By Adam Quandt
A different world nearly every day, sometimes every hour. The evolving novel coronavirus — more specifically known as COVID-19 — global pandemic has the professional, social and almost every other aspect of everyone’s lives changing rapidly. Business leaders have been particularly challenged to implement and try new models at a rapid pace, while others have been faced to weather complete shut downs.
The recreational boating industry has, for the most part, been no special circumstance during these trying times. Boat dealers across the nation have faced, are facing and will continue to face new challenges that many thought would they might never cross paths with.
“Let’s face it: There’s no one here on Earth who is an expert on how to adjust your marine business for success in the face of this Coronavirus Pandemic. Frankly, none of us have been through this before – the “experts” included,” MRAA vice president Liz Walz said in a blog on the associations website. “But we all need to begin adapting to the changes taking place, whether we feel perfectly prepared for it or not. Whether we have all the answers or not.”
With almost every dealer starting on a different page, dealers are quickly adapting to new ways of business and selling, while others may have already had a leg up on using technology to aid in sales.
“At this point in time we’re approaching everything with a dealer by dealer basis,” said Myril Shaw, chief operating officer of Dealer Profit Services. “Everything is obviously moving as digital as possible, but there are a lot of variables in that process.”
Shaw said they are working with ensure all of their dealers are setup to be virtual showroom ready and have processes in place for a touch-free buying experience.
“A lot of the variability lies in which DMS and web providers dealerships are currently using,” Shaw said. “We work with everyone to best get every dealership on the same page, with the same resources.”
Shaw indicated dealers that Dealer Profit Services is currently working with — even those in lockdown areas — are still selling boats. “They’ve implemented working from home and over the phone to keep deals moving forward. Our dealers are definitely still seeing credit applications come through,” Shaw said.
The biggest hurdle to cross for the boat dealers — aside from beefing up online presence for those that don’t already have one — is how to take the very in-person oriented experience of buying a boat and minimize contact to maximize safety, all while providing exceptional customer service.
From virtual boat shows to boat walkthrough videos and FaceTime or Zoom video meetings with potential customers to an entirely new marketing approach, boat dealers are applying whatever new means they can to maintain customer service while selling boats through a pandemic.
“One of the biggest things that has helped us so far is our online presence,” John Wooden owner of Minnesota-based River Valley Power & Sport/River Valley Marine said. “We had a strong online presence before the pandemic, but we’ve made sure to enhance things even more now.”
Wooden went on to say that having a website for the sake of having a website won’t cut it, especially in the current climate. “Websites have to be 100% digitally friendly and easy to use. That’s where you have to start,” he added.
Things can’t stop at simply having a website however. Dealers must use a variety of digital tools available including a strong social media presence paired with a smart digital marketing plan.
“The current climate has taken the need for boat dealers to take advantage of the digital world and put it on steroids,” Wooden said. “This ‘war’ will be won digitally.”
“This is an acceleration of the use of technology that was bound to happen anyway,” Shaw added. “It’s just happening out of necessity now.”
Across the country, boat dealers have been pushing a digital message of boating to potential customers more and more, while changing the messaging to address current events.
Nautical Ventures, a multi-location Florida-based dealership, has focused its messaging on the safety of both dealership employees and the customer.
“We know that safety is everyone’s top concern right now and we want our current and potential customers, as well as our employees to know that not only are we continuing to conduct business, but doing so in a way that everyone stays as safe as possible,” Nautical Ventures marketing director Frank Ferraro said.
In another effort of maintaining everyone’s safety, boat dealers, as well as event organizers have shifted planned boat show events to completely virtual shows in the wake of COVID-19.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) recently moved its annual Northwest Sportshow to an online-only event, shortly after cancelling the original event.
The NMMA Show Team partnered with TRMG, NMMA’s show guide producer, to launch a ‘Virtual Sportshow’, providing customers with many of the same resources, discounts and show specials that would have been offered in-person.
“Moving an in-person event to an online only event will always present challenges as some of the unique experiences at an in-person event can’t be replicated,” NMMA senior vice president of shows Jennifer Thompson said. “However, when we put ourselves in the attendee’s shoes we know there are certain elements of our shows that could come to life online. Through our partnership with TRMG we were able to pivot quickly and re-imagine our virtual show guide into an actual virtual sportshow.”
All 465 originally scheduled exhibitors were included in the virtual show, with an additional 31 exhibitors upgrading to their own virtual show booths.
“One of the biggest successes was being able to test a new technology approach and do something positive for our industry during a global pandemic,” Thomspon said. “The results are incredibly encouraging during a time of uncertainty. We saw record traffic and engagement and were able to reach people in a way that provided valuable learnings as we think about how we evolve this offering in the future. The engagement we saw told us that the outdoors and boating are still very much of interest to our audience in this environment and potentially even more so.”
The online show has hosted around 75,000 page views, with 50,000 unique page views spending significant time on the site across all of the various exhibitors.
“With every challenge comes opportunity and COVID-19 has forced us to change quickly and adapt to a new world where virtual is the only option right now,” Thompson said. “We are proud that NMMA and TRMG were able to provide a digital event technology solution in the short timeframe that is delivering results to our exhibitors.”
Aside from taking part in the association-organized events, dealerships have launched virtual boat shows of their own to draw attention to current inventory and offer boat show specials to customers at home.
At the end of March, Fort Lauderdale’s Denison Yachting launched its online event aptly named “A Boat Show From Your Couch.”
During a 9-to-5 day, visitors to the Denison virtual boat show were able to access hundreds of walkthrough videos, virtual tours and live chats with experts, brokers, captains and various personalities from across the industry.
“Our team of yacht brokers, marketing staff and admins worked around the clock to make the Virtual Boat Show possible for clients to enjoy in the safety and comfort of their homes,” Denison Yachting president Bob Denison said in a press release. “Keeping the boat-buying process safe and easy is important to the Denison Family. With current circumstances making it impossible for everyone to interact in person, we look forward to meeting with current and future clients online.”
Other than moving to a digitally-focused sales and market strategy, another large hurdle to completing sales in a remote manner is paperwork.
Many manufacturers, lenders and banks currently require closing sale paperwork for financing to be signed and completed with the customer in person.
Wooden stressed the importance of speaking with financial institutions and manufacturers about finding new ways of completing these tasks, without requiring the customer to step foot in the dealership.
“We’ve worked with many of both our manufacturers and banks to get the OK on digital signing using secure tools such as DocuSign,” Wooden said.
“Really, communication is key right now, across the board,” Shaw added.
As a whole, boat dealers for the most part are pushing forward.
“It’s an adjustment all around,” Shaw said. “We see and know that, and we’re doing everything we absolutely can to help push dealerships forward through these circumstances.”
Some dealers are planning to be down 25%-50% from budget, yet some dealers are already seeing better numbers.
River Valley Power & Sport is tracking to be at 100% of 2019 revenue for the month of April. “It’s not going to grow like we were before this all started, but we’re pushing forward and it’s paying off,” Wooden said.
Industry associations and dealers alike are making their voices heard that they are here to continue pushing forward to keep boating a fun and more importantly safe activity to offer escape from difficult times.
“There are still 140 million-plus people fully employed across the country, I think if we continue to push onward through this, using correct safety measures and with the digital resources we have at our expense, the boat business is going to be ok,” Wooden concluded.