As the boating season ends in most regions and winterizations are winding down, it’s time to start looking at the biggest selling event for dealers: boat shows. Whether you sell one boat or 50, there is no denying that a boat show presence is integral for a dealership’s visibility and success.
We talked to several dealers about their most successful strategies and compiled the following 17 tips for your 2017 boat show season.
A selling and branding event
The first tip any boat dealer should keep in mind is that shows are not just selling events anymore. Certainly the goal is and always should be to eventually sell more boats, but dealers need to also see boat shows as a “branding” event.
“If you focus on just [branding or just selling], you miss out. If you focus on just the selling, you miss out on the branding and the social side. If you focus on just the social and [not] the selling, you make a lot of friends and don’t sell anything,” said Barrett Canfield, president of South Coast Yachts. “The most important thing at a show is to exhibit your dealership’s culture and friendliness and desire to help people reach their goals in boating.”
Identify your boat show demographic
Dealers can maximize their boat show success by determining who will be the demographic visiting a particular boat show ahead of time. Candlewood East Marina participates in three shows – Norwalk, New York and Hartford – and each of those shows attract a slightly different clientele. Norwalk, for instance, attracts a more mature buyer, whereas Hartford brings in more families and price-conscious customers.
“When you have a limited number of boats and you’re not going to have every one model on display, we definitely put some thought into who we think is going to be there so we bring the right product mix to appeal to that audience,” said Mitch O’Hara, vice president of Candlewood East Marina.
Offer transparent pricing
Today’s buyers want to know exactly what they are going to pay for their boat. Include your monthly price breakdowns on all signage and don’t leave anything out. Buster’s Marine goes so far as to factor in and include the tax on the monthly payment.
“We want to make it so the number we’re giving you is a realistic monthly number,” said David Schmitt, vice president at Buster’s Marine.
It’s difficult for a dealership to come up with the creative needed to design a top-notch booth. Using your manufacturer’s artwork, flags and other collateral will help give your booth a professional look.
“It’s nice to align with a manufacturer, and Beneteau really goes in completely, professionally and classy,” said Canfield about one of its manufacturers. “It’s expensive, but it really helps keep the perceived quality of the brand uniform. If the manufacturer is doing a great [job], usually that’s what you have to follow.”
Your booth should invite the customer in and be easy to enter. Make sure your boats are spaced well apart and are easily visible from the aisles to attract attention.
“If they can see it from the aisle, they’re going to come in and look at it,” said Jack White, sales manager at 3A Marine.
Invite your customers and track who shows up
Some dealers might be afraid to invite potential or existing customers to the boat show, but “I wholeheartedly disagree with that,” said Schmitt. “Bring them to the show, let them see what’s out there and try to put your best foot forward.”
Candlewood East Marina allows customers to request tickets to the boat show and creates a master list of those customers. The dealership writes down the unique UPC or identifying number on their ticket and, after the show, goes to will call to see which tickets weren’t picked up and determines who came to the show.
Take care of your VIPs
While boat shows are a great opportunity to attract potential customers, you can’t forget about your existing loyal base.
For some, this means hosting VIP previews of the show. South Coast Yachts hosts an event for its customers the Friday or Saturday before the show, serving wine and cheese and offering a variety of entertainment at different shows.
“It helps people to come and see the boats, to understand the specials and pricing, and people who are really excited and may not want to wait until the show, that gets them primed up for the show,” said Banfield.
For others, a VIP event is not so easy. 3A Marine participates in a nine-day boat show and it can be difficult to find time for its customers to all be available. So the dealership treats its customers through one-on-one care.
“It was just easier to take care of our VIPs on an individual basis,” said White.
Bringing in customers to your booth is more than just making your boats look good – you have to give them a reason to stop. Creating fun demos and new model reveals drive excitement.
Candlewood East Marina got really creative and displayed an inflatable surf wave behind one of its Nautique Boats, then hired a photographer to photograph customers. Anyone who took a photo got a free 4×6 print with a branded frame. The goal was to demo wakesurfing in a fun, engaging way.
“We feel like when people are in that mindset of living the dream of wakesurfing being behind one of those boats, they’re going to enjoy it and they’re going to be that much more engaged to either make a move to buy a boat or maybe set up an actual test drive when the time is right,” said Chris Perry, sales/marketing at Candlewood East Marina. “On top of that, we felt like a lot of people didn’t really know what wakesurfing was, so it was a sport we really needed to bring to people so they could experience it firsthand and almost do it in a way where they’re guaranteed success.”
Determine your boat show marketing “hook”
Whether it’s demos, new model reveals, giveaways or price incentives, your marketing needs “to find some sort of hook, if you will, to get people excited to come to the show, and then finding the right avenues to publicize it,” said Perry.
Once you have your hook, it’s easy to create direct mail pieces, email blasts and have a reason to call your existing customers and say “Here’s why you should visit the show.” You should also imbue your marketing with social media, like boat show hashtags and contests for customers who share social content.
Take the whole team
Because the boat show is such a great opportunity to show the face of your business to potential customers, you should bring all your faces. Some dealerships close down shop during the show and place signs on the door asking customers to meet them at the show. It is especially helpful to have technicians available on hand to answer questions.
“They can approach the customer as not a salesperson, so they’re less threatening. They can talk to the customer and relate to the customer as the guy that’s going to be taking care of [the boat]. They can explain a lot of different things, as far as the inner workings of the boat, that customers really like to hear about,” said White.
As great as the matching polyester polo with the company logo looks from the perspective of uniformity, what is more important is having a staff that is dressed clean, comfortably and professionally. If they are comfortable and confident, they will do a better job selling.
This doesn’t mean letting your employees wear ripped jeans and a holey t-shirt. At South Coast Yachts, the team picks a theme and a color palette for the show and lets every individual employee choose an outfit that is comfortable and will match the booth. The company gets the clothing the employee selected embroidered with its dealer and manufacturer logos.
“I want my team to be comfortable, I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to feel professional, clean and representing the product properly,” said Banfield.
Know what you know and know what you don’t
Having staff members from all sides of the business allows employees to defer to those who have more knowledge in different areas. This is an especially helpful tool for salespeople looking to build relationships with customers; they will trust you more if you can admit you’re not sure how to answer the question and point them to someone who can.
“Only answer questions that you know the answer to,” White said. “It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know, let me find out for you.’”
Approach every customer
You can’t sell a boat to someone you don’t talk to. Make sure your staff is talking to every single person who walks in your booth, regardless of whether or not they “look” ready to buy a boat.
“A good lesson for all of in the industry [is] that we’re there to serve people and help them with their goals, and boat sales come from all that,” Banfield said. “A lot of times we’re surprised by simple friendliness and maybe who we thought was a disqualified prospect, and they’re buying a boat from us right then and there.”
Host your own shows
As important as boat shows are, hosting your own “boat show” – in whatever capacity is available to you – will help bring the branding aspects of a boat show to an audience that is captivated only by your product.
Buster’s Marine hosts parking lot shows in cooperation with local stores, where the dealership occupies 10 spaces at the back of a store parking lot with a large number of boats, as well as a tent with boating gear like life jackets, floaties and other cash-and-carry items. Buster’s targets stores that have high foot traffic and uses the events as an educational opportunity.
The goal at the parking lot show is both different and the same as a boat show: While it’s not an event where Buster’s is likely to sell a boat on the spot, the purpose of the show is to generate leads and encourage shoppers to sign up for a demo ride.
“We find that once they come to the store and they go for a ride on the boat,” said Schmitt “and they see how easy it is and how free it is and how nice it is to be on the water on a sunny day, it’s very easy to convert that into a sale.”
Rethink how you track your show success
Unlike most forms of marketing these days, boat shows are incredibly difficult to track. You can’t put an exact number on the leads you generate, because it takes a few touches or interactions to sell the boat. Dealers need to treat the success of a boat show a little bit differently than they do with other marketing campaigns.
“I view a successful show by representing the product properly, being professional and being consistent in our presentation of the boats and really building the database so we can invite people to our events, and of course selling boats at shows,” said Banfield.
Candlewood East Marina understands that “it’s about feeding that pipeline, get people excited and start talking about it, to bringing their friends to some boat shows to some test drives, and then pulling some customers from there,” said Perry.
Host events in 2017
Plan ahead now to host as many events as possible in 2017 – it will give customers an opportunity to learn more about you and the product, especially if they aren’t sure about buying a boat at the show that day.
“It gives the new prospect who doesn’t know us a little bit of a feeling about our dealership and who we are,” said Banfield.
It’s harder and harder for dealers these days to create the “sense of urgency” once seen at boat shows, so rather than pushing for customers to put down the deposit today, dealers should utilize in-house events to offer customers a low pressure environment to learn more about the product and your business.
“These bigger purchases have a little bit slower buying process, so we’ve had more success by going to these shows and working really hard to get them to come to the dealership the next weekend, and then they can really see how we separate ourselves from the other dealers at the show,” said O’Hara.
(You can read about how to create successful events in the July issue of Boating Industry.)
Start planning for 2018
As soon as you complete your 2017 shows, it is the perfect time to regroup with your team, discuss what did or didn’t work, and begin outlining your 2018 strategy.
“That way it’s fresh in our mind what we did right and what we did wrong, or if anything needed to be changed or tweaked,” said White.