2013 Best Boat Show Strategy: Russell Marine

Best Boat Show Strategy

Russell Marine
Alexander City, Ala.

When Russell Marine saw its in-store traffic decreasing in 2010, the dealership did anything but sit back and wait for customers to walk in. Instead, it opted for a new philosophy, which has been morphing and improving ever since.

“In 2010, we had a shift in our marketing strategy for boats. We decided to take our boats to the consumer, rather than try to bring the consumer to our locations,” president Dave Commander said.

The dealership now brings boats from its dealership to where customers are from January through April.

Show season kicks off with the Birmingham Boat Show in January. There, Russell Marine prides itself on its display — to which it added 4,000 square feet in 2011 — and the amount of traffic the exhibit attracts. In Birmingham, customers are guided to the boats by a large walkway. As Russell Marine has learned from the show, the dealership has also improved the booth, adding videos, lights, elaborate fixtures and new carpet. In 2011, a pro shop was included, bringing in significant added revenue for the dealership.

On the first night of the Birmingham show, which is a Thursday, Russell Marine hosts a VIP reception that includes a wakeboard giveaway, food prepared by a well-known chef and drinks. More than 200 potential customers attend each year. The attendance to that event and the show overall is boosted by the $1,500 Russell Marine allocates each year for free tickets, which are mailed to leads.

Following the Birmingham show, Russell Marine hosts a series of Saturday Road Shows, during which 10 to 12 boats are brought to high-traffic areas across multiple markets in the region. 2012 show sites included a K-Mart, Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Academy Sports, Ryan’s Creek, two different Costcos and the Huntsville Civic Center. Most shows are advertised in the sports section of local newspapers, and traffic has been good, with more than a dozen boats being sold in one location for two years straight.

The Birmingham show and the Road Shows are designed to lead up to Russell Marine’s own In-Water Boat Show, which set a sales record in 2012. With more than 60 boats in the water and another 60 on land, the late-April show attracts a large audience and has also garnered local media attention over the past several years.

Test drives are provided on all boats, and customers are also treated to paddleboard demos and a wakeboard “Big Air” contest. On Saturday night, Russell hosts a “house party” for inboard enthusiasts. The laidback event encourages customers to surf or wakeboard behind Centurion and Nautique models.

While Russell Marine has always hosted a Friday night VIP party before the In-Water Boat Show kicks off, in 2012, the format changed. What originally began as a thank-you party that attracted upwards of 1,000 current customers turned into what Commander described as “more of a shrimp eating contest than anything.” Because boat sales weren’t coming from the same crowd attending each year, Russell Marine moved the party to a local country club and only invited those whom the dealership determined to be potential “A” customers. The new event, which included demos, led to several sales.

The dealership begins planning its show dates, action plans and employee responsibilities in August. Sales staff then completes online training from October through December, with two weeks of manufacturer training in January. In 2012, reps from eight of the dealership’s boat brands stopped by Russell Marine to talk to the sales staff, and a one-day Don Cooper session was hosted, using tapes acquired from the consultant in 2011.

Once at the events, consumers are also surveyed, so the dealership can learn which marketing strategies drew them to the shows.

Russell Marine has reported such success over the past few years at shows on the road and back at its stores, that customers are again being groomed to go directly to the dealership itself, rather than waiting for show season.

“Our most effective sales strategy for boats has been to expose the public to Russell Marine and the brands we carry as much as possible through boat/road shows and carry this out with good planning and proper training,” Commander said.


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