50-plus promotions to drive traffic to your dealership

Great weather, reasonable fuel prices, more jobs, higher home values, renewed consumer confidence …

Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

But even if all of it were to fall into place, and the 2011 summer boating season was one of the busiest ever, consumers aren’t likely to be out in the marketplace throwing money at everything they see.

The downturn put the discretion back in discretionary spending, and most boaters will be shopping cautiously, if at all. That’s why the effective use of promotions is so important this year.

One of the questions on Boating Industry’s Top 100 Dealers Application asks respondents for special promotions they use to encourage customers to do business with them. As you ramp up for summer, here’s our alphabetical list of successful promotions created by the best dealers in the industry.

South Austin Marine’s parts department has a boating accessory catalog that is given to every customer who purchases a boat and is mailed to boat owners in certain zip codes. The catalog – which has discounts on both items in stock and those that can be ordered – helps the dealership compete with some of the discount chains.

Buying its outboard oil in 55-gallon drums instead of in factory containers gives Vallely Sport & Marine what it says is a competitive advantage over the competition. The North Dakota dealership’s parts department is known for its bulk oil, which the business is able to sell for less while continuing to make higher margins than competitors. Vallely exploits this advantage year-round to gain traffic and usually advertises an Annual Oil Sale each week in June that features additional discounts and brings in even more people.

Its sponsorship of the local minor league baseball team has helped Traverse Bay Marine gain quite a bit of exposure. The Michigan dealership has Sea Ray boats on display and Sea Ray and Sea Doo home run banners placed on the home run fence at the ballpark. The company also has tickets available for all home games and uses those to reward loyal customers or to help smooth over delays and the other kinds of problems that can arise. The tickets allow the customers, or employees, to go enjoy a game at a comfortable VIP table section. Traverse Bay Marine also gave away a 2010 Sea Doo PWC at the ballpark for the One Millionth Fan Challenge event.

Another promotion the dealership used was to loan three new pontoon boats to the team for the summer season. The boats, complete with signage advertising the dealership, were placed next to the conventional bleachers, and fans could buy tickets to watch the game from the pontoons. The ballpark provided food and beverage service for up to six people per boat.

In return for loaning the boats, Traverse Bay Marine received 314, 30-second radio spots throughout the course of the season as well as numerous mentions during the broadcasts. There was also a billboard banner that was included in the deal. The promotion was called “Come for the game, stay for the boating fun.”

Traverse Bay Marine also partners with the team during a parade the city has as part of a big summer event. The dealership tows a boat in the parade with the manager and a few of the star players riding the route in it.

Every one of Reed’s Marine’s new or used boat buyers gets a birthday card and a postcard on the anniversary of their boat purchase each year. The card provides either $10 or $20 worth of free accessories. Those visits allow Reed’s to stay in touch, sell more accessories and make customers aware of the new boats that are available.

Each month at Watersports Dealer Services, the Holladay, Utah-based dealership holds BBQ Blowout Sales, where items in the pro shop, such as lifejackets or t-shirts, are priced for as little as $1. This deal, which is combined with some home-cooked food, has been a successful way to help drive traffic into the dealership.

The Buy Now, Pay Later program developed by Strong’s Marine a couple of years ago to kick-start sales during the winter months highlights the top five reasons why clients should buy a boat rather than wait. The reasons the Mattituck, N.Y.-based dealership cites are:

The ability to custom order boats for March delivery;

No winterization or storage fees, no spring commissioning fees;

A guarantee their boat’s price won’t be better when Strong’s displays at the New York Boat Show;

A guaranteed timely delivery;

Launching your boating dream now. Strong’s says that with manufacturer production down and lead-time increasing, the program became even more important recently.

Woodard Marine offers to buy any boat that it has serviced because, during lean times, there are customers trying to sell their boats outright. While Woodard says it usually does not purchase boats directly from its customers, with the lower Blue Book values and the service history on the boats in its system, the dealership is confident in offering a purchase or trade price (both are the same) for any boat that it services. This policy has helped the dealership turn its used inventory faster than ever.

One of the most impactful promotions conducted by Marine Specialties helps the community as well as the business. It is a canned food drive tied into the dealership’s winter service program. Customers who bring in a couple of canned food items earn a discount on their winter preparation service. Then, at the end of the season, just before Christmas, Marine Specialties donates all the food to its local food bank. The drive gets a lot of press coverage, benefits the needy and really encourages customers to do business with the dealership.

Because Buckeye Marine often buys parts in bulk at a greatly reduced rate and has an excess of parts that were acquired after purchasing the contents of a dealer failure, the company has been successful with its “crash bin” promotions. Buckeye places those items in bins with discount signs on them and gives customers the opportunity to rummage through them, looking for things they might need. The contents are such a good deal that, even with the discount, Buckeye still profits.

The BMC Boats Cruise Club has worked as a great promotion for the business. Membership is free and, as long as customers either purchase a boat or get one serviced at the company’s shop, they are invited to become members. Monthly events get the boaters involved in trips throughout the state of Florida, and Paula Fulton, co-owner of BMC Boats, says they have created a tremendous loyalty to the dealership, drawing new and old customers alike.

“The club works tremendously for repeat business,” Fulton says. “A customer must continue to purchase their next boat from us in order to remain in the club. Hence, many customers will not purchase anywhere else, as they are so pleased with the club.”

BMC has also leveraged the service seminars it offers customers by having its technicians participate and inviting Sea Tow and the local Power Squadron to take part as well. Attendees are offered 60 days of free Sea Tow coverage and in order to lock in service work, they are also offered a 30-percent discount if they schedule it that same day.

Maybe the most important and successful promotion offered each year by Massachusetts’ Bosun’s Marine is its “Dealer Demo Days,” held over consecutive weekends at two locations each July. While many dealers offer such events, what sets this one apart is how the dealership executes it.

Bosun’s has shifted its marketing focus away from what it calls an “outbound” philosophy – running a print ad and hoping someone calls, or taking boats the dealership and/or its manufacturers think the public wants to see to a brick-and-mortar boat show and hoping people show up – to an “inbound” approach.

What this means is that prospective clients are asked what they would like to see and test drive, and then professionally invited to the dealership/marina for a meet-and-greet that accommodates their interests at a time that they say works for them.

Marketing collateral is created and deployed to invite past boat sales, service and marina customers as well as prospective buyers from the company’s existing database. Bosun’s also carefully selects names and addresses of registered boat owners who currently own similar boat types or brands to those offered at its dealership. Those people are invited by sending a direct mail piece as well as by creating a series of e-marketing pieces and a micro-website (www.bosunstestdrive.info) to register them for a meeting and sea trial.

Care is taken to make the registration process as selective as possible to help identify and pre-qualify guests while ensuring that their privacy is maintained. Using direct mail and e-marketing to drive traffic to the micro-site for the event allows Bosun’s to funnel prospective consumers through that portal, and the registration process helps filter the list of attendees to qualified consumers. Each prospective attendee is called first, then e-mailed, to personally thank them for their interest and to reach a mutually agreeable specific boat and sea trial time.

“Aside from the analytical process of preparing and running the event, I believe that these events have been successful because they are truly a fun experience for the clients,” explains Tim Leedham, Bosun’s owner/president. “I personally look forward to these events as well because it is also a great opportunity for me to stay connected and current with our prospective buyers.”

Leedham shares one story that illustrates how the Demo Days events have fostered those relationships and helped sell boats. After taking a former Bosun’s customer out for a sea trial on a new EdgeWater 335 Express, two of the company’s employees took a delivery photo the dealership had on file of the customer’s entire family and “photoshopped” them into the boat he had just run. They then e-mailed it to him so it would be on his computer when he got home. He called back the next morning, laughing, and purchased the boat within the week.

Buying a few demo model boats from manufacturers at hugely discounted prices allowed Vermont’s Woodard Marine to generate a lot of traffic. With the huge rebates the dealership received, Woodard was able to offer customers discounts on those boats – throwing in a free Yamaha WaveRunner as well – and still held its margins.

Starting in 2007, Don’s Marine added “Express Saturdays,” a drive-through winterization promotion, to its schedule. Every Saturday in September and October, the Lodi, Wis., dealership’s technicians set up outside with everything they need to winterize boats, and people bring their boats through. Don’s says the low price and convenience have made the service quite popular, attracting customers from 50 miles away or more.

Getting repeat business hasn’t been an issue for Florida’s Legendary Marine. But the dealership felt it needed to do something to induce new buyers to take their first plunge at boat ownership. So the Destin-based business began a First Time Buyer’s Program at each of its four locations. Customers who qualify receive a $200 shopping spree at West Marine, a Free Sea Tow membership for 95 days, a free Legendary Privileges Card for discounts at its properties, a personalized Boating Safety Class for the family, membership in the company’s Destinations Cruise Club, and a one-on-one service orientation with their designated service advisor.

Some promotions are one-timers, created to take advantage of a circumstance or solve a problem. Others, like Gone Fishin’ Marine’s Fishing Team, require a long-term commitment. But the goodwill and attention team members generate for the California dealership make the discounts they receive on boats, accessories, fishing equipment and service work worth every penny.

“These anglers are our best ambassadors to the bass fishing community in our area, and we are determined to repay the favor with our program,” says owner Karena Blanton. “In return, we have formalized what they already do – get their leads in the door, whether for sales, tackle or service, and help out with special events like boat shows and in-house promotions.

Once a year, Gone Fishin’ evaluates its bass fishing customer base and invites a few people to join the team. Those invitations are based more on loyalty to the dealership – people who have purchased boats, done a lot of service and tackle business, referred others or have volunteered to help at dealership events – rather than tournament results.

Team members have become well known in its area for the help they offer on the water, whether someone is broken down or can’t get on the fish, and Gone Fishin’ says the smallest acts of kindness “send new customers flocking.” They also appear in force at charity and media events.

The dealership maintains a blog (www.gonefishinteam.blogspot.com) chronicling the team’s whereabouts and publicizing its involvement. Four team members run fully wrapped boats, which “get a ton of attention everywhere they go,” and that exposure also brings in a lot of new customers.

Indiana’s B & E Marine helped boost its service business by offering dock customers a free multi-point inspection, after which each client is given a report card detailing the condition of the boat and its systems.

Since the economic downturn began, Laurel Marina Dealership, Inc. has offered its customers, in return for a new boat purchase, a slip in its marina to use for three to six months, depending on the price of the boat and availability at the marina. Not only does this help close deals and sell boats, the free trial also creates a pool of potential marina customers for the Bristol, Tenn.-based dealership. “Once a new boat owner gets used to docking at the marina,” says owner/general manager Dalie T. Thomas, “it is an easier sale for a yearly docking fee.”

At Ski & Sports in Rogers, Ark., the first oil change and check-over on all new boats sold is free, which the dealership says brings the customer back initially and keeps them coming back.

Suamico, Wis.-based Shipyard Marine offers free pick-up and delivery for all storage customers within 60 miles.

Free shipping on parts is a promotion Midwest MasterCraft uses to drive sales. Shipping costs are built into the price of the part when it is listed online, but the free shipping offer helps Midwest MasterCraft sell all over the nation.

“Our parts business has exploded online because many dealers do not stock much or do not have an experienced parts person available to help find the right item,” Larson says. “We require a $99 purchase for free shipping so it also gets a lot of up-sales for us. People are always adding a MasterCraft t-shirt or something else to get to the free shipping level.”

Ontario, Canada’s Town & Country Marine offers free summer trailer storage for all winter storage boat customers. Because there are nine major gated waterfront mobile home parks in its trading area, the dealership has special offers to attract those people, including 10 percent off all parts and accessories, and exclusive boat rental packages available to each.

South Shore Marine has a “frequent buyer” program for certain customers who have either purchased multiple units from the Ohio dealership or who may want to trade up quickly. The program has worked well with some of South Shore’s boat buyers who want a new model annually. For example, the business has one customer who has had nine Contenders in eight years. His discount is fixed at “a very aggressive figure, and he receives 90 percent of his pre-tax purchase figure back on trade at the end of each season.” South Shore says it is not uncommon for the dealership to write a trade guarantee figure into a sales contract, in the event the boat would trade back in good condition, for something of greater value within one year.

Buckeye Marine had success with a promotion designed to boost off-season sales. The campaign was geared toward storage and winterization customers, and called the Great Boat Exchange. It was undertaken to help the dealership influence customers to trade their current boats in for new boats, giving the company good, clean trades before boat show season. Customers were offered free storage on their existing boats as well as free storage on the new boats.

During the fall months leading up to show season, Buckeye Marine offers Guaranteed Fall Pricing, offered a best price guarantee for buyers through which, if the boat they purchase is offered with an incentive at the boat show, or if the price at the show is lower, Buckeye will honor the better deal.

As part of Town & Country Marine’s offsite sales activities, the company runs Sunday dry-land events at a major home hardware chain’s parking lots and offers up to a $500 store voucher for a boat purchased during these events.

What better way to make people more aware of your social media presence and drive traffic to your pages than by offering specials that can only be found online? Buckeye Marine did just that last year, with specials on Facebook, Twitter and its blog. The dealership added more followers to all mediums as a result and said the promotions also worked because they brought people – who had previously only followed the company online – into the store to take advantage of them.

Phone follow-ups by South Austin Marine’s receptionist for recommended service visits have worked really well. These calls are just a friendly reminder that it is time for the customer’s boat to be serviced and what specials are offered at the current time.

Paris Marine says the lay-away program it uses each fall is one of its best promotions by far. Customers choose their boats for the following season and take advantage of fall pricing discounts, while not incurring the cost of storage and winterizing. The Ontario, Canada-based dealership services the trades and stores them for free as well.

Traverse Bay Marine utilizes a static display boat at the local mall with signage for the dealership, from which it receives a number of leads.

Minnesota’s Midwest MasterCraft is a bit less conventional than some of its peers when it comes to promotions. The dealership says it tries to educate buyers so that they take advantage when there are discounts from its boat manufacturer. This helps the dealership take full advantage of the manufacturer programs rather than having to lower margins.

Legendary Marine has a Military Rewards Program, which makes the same package of benefits available as its First Time Buyer’s Program but does not have the restriction regarding prior boat ownership. The dealership also offers, through one of its lenders, a 90-day deferred payment option for qualified customers that has been popular with military members who will be deploying soon. Legendary says this has persuaded some customers to purchase during the winter months rather than waiting until spring.

When a customer purchases a new boat, Hampton Watercraft & Marine gives them their first season of mobile service free. The company will send somebody to the customer’s boat or haul it to the marina at no charge.

Hampton also says that including a monthly payment figure on print ads is a good way to help boost interest.

Don’s Marine added a night-drop service that “has been extremely successful.” With large number of clients who are weekenders that live about 200 miles away, the night drop allows them to leave their boats in the dealership’s lot on Sunday night before they leave for home, then pick the boat back up on Friday on their way to the lake. Don’s says the night drops bring in business from customers who, because of their schedules, may never have otherwise used the dealership’s services.

With the downturn, some dealerships have altered their approach to traditional boat shows. Las Vegas Marine Center found that large convention-style shows were a drain on its marketing/sales strategy that wasn’t producing the necessary return to justify the investment. The dealership now relies more heavily on off-site shows, partnering with Costco where it will display 10 to 15 boats in the retailer’s parking lot.

Midwest MasterCraft works to build a bond with customers so the dealership remains top of mind. “Today’s customer wants to buy when they are ready and still expects low prices,” owner Andy Larson says. “While sales and events are still needed, I believe that it is more important to build value every day.”

As an example, Larson says that if the dealership has a really aggressive customer hounding for better prices on an item, salespeople will pull out a cell phone and go to Google Shopping to show the consumer the dealership is competitively priced. If the dealership has the item in stock and the customer will not have to wait for it to be shipped, why wait to make a purchase?

Midwest MasterCraft also offers a performance guarantee if the item does not perform as described.

“At that point, the customer knows we are priced fairly and are there to take care of them after the sale,” Larson says. “If they are really in the market to buy the item, there is no reason to wait.”

To help drive traffic, grow its social media presence and keep it fun, Texas Marine has been conducting photo and trivia contests on its Facebook page, awarding gift cards to the fans who post the correct answer or send in the best photo.

The prepaid maintenance program South Austin Marine offers through its F&I department lasts for two years and is then renewable for another two years at the customer’s option. Buyers get a group of services at a discount and can either finance the program or pay cash when they purchase their new boat.

Situated in a destination location that’s one of the world’s largest tourist attractions, Marine Center of Las Vegas has some promotions tailored to its area. They include:

Partnerships with local hotels and casinos, including discounts for their employees and customers.

British Airways discounts for 15-percent off boat rentals.

Rental discounts to locals early or in the off-season.

To help support its anniversary sale, BMC Boats used a scratch-off game with prizes such as a new boat (valued at $14,000), a 50-inch plasma television, $3,000 in cash and other gifts. Everybody who played won something, but the Florida dealership was the big winner as the event, run over a three-day weekend, pulled in more than 200 customers and resulted in a dozen sales.

When one if its competitors went out of business, leaving the area without a servicing Sea Ray, Boston Whaler or Grady White dealership, Legendary Marine began a campaign to bring in the owners of those brands for service work. The company regularly mails out a $200 coupon to them, which includes free mobile service, and says the program has been successful in obtaining new service customers and future potential sales customers.

When a customer buys a boat from Dry Dock Marine Center, they often receive more than just the vessel. The Angola, Ind., dealership many times will offer accessory shopping sprees with a boat purchase. People who buy a new Nautique, for example, get a $1,000 in-store shopping spree. Dry Dock also gives boat buyers a set of referral cards and if that customer gives one to someone who buys a boat from the dealership, the referring customer gets $200 to spend in the store and the new customer gets $100. Dry Dock says the promotion “has worked very well.”

The sales department at Colorado Boat Center has a “Special of the Week” to create urgency and added incentives for price-conscious buyers. With the cooperation of its manufacturers, a letter that is signed and dated by an executive of that company is posted on the dealership’s availability board. Specials are posted in-house and on the website, and each week the make and models change.

After working with Cobalt on a high-end DVD direct-mailing piece that included a note from Pack St. Clair and an invitation for a personal test drive with its staff, Boat Town sent these DVDs to targeted groups in the Texas dealership’s territory, promoting the brand and the business.

Lately, Reed’s Marine says it will do just about anything to promote a sale, “even a free massage if that’s what it takes.” But all kidding aside, the Wisconsin dealer says it has always offered new boat customers what it calls the “best guarantee in our industry.”

Buyers get a 30-day satisfaction guarantee that stipulates if a customer is not satisfied with the purchase, he or she may return the boat in like new condition, and receive a credit for the full amount paid for the boat to purchase any other boat in stock at Reed’s Marine, Inc. There is also a return guarantee for 30 days on all accessories sold.

A 30-day price guarantee is also offered. It says that if, after a customer purchases a new boat in stock at Reed’s Marine, he or she discovers the same boat – equipped in the same manner as the boat purchased from Reed’s Marine – is priced less than the amount paid, Reed’s Marine will refund the difference.

Colorado Boat Center promotes its status as a Boating Industry Top 100 Dealer by utilizing special manufacturers’ incentives to single out the dealership with a Top 100 Discount. The discounts range between $250 and $3,000 on select manufacturers and models. The dealership’s competitors, who are not Top 100 Dealers, cannot duplicate the promotion by name.

Woodard Marine has implemented a trade coupon that is sent to all of its storage, dockage and service customers in the form of a check written out to the owner of the boat with a set value on their package. Woodard also adds an extra $500 on the check for being a valued customer. For more information on this coupon, visit www.boatingindustry.com and conduct a search on the word, “coupon.”

To promote its rack storage business, Shipyard Marine used a “Try It Before You Buy It” campaign. Depending on the size of the boat, vessel type and availability, customers can use the rack storage system free for the first 30 days, and if they decide to sign up for the full year, they get a $200 fuel credit.

To increase service work, Gone Fishin’ Marine offers used boat evaluations to those people who are buying from a private party. The dealership “won’t hold it against you if you opt to buy a used boat from a private party. But don’t make that leap without a pre-purchase inspection from our factory trained technicians.” The service department gives an honest assessment about the boat and alerts buyers to any problems with a diagnostics checklist they use.

Colorado Boat Center has offered an accessory package to new boat owners called the “Value Pack.” With the manufacturer’s permission, it is presented as a manufacturer’s package, which gives more credence to the terms involved. Different packages are offered for the different boat lines and the type of boating needs. Each includes everything that a new boat owner would normally purchase to be Coast Guard compliant, plus accessory items, watersports equipment and other items that add to the boating experience, all for one package price. It is such a complete package that even boat buyers who are trading up will usually purchase it for their new boat, according to the dealership.

A promotion that has worked well for South Austin Marine is the VIC (Very Important Customer) card that entitles new and used boat customers to special discounts on parts and service for up to five years from the date of purchase. South Austin says the card keeps customers coming back to the dealership for parts and service. They are also mailed coupons from a third-party source that offer discounts on special types of services such as oil changes, tune-ups, lower-unit service, carburetor repairs and boat detailing.

Colorado Boat Center’s VIP Platinum Program is designed to encourage continued patronage from current customers. When a customer purchases more than one boat from Colorado Boat Center, they receive a membership card and benefits that include discounts on new boats, plus discounts in the parts department and priority scheduling in the service department, as well as other periodic specials.

A change in its winterization process is a benefit Midwest MasterCraft is able to promote to its customers. Because the company is a specialty dealer, its customers are from all over Minnesota and as far away as North Dakota and Iowa. Those owners wanted to have the dealership winterize their boats, but did not want to have to then make another service trip to the dealership in the spring. So the winterization process now leaves the boat water ready. All the customer has to do is charge, then hook up the ground cable.

“By not leaving the boat water ready, we were creating an inconvenience for our customers, which sometimes resulted in them trying to be serviced locally,” Larson says.

Vallely Sport & Marine’s Winterization/ Storage Program is run each September, featuring special menu-priced items. The dealership packages “full service” winterization with boat storage to offer a discount to customers who chose both. Basically, if a customer chooses every service offered, they get a $100 discount on annual storage.

The dealership believes that winterization time is a great opportunity for it to gain service customers that have all boat brands, no matter where they bought them. Typically, if Vallely can do the winterization work, the dealership will be that customer’s first choice for future service work.

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