Dealers, manufacturers come together at MDCE

ORLANDO, Fla. — In a break from tradition, the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo concluded last week by bringing together dealers and manufacturers to focus on ways the industry can work together.

In the past, the event ended with a Dealer Solutions panel and an Industry Giants panel, with dealers on the first panel and boat builders and suppliers on the second. This year, the final two sessions, which both went by the title “Partnering for a Better Tomorrow,” included a mixed group of panelists moderated by Matt Gruhn, Boating Industry‘s editor in chief, and Liz Walz, the magazine’s senior editor.

“I think we can all admit that we’re in a different situation these days,” Gruhn said before the first panel. “And in the spirit of this year’s educational content, we thought it best to bring suppliers and dealers together to focus on a specific topic.”

First panel tackles consumer demographics

The first panel featured Bill McGill, chairman, president and CEO of MarineMax Inc.; Bill Yeargin, CEO of Correct Craft; Bob Apple, senior vice president of Volvo Penta of the Americas; Jerry Brouwer, general manager of Action Water Sports; and Randy Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Port.

Topics covered during the session included the shrinking pool of boating customers, certified pre-owned programs, the number of brands dealers will carry going forward, and the future of marketing.

During the discussion, McGill said that passion for boating hasn’t wavered despite the recession, and in fact MarineMax’s Getaways program has expanded because “people need it more.”

Still, Brouwer of Action Water Sports noted that because of the huge number of blue-collar jobs that have been lost, dealers are faced with a smaller, more affluent base of potential customers. Apple of Volvo Penta agreed, suggesting the industry needs to focus on boating as a family activity and provide good value.

When asked about the high cost of boating, Kelly also made reference to value, noting that dealers can’t cut rates below profitability, but they can focus on better service. He compared boat dealers to fine dining, saying people are willing to pay for the experience, but only if the service is good. McGill added that boats have become overstuffed thanks to a manufacturing arms race, and he said no family needs four TVs on a boat.

The topic of certified pre-owned boat programs got a lot of support from dealers, and Yeargin of Correct Craft agreed the programs were good for dealers and could be good for manufacturers as well, suggesting his company was exploring such a program.

Looking forward, most of the panel predicted a flat 2010 at retail, with small gains for manufacturers. The panel ended with both groups in agreement that communication is key to dealer/manufacturer relationships, and the continued success of the industry.

“Everyone needs to work together,” Brouwer said. “In the past, we haven’t worked together as we should. Now everyone needs to win.”

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