Bring boating to life with events

As the busy season gets underway in many boating regions, you may be asking yourself, “Am I ready?” But before you answer, take a serious look at a key aspect of your business: your event calendar.

Some dealers might laugh. After all, there are plenty of other, more important things to worry about this year than laying out a chunk of change to socialize with customers. How about floorplan financing, new and pre-owned boat shortages and consumer lending, not to mention the usual staffing, cash flow and scheduling challenges, right?

But if you plan to make some money this year, think again. While there are signs that consumers are finally starting to open their wallets, chances are that the vast majority of your 2010 sales will come from your current customer base. That means you’ll generate your highest return on investment by targeting those who’ve already bought from you – and there’s no better way to do that than to bring them together with your staff to remind them what your dealership and the boating lifestyle has to offer.

While consumers are tired of denying themselves the toys and experiences they most enjoy, most continue to be cautious with their money. Even loyal customers could use a refresher on what they’ve been missing before they hand over their money.

“Events get butts in boats, which helps reinforce why they own a boat in the first place,” explains Joe Lewis, owner of Mt. Dora Boating Center & Marina, Mt. Dora, Fla.

In addition, consumer events generate loyalty and ultimately sales. And with all the pressure on pricing over the past few years, loyalty means more than it used to.

“The return on investment beats boat shows,” says Tom Mack, owner of South Shore Marine, Huron, Ohio. “It gets them on our turf without competitors, and it offers the value of having our customers meet other consumers, share stories, positive experiences, etc.”

This past March, Mt. Dora hosted a cruise from its facility to Silver Springs. Eight boats participated, and in the end, not only did they purchase gas for the trip from the dealership, two came in for service the day afterward and a third set up a demo of the 22-foot deck boat Lewis led the trip with in hopes of upgrading from his 18-foot bowrider.

In fact, over the years, some dealerships have learned how to maximize the ROI of such rendezvous. At Parker Boat Co. in Orlando, boaters have to purchase a boat from the dealership to participate in its cruise club. And for the past 34 years, one of the club’s most popular trips is an expedition to the Bahamas. The owner, several staff members and a technician accompany the group, which tends to attract 15 to 20 customer boats.

“I can document that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the boat owners I take on the Bahamas trip will buy a new boat from us within 12 months,” says Roy Parker, Jr., dealership owner.

Those boat owners typically have trades, which the dealership tends to sell quickly as consumers buy them specifically to get into the cruise club, he explains.

Yet another benefit of dealership events is that they often push you and your staff out of the day-to-day mode to another level, mentally and physically.

“If the saw isn’t used, it might get rusty,” says Paul Berube, vice president of Boaters Exchange. “It’s like cleaning your house before a cocktail party. The house might not have gotten clean if it weren’t for the party you planned.”

Diversity training
Many dealerships have responded to market conditions by scaling back on events like boat trips in favor of focusing on sales-related events. But the most effective approach is to offer a diversity of events. There are rendezvous, fishing tournaments and watersports competitions; educational events, including boating operation and safety classes, wakeboard and waterskiing lessons, and fishing and electronics seminars; customer appreciation parties; sales events, which typically combine special product discounts with food and entertainment; and those that combine aspects of each of these.

“Our events can be: a) educational, b) social or c) entertaining,” says Larry Russo, Sr., president and CEO of Russo Marine. “The best events do all three. For instance; when we host a rendezvous, a cruise or an overnight, we schedule seminars, have a cookout and bring in live music. This is how we deliver all three elements in one event.”

He explains that events are relatively easy to produce, are fun for customers and staff, and don’t cost a lot of money considering the value they generate.

The numbers game
While creating an events calendar is a must for all marine dealers, the number of events held each year and the amount of money spent on each varies widely from one dealership to the next.

Russo Marine holds 30 to 40 events per year, which costs around $140,000 net of co-op, a formula that isn’t right for every dealership, especially those launching their own events for the first time.

Carly Poole, director of marketing for Buckeye Marine in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, suggests a dealership focus on planning only one event per month, especially if this is their first time.

One mistake dealers often make is assuming events have to be expensive, which is not the case.
Mount Dora’s first event, for example, was a day trip to a state park for a cookout. Lewis advises dealerships to keep it fun, simple and low cost, at least to start.

In addition, there are a number of different strategies dealers can use to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of the experience, food or entertainment or efforts to promote the event.

A growing trend, for instance, is dealer collaboration, where dealers might work together on a sales event or something similar. In addition, many savvy dealers pursue sponsors or give non-competitive marine businesses the opportunity to participate in exchange for promoting the event to their customer database. Dealers can also look for opportunities to hold events in conjunction with community celebrations, thus receiving free advertising.

Over the years, Buckeye Marine has been able to receive sponsorship dollars from boat builders and engine manufacturers toward its Women Behind the Wheel class in exchange for exclusive use of their products in teaching boat and engine operation to participants. Other event sponsors that have helped the dealership reduce the cost of events include its marine insurance provider and a fuel provider, which provided free fuel in exchange for the advertising it received.

“There isn’t an event we hold that isn’t sponsored in part or in whole,” says Poole. “If I can get other people involved to make an event better, I’m going to do that.”

Given the range of events to choose from – and the numerous strategies available to manage costs – there’s no reason for a boat dealership to offer less than one event per month during their region’s boating season. In fact, the industry’s most successful dealerships offer at least one event per month year-round.

It comes back to Newton’s Law of Motion – an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

“Activity begets activity,” Berube concludes. “If you want action in your store, you need to create activity in your community.”
Navigating the events spectrum

From free hot dogs and balloons for customers on a Saturday afternoon to weeks-long voyages through the Caribbean, there are as many different dealer events as there are dealers.

That’s clearly illustrated by the applications received for Boating Industry’s annual Top 100 Dealers Program, which asks entrants to describe their “best in-store and/or community-related promotional events.” Here are a number dealers have had success with over the years.

Customer appreciation parties and open houses
“We feel it is of the utmost importance that our customers know how grateful we are to have them as a huge part of the success of our business. We also feel there is no better way to do that than to celebrate.”

Those words from Carly Poole sum up the customer-appreciation philosophy shared by many boat dealers.

Buckeye Marine offers more than 20 events each year, but traditionally has two that are dedicated specifically to showing customers the dealership’s appreciation for their loyalty. The first is a floating barbeque held on one of the sandbars near the company’s locations, which attracts hundreds of Buckeye boaters. They eat, enjoy the contests and prizes offered, and mingle with fellow boat owners and Buckeye staff in the relaxed atmosphere. The barbeque has become such a hit that it was expanded last year and took place at three separate sites.

The dealership also hosts an on-site Pig and Corn Roast each September as a way to wrap up the boating season with a bang. There is live entertainment to go along with games and raffle drawings for prizes.

The customer appreciation day held last spring at Dry Dock Marine Center – located in Angola, Ind. – was a community affair, involving several local vendors, including the restaurant that catered the event, a jeweler who gave away watches and a masseuse who gave away massages. The dealership handed out gift certificates and boating accessories, and anyone who bought a boat was given an in-store shopping spree up to $1,000.

Dry Dock also held a silent auction on boats, where the dealership set the minimum bid, then asked customers to submit their own bids, which were not shared with the other bidders. Customers’ response to the auction, which was a new strategy for the dealership, was good, the dealer reported.

The open house held at Causeway Marine each spring following the Manahawkin, N.J. dealership’s final boat show of the season is one of its biggest selling opportunities of the year and produces better results than many of the shows at which it displays.

A great deal of direct mail is used to spread the word about the open house, along with targeted advertising and the Internet. In addition, each sales associate is asked to call and e-mail every one of his or her prospects from every show of the year – and in some cases the previous year – that have not yet purchased a boat.

Once the event begins, new boats are put in the water for demo rides, food and refreshments are served and a free raffle to give away a valuable boating-related prize is held.

“We sell more at that annual event than many of the shows we do,” says Paul Terzian, Causeway partner, “and as far as cost vs. benefit, it usually favorably surpasses even our most productive boat shows.”

Boat shows and related events
As boat show attendance fluctuates and the shows themselves go through their ups and downs, events that work in conjunction with existing boat shows, and those that replace them, are becoming more popular.

Last year, for the first time, organizers of the Seattle Boat Show held an invitation-only VIP preview party the night before the show opened. To make the most of that opportunity, Seattle Boat Co. decided to hold a watersports fashion show in its booth during the event and recruited the children of employees and customers to be models. Lights, a stage and a runway were set up, and kids modeled swimwear, fashions and the latest in life jackets, accessorized by wakeboards and other watersports gear.

A DJ/emcee was brought in to supply music and a cheerleading squad from a local high school helped supply some additional atmosphere to the festivities. A raffle with inner tubes, lifejackets, T-shirts and other prizes took place, and the dealership staged three fashion shows throughout the evening.

“We wanted to continue our tradition of creating deep and ongoing relationships with our customers, and providing fun events that set us apart, so we planned our own ‘party within the party,’” says Alan Bohling, president and CEO of Seattle Boat Co.

Customers not only dropped by the dealership’s booth to say hello, they stayed to visit and rekindle relationships with other Seattle Boat Co. customers and friends. Of the 3,000 people who turned out for VIP night, 600 were Seattle Boat Co. customers, but many potential customers were also drawn to the festivities.

Minnesota’s Midwest MasterCraft takes a slightly different approach with its boat show events, holding pre- and post-boat-show sales to bookend the annual Minneapolis Boat Show. The dealership says it uses its pre-show sale to create urgency and offer the benefit of buyer programs or discounts for those who aren’t attending.

The post-show sale is not announced until after the Minneapolis Boat Show ends as Midwest MasterCraft does not want to provide show goers with another reason to wait to buy. But the post-show sale provides the dealership with a reason to contact all of its show leads and get them back into the store for one last chance at the show discounts and programs. Midwest MasterCraft says it sells more boats at its pre- and post-sales events than at the show itself.

Performance Marine, located in Regina, Saskatchewan, participates in two events that serve as an alternative to the traditional boat show. One is a regional dealer show and the other is an extended-hours, indoor event that runs for three weeks and is held with another boat dealership and two RV dealers. At that show, there are no parking or entrance fees for customers, and Performance is able to display more than 30 units in a “marina atmosphere” with aluminum docking providing elevated areas for the customers.

“Our no-fee approach, coupled with the extended time frame of the show, lets customers take their time doing their homework and not leave feeling they were bullied into the quick sale,” says Jeff Lorch, Performance Marine general manager.

Vallely Sport and Marine’s most successful in-store sales promotion last year was also an event made possible through the combined efforts of several boat dealerships. Dubbed “Battle of the Boat Dealers,” Vallely, along with two other dealerships in Bismarck, N.D., offered prizes – including a $1,500 accessory-shopping spree – to customers who visited all three businesses during the event. The dealers split the cost of the $15,000 they spent on advertising and had a terrific response, generating “great floor traffic and sales,” according to General Manager John Vallely, Jr.

Off-site events
Vallely Sport and Marine also partnered with the local Sam’s Club to be the exclusive Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club dealer for the area, which allows the dealership to display its products at their locations throughout the year. And many dealers have had success with similar partnerships, which put boats in locations where non-boaters, or people who are only casually interested in boating, will notice and begin considering them.

Two lakefront restaurants have hosted the most successful events The Boat Shop – located in Tafton, Pa. – produces each year. The dealership works with the restaurants to arrange small “dock-and-dine” shows on holiday weekends. The Boat Shop places between two and six boats at each location, which usually average about an hour wait for a table, and the boats give the customers something with which to occupy themselves as they bide their time.

This lowers the walk-out rate for the restaurants, while giving potential buyers the opportunity to become more familiar with the boats in a relaxed setting. The events result in an average of 15 new or used yearly boat sales for the dealership, and the Boat Shop says it gets about 100 prospects each year that visit their facility for more information as a result of the shows.

On-water events
While parking lot displays are a great way to reach people who might otherwise not have boating on their minds, nothing sells a boat better than getting a person out on the water. Two of the most popular ways dealerships do this is by holding in-water boat shows or demo days events.

Florida’s Quality Boats of Clearwater holds demo days for its prospects at a waterfront restaurant. Potential customers get an in-water sales presentation that includes demonstrations of most makes and models, captained by professional boat captains, as well as an open bar and upscale dining in an outdoor, boating-lifestyle environment.

Current customers are often invited to attend these events too, as the dealership believes the gatherings are an enticement to continue to buy from Clearwater and that they alleviate any concerns customers may have with the support and treatment they will receive from the dealership.

“While very expensive, these events give us the ability to mingle with our current customer base to validate our treatment of them as well as allowing our prospects to mingle with our current customers to validate the kind of upscale treatment they will receive when they are one of our customers,” says Daniel Bair, Clearwater’s CEO.

When Mt. Dora Boating Center began receiving leads from the Discover Boating campaign, it didn’t take long for the Florida dealership to realize the people it was talking to were trying to learn more about boating before deciding whether or not to buy. As a result, the company focused on becoming a resource to help them do that and began holding monthly events where prospective boaters learn about the different types of boats, what they’re used for and the opportunities to use them around the area.

Gordy’s Lakefront Marine helps celebrate the start of another Wisconsin boating season, and helps boaters scratch their itch to get back on the lake, by holding its in-water boat show a bit earlier each spring than some of the other dealers in its area. Not only does this help bring out boaters who have been patiently sitting through the Midwestern winter, it also give the dealership a chance to follow up as quickly as possible with leads from the boat shows and ensures that boaters who do order boats have them delivered in time to enjoy a full season on the water.

The best event at Omaha Marine Center takes place on the Missouri river where the company rents out an entire marina and fills it with demo and customer boats. The gathering, which is professionally catered and features live music, is free of charge for customers and prospective boaters. The company says it does a good job of generating new interest from old customers and starting new prospects on the path to becoming old salts.

The classroom
Another step on that path is boater education. Ensuring that people have the knowledge they need to stay safe and have an enjoyable time with their boats goes a long way toward keeping them involved in boating for a lifetime.

Woodard Marine University is a perfect example of this. The Vermont dealership offers spring and fall classes on boat maintenance, electronics, navigation and even knot tying. These courses, which are free and open to the public, are held in Woodard’s showroom, where a classroom is set up at all times. The company says its goal is to help take the worry out of the boating experience.

Buckeye Marine takes some of its boating seminars out into the community, speaking in front of groups of retirees, for example, to offer tips on boating safety or maintenance, while at the same time promoting the products and other events and classes the dealership offers.

At Strong’s Marine, based in Mattituck, N.Y., the yearly in-house training seminar changes based on the needs of the students. The dealership might offer a general boating safety class in the morning, then cover more advanced subject matter later in the day for boaters that are more experienced.

Strong’s also takes new boaters out on the water and shows them how to navigate the area’s local locks and make their way out onto the ocean. Buyers are sometimes given an on-water delivery when they purchase a boat, but dealerships like Strong’s provide the kind of hands-on instruction necessary to help some boaters feel comfortable.

A number of dealerships offer classes geared specifically toward female boaters. Galati Yacht Sales – based in Anna Maria, Fla. – has created a very successful Ladies at the Helm program that teaches women how to boat safely, helping them gain knowledge and hands-on experience so they feel comfortable and confident behind the helm.

“This promotes family fun on the water, but more importantly teaches safety,” Galati General Manager Darren Plymale explains. “We found that most of the time our male customers piloted the yacht, and their wives were at a loss in case of emergency. Galati Yacht Sales sought to rectify the problem, and Ladies at the Helm was born. Our female customers really appreciate the teaching style of our captains, as it is much easier to learn in a safe environment with their peers rather than chaos at the dock.”

Galati hosts a luncheon for participants, along with a “chalk talk” session with a volunteer from the Coast Guard, Power Squadron and a licensed captain reviewing safety tips. In 2008, the “Ladies at the Helm” program was expanded to participants outside the Galati family. The company has been working with local yacht clubs and marina operations to bring more women into the program and Galati Yacht Sales.

In fact, the program has been so successful that Galati also started a Teens at the Helm program in conjunction with the Coast Guard, which allows teenagers to learn safe boating and receive their certificate required by law. Galati says the new program has already proven to be a “stellar success,” and it looks forward to continuing to promote safe and confident boating for the entire family.

Something for everyone
Of course, not everyone who’s a boater spends his or her time at the helm. There are plenty of people who would rather be skiing, wakeboarding or fishing, so it’s important to offer events for them as well.

One of the best at doing this is Redline Watersports, located in Madison, Wis. The dealership has created several different programs to help its customers get on the water and have fun while they’re there. The company’s Sunrise Slalom Series helps waterskiers stay on top of the latest advances in the sport by offering instructional sessions from resident experts to those who purchase the equipment, or a boat, from the dealership.

Wakeboarders, the fastest growing segment of Redline’s niche market, are also looked after. To make contact and develop an ongoing relationship with families that are getting into the sport, Redline began its Grom Wake Series, which, for a minimum $10 donation to the area’s Clean Lakes Festival, provides wake lessons for beginner and intermediate riders behind the dealership’s boats.

For more advanced riders, Redline brought in a professional from Team MasterCraft to provide two days of wake clinics. The company also brought in wakeboarding legend Parks Bonifay and an up-and-coming rider named Dean Smith for its Free Ride day. Redline ran two boats so that the pros were out on the water with the customers and more people could take a turn, then participants got to watch the two professionals ride.

Bonifay has also been a guest at Action Water Sports, the Hudsonville, Mich.-based dealership that hosts a number of annual professional water sports clinics and has had appearances by Bonifay and others, such as skiers Jodi Fisher and Wade Cox.
Last year, a pristine three-lake site became available to Action for its dealership events, and it took advantage of the opportunity by holding a pro waterski event there as well as its free Thursday night ski events, which Action helps organize but are run by volunteers. They are part of a grassroots effort to attract new people to boating.
“We want to help grow the sport of waterskiing and promote the boating lifestyle in our community, so we thought this was a great way to do that,” says Jerry Brouwer, Action’s general manager.

Another great way that dealers can bring boats full of people out for a day, or days, on the water, is by organizing poker runs or rendezvous events. High-speed powerboats are often associated with poker runs, but boaters who prefer going a little slower can also participate.

The annual Poker Run at Virginia’s Prince William Marine Sales is a five-stop outing, with the fifth being a beach-front lunch that the dealership hosts for the 200 participants, before prizes are awarded. Seattle Boat Co. combines its annual Poker Run with a scavenger hunt, calling it the Riddle Run. In addition to developing a poker hand from cards received at each stop, boaters also need to solve riddles that lead them to the various locations. Once they arrive, they play games like blackjack or trivia to win prizes before a catered meal ends the day, and the winners are crowned.

When it comes to rendezvous, nobody has a more ambitious excursion than Florida’s Parker Boat Co. The dealership has guided more than 1,000 boaters and 600 boats on the weeklong voyage to the Bahamas it has offered for more than 30 years. The time spent together on these trips allows customers to become friends, and the goodwill, loyalty and word-of-mouth advertising generated far outweigh the costs Parker Boat Co. takes on.

And that’s the point. No matter how time consuming or costly events may be — and with such a wide range of options, time and expense can run the gamut – if done properly, they can return the investment many times over in ways that impact the bottom line and beyond.

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