Inside AquaPalooza

When you’ve been selling boats as long as Rod Malone, there’s not much you haven’t seen and even less that gets a rise out of you. But as host of this year’s signature AquaPalooza event, he pauses before describing his feelings about what’s ahead for him, his team and his community.

“Controlled terror,” Malone says with only a hint of tongue in cheek. “This is a much more complex event than anything we’ve done before. We’ve held parties with 500 boats, but this one will be at least 10 times that size.”

After a fairly involved process, Sail & Ski Center, a three-location Texas dealership, was chosen last year by Sea Ray to bear the banner for AquaPalooza’s fifth anniversary – the same year it was named Boating Industry magazine’s No. 1 Dealer of 2009, an award that acknowledges the marine retailer’s leadership and professionalism. Malone says its reputation was a deciding factor.

“We had discussed having the AquaPalooza Signature Event in Austin on Lake Travis with Sea Ray for the past couple of years, but the timing, water levels and other factors kept the discussions from becoming very specific,” says Malone. “[Sea Ray] visited Austin to make a presentation to the community stakeholders, and after receiving an overwhelming display of support for the event from the community, the decision was made.”

The event, which will be held at The Reserve at Lake Travis, promises to be the biggest on-water gathering ever.

“Expectations are very high, and there’s a lot of awareness surrounding AquaPalooza,” says Malone. “It will do substantial good to promote boating and the boating lifestyle in our region. But, for instance, we have to figure out how to get 5,000 boats anchored in an orderly fashion. These are things we don’t normally think about.”

Part of the pressure to put on an event of this magnitude comes from the number of external inputs that aren’t normally present for a dealership-level activity. Permitting from regulatory agencies alone can lead to a lake full of red tape if not handled the right way.

“Right up front, we engaged stakeholders from 50 different businesses, homeowners groups, law enforcement and others,” Malone says. “We’ve really had an overwhelming response, and we’ve been able to make this more than just a single-day event. It’s turned into a weeklong, multiple-venue event around the lake. We see this as an economic boost for this area after three years dealing with a slow economy and low lake levels.”

But just signing up to host AquaPalooza comes with its internal as well as external challenges. It’s one thing to have extensive experience with yacht christenings, and weekend dine-around events, but there is a general, frequently unspoken acknowledgement of the magnitude of this undertaking.

Malone says his staff is already burning the candle at both ends, but because they understand the significance of the event and its value to the organization, they’re going above and beyond to make sure the dealership can take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Specifically, Malone points to the challenge of remembering that the early July AquaPalooza week will coincide with the peak sales season. It helps that Sail & Ski already has an event marketing team in place, but they’ve also added two consultants to help with planning, execution and sponsorship sales.

So where do you look for support when you’re staring down an event like AquaPalooza? How about somebody who’s been there before, like Dave Commander, vice president of marketing for Russell Marine on Lake Martin in Alabama, the site of last year’s record-setting extravaganza.

“I’ve talked to [Malone] several times, and I’ve told him the things that happened to us,” says Commander. “I know they’re very excited, and they’re doing the right thing by putting an emphasis on safety, security and community involvement.”

Although the 65 team members of Russell Marine were pushed to the limit preparing, executing, and recovering from last year’s event, Commander says the experience ultimately pulled everyone together.

“It was a very positive impact on the team — yes, it was more work, but everyone took such pride in having one of the biggest and best events to ever take place on the water,” he says. “We got to show the world what we’re all about, and we not only helped ourselves, but really gave this entire area an economic boost.”

Commander credits not only his team, but the commitment and help provided by the Sea Ray staff, who worked alongside his group to pull off what he describes as the Super Bowl of boating events.

When asked how he managed the challenge of pulling off such an enormous undertaking while running a boat dealership, Commander points to organization, delegating responsibilities into a number of smaller committees and, most importantly, making new and existing customers feel special every step of the way.

“We absolutely benefited from the huge exposure, and introduced a lot of new people to boating,” says Commander. “And it resulted in real sales for us. We had people show up the day before [AquaPalooza] to buy a Sea Ray just for the event! We had all kinds of VIP benefits for buying a boat, and our current customers had extra priority on the mooring lines. We worked hard to make sure all our customers felt appreciated. The result has been that just about everyone we’ve talked to has said that was one of the top 10 events they’ve ever attended.”

So, as the Sail & Ski crew wrestles with logistical challenges the likes of which only a few other others have dealt with, boating industry veteran Rod Malone takes a deep breath and reflects on the bigger picture.

“We’ve always understood that we were selling lifestyle and fun and using your boat,” Malone says. “Give people five successful outings and they will justify boat ownership. Since we adopted that philosophy 30 years ago, we’ve been involved with promoting events and customer activities. This is just the latest step.”

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