that were put into place immediately following the event (to learn more about this, see page 35).

“For the amount invested in time and money, you walk away with many ideas,” says Travis Hayes of Hayes Marine. “We came back with a list of at least 70 items that we can implement rather quickly at little expense.”

Higher education
In addition to the structured sessions, the MDCE also provided learning opportunities in the exhibit hall and in the peer-to-peer networking environment.

A total of 75 exhibitors filled the MDCE expo hall, showcasing accessories, services, engines, boats and other products and services. In fact, after displaying only four boats at the 2008 event, MDCE exhibitors had nearly 40 boats on display in 2009.

More exhibitors attracted more dealer attendees, and both groups seemed pleased with the results. In fact, Kirsten Schuchardt, of Brunswick Corp.’s Dealer Advantage division, reported talking to more dealers in the first couple hours of the show than she had during other industry events.

“It’s just a good atmosphere to meet with your peers and learn from them,” said Doug Malone, VP of fixed operations at Sail & Ski Centers.

Several networking functions were intertwined with the educational content and exhibit hours, and the ongoing dialog and idea sharing seemed to add great value to the overall atmosphere.

“I got a lot out of it,” said Rick Rosenberger of Captain’s Cove Marine, “and the interaction with other dealers is worth every bit you spend.”

To cap off the event, industry-leading dealers and suppliers joined forces for two final panel discussions, both titled “Partnering for a Better Tomorrow.” The topics of the conversation ranged from consumer demographics to marketing and social networking to inventory management, and the theme of the conversations underscored the forward-looking mission the entire event held.

“The educational information is the best in the industry,” said Charles Campbell of Texas Marine. “The ability to get away from our dealerships once a year to a place that is full of ideas and a new vision and to bring those ideas back … I usually get 15 pages of notes. And we’ll be back next year.”

Click here for summaries of all the conference sessions.

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