Great expectations

Skeeter Boats and Malibu Boats are putting their money where their mouth is.
They’re not just telling consumer about their products’ features, they’ve partnered with their dealers to give consumers a chance to experience them.
“At boat shows, everybody the consumer goes to tells them they’ve got the best boat,” says Don Hancock, southwest regional sales manager for Skeeter Boats. “Everybody tells the poor consumer the same thing. I really think it’s a reason our industry loses people. Consumers don’t [experience] the performance of the hulls. Then, they buy a boat, take it to the lake and find [it doesn’t handle well]. They say, ‘You know what? We got wet, we got beat up. I guess all boats do this. Let’s go buy an RV or a pool table.’ It’s one of those things we as an industry do very poorly.”
When a consumer has the opportunity to experience a boat on the water, boat sales rise dramatically, and customer satisfaction follows.
“If we give a potential customer a ride before he’s talked to the dealer about price, price never becomes a factor,” explains Hancock. “He says, ‘I know I can buy a cheaper boat. I don’t care. I want it.’”
A dealer salesperson’s typical closure ratio in the showroom is about 30 percent, according to Hancock, but after a potential buyer takes a ride with a member of the Skeeter Demo Team, that percentage goes up to about 90 percent. And demo riders often tell their friends about it, leading to even more sales.

A different kind of demo
The experience Skeeter offers through its 20-person demo team is a little different than most demo rides.
For one, while all its demo events are conducted in partnership with its dealers, the manufacturer – not the dealer – offers the rides. Secondly, the rides are provided by experienced boat drivers who have passed an extensive try-out process. That’s necessary because the typical Skeeter demo involves pushing the boat performance envelope through a series of high speed maneuvers, rough and smooth water handling, turning, boat set-up and situation handling for various scenarios. Plus, Skeeter says it’s important the drivers are good speakers and have strong presentation skills.
The demo team concept isn’t new for Skeeter. Over the past 10 years, the team has given an estimated 90,000 rides, growing from 6 drivers to 20. They now provide 7,000 to 8,000 rides per year, attending 20 to 25 events, from tournaments to open houses and other dealer events. And this has just been within the company’s Southwest territory. Hancock says the company is working to bring the demo concept he’s created to other areas of the country, including the Southeast and Midwest.
The program is not cheap. Hancock estimates that once you add up all the costs, including things like gas, oil, boats, food, hotel rooms, event sponsorship and liability insurance, the company spends close to $1 million per year on it. But Skeeter clearly believes in the program’s value.
“When you put boats on the water, that’s when you find out what they do,” says Hancock. “It’s the great equalizer.”

A bonding experience
While this is the third year that Malibu Boats is holding a National Demo Day, the company says its dealers have been offering local demo days from the very beginning.
The difference now is that Malibu Boats is putting its dollars behind a national advertising and PR campaign designed to drive more consumers to its dealers.
“It gets a potential buyer in the boat and lets them experience everything that we highlight in our marketing efforts,” explains the company. “In many cases our dealers even bring competitor boats out to their demo day to show the customer how Malibu stacks up to the competition, head-to-head.”
One reason some dealers are reluctant to offer boat demos are that state regulations require them to purchase liability insurance, which can be costly. But Malibu says marine specialists like Belter Insurance keep that from becoming a limiting factor.
“Where most companies see limitations, we see possibility,” says the boat builder. “The benefit of a demo day to customers is huge. It answers a ton of questions in one shot and cements the buying decision in the customer's mind. Plus it gives potential buyers a chance to bond with their dealer, which is a priority at Malibu.”
Some manufacturers believe boat demos are the dealers’ responsibility, but with such a clear connection between boat demos and boat sales, the demos have the potential to be a mutually beneficial form of partnership. The fact that some builders and dealers offer rides on competitive product should serve as further incentive for others to jump on the demo bandwagon.
As Malibu says, “When your product works well on the water it seems a shame not to give a buyer an opportunity to experience that.” — Liz Walz

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