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Hands-on training can be a winner for dealers

Is an educated boater more confident at the helm? Is he or she more likely to use the boat more often and go farther? Are they more prone to stay in boating and even buy up? Are there many current boaters that would respond to more education and training if available?

I say yes to all of the above and here’s some solid evidence to support it.

At the Tampa Boat Show, for example, a pilot program dubbed “Take the Helm” was introduced in 2011 and its success triggered a significant expansion last month at the 2012 show last month. A part of Discover Boating’s “Welcome to the Water” program, “Take the Helm” featured a selection of hands-on, on-the-water learning experiences aimed at taking a participant’s boating skills up a notch.

Now, you might be assuming any free on-water lessons at a boat show would be popular. But these weren’t free. In fact, depending on the clinic or seminar chosen, participants paid from $10 to $125 per person. Moreover, most of the sessions were sold out, including daily three-hour morning training sessions in both powerboating and sailing.

The program was coordinated by Tom Knighten, director of development for the Recreational Powerboating Association, along with an equally competent team from the American Sailing Association. The clinics ranged from introductory sessions for beginners to advanced training for experienced boaters. All were hands-on aboard boats ranging from center consoles to cruising sailboats. But it’s the registration survey data — from two Tampa shows and last winter’s Miami show where “Take the Helm” was also conducted — that tells an interesting story about hands-on training.

While not scientific, here’s what the registration survey revealed. Of 1,504 respondents, 59 percent (884) called themselves new/beginner boaters; 35 percent (526) said they were intermediate level; and 6 percent (94) called themselves advanced. One conclusion is hands-on learning appeals to all experience levels of customers, but especially new boaters. Another conclusion could be that dealers offering hands-on learning experiences could be in a much stronger position to sell newcomers and continue to engage customers.

When it came to actual boat ownership, 1,187 responding: 38 percent (454) did not currently own; 9 percent (102) were past owners; 53 percent (631) were current owners. Some conclusions: Opportunities for some hands-on learning could be an effective tool for introducing non-boaters, demonstrating they “can do it.” Also, improving skills of current customers increases their enjoyment and makes them less likely to be boating dropouts.

As to prior training, among 1,155 respondents, 31 percent (358) said they had no formal training; 31 percent (359) said they were self-taught or by friends/family; 13 percent (153) said they had formal U.S. Power Squadrons, Coast Guard Auxiliary or US Sailing training; 25 percent (285) said they had formal Recreational Powerboating Association or American Sailing Association training. Notably, 62 percent had no formal training but obviously wanted to sign up for some, and even pay for it, at the Tampa show.

How about the age breakdown? Of 1,192 respondents, a mere 2 percent (27) were ages 18-24; a slightly better 12 percent were 25-35; the largest group at 47 percent (566) was 36-54; and the 55-and-over age group accounted for 38 percent. There’s little surprise here that we have an aging ownership base and we must find ways to make boating appeal to younger demographics.

To the question “Want more hands-on training?” the overwhelming majority (83 percent) said yes. It appears boaters of all experience levels will respond to training opportunities. That, in turn, presents opportunities for dealers to engage their prospects and customers in what is obviously a mutually beneficial way. It takes a commitment to do it.

Finally, who was ready to buy? Sadly, 37 percent were not. But 63 percent confirmed intent to purchase with timing from immediate to more than 12 months out. So call it “experiential marketing” or just the advancement of boating safety, but there is every indication that education in all forms, particularly hands-on training, can be a winner for dealers who find ways to pursue it.


10 comments on “Hands-on training can be a winner for dealers

  1. Thom Dammrich

    Norm, NMMA’s experience with hands on training at boat shows has lead me to many of the same conclusions you have reached. I am beginning to wonder if the lack of widely available hands on training opportunities is a barrier to industry growth. NMMA plans more consumer research into this. Clearly, one of the reasons the NMMA’s “At the Helm” program has been so successful has been our partnership with the Recreational Powerboat Association/American Sailing Association and the use of their certified instructors. A national network of certified instructors from RPBA/ASA and from US Sailing/US Powerboating is growing. I would urge dealers to work with instructors certified by one of these two organizations. And, thanks to the USCG, whose boating safety grants have focused on on-the-water training.

  2. Captain Bob Armstrong

    I know from my experieince in helping to develop and teachi the pilot classes of Boat Right prrogram back in the late 1990s that hands-on education makes for much happier boaters. As one woman told me aftrer the anchoring drilll: “This exercise alone was worth the cost of the program. My husband ans I have been working way too hard!” Unfortunately, Boat Right, which was a combination of classtroom and on-board instruction designed as in industry-driven and sponsoired certification program (similar to PADI and NAUI iin the SCUBA world) never really got off the ground. This was partly because of the lack of sufficient capital on the part of the sponsoring company but also a ditrect result of an industry-wide reluctance to embrace education of any sort. On-the-water trainings doesn’t create a hindrance to sales, it enhaces the opportunities. And since better educated boaters have more fun and less apprehension, they tend to remain in the sport and buy more boats. I am very pleased to see that people are finally recognizing this truth.

  3. Virgil Chambers

    You are right on as usual. Hands-on instruction is an excellent way to grow boating (and make it safer). The National Safe Boating Council (NSBC) has a hands-on boat control program that has met with great success; The Essentials of Close Quarter Boat Control. This next year we are rolling out our Open Water Boat Handling Program, these training programs effectively teach maneuvers and techniques giving more confidence and skills to any boat operator novice or experienced. Both of these programs are instructor based courses taught on the water. The curriculum is developed in a step-by-step, skill-based progression focusing on knowing what to do and when to do it. We have worked with the state organizations and a number of marinas who have implemented part or all of the training into their own programs. In cooperation with the Association of Marina Industries (AMI) we will be training instructors this next year, so they will have trainers available to work with their customers. For more information or to set up an instructor program in your area contact the NSBC or go to:

  4. Jack Morrison

    I’ve been an instructur for the Coast Guard Auxiliary for years teaching Boating Skills & Seamanship, Sailing Skills & Seamanship, About Boating Safely and Advanced Coastal Navigaion. In recent years the number of students signing-up for our classroom trainings has been dropping…significantly. We struggle to find ‘free’ locations/schools to allow us to teach our courses and we struggle to get adequate on-line promotion and registrations for our classes. Why don’t these organizations ask us for help? Let’s team-up. We have thousands of volunteer instructors who would love the opportunity to teach at such events. I urge the Recreational Powerboating Association and the American Sailing Association to reach-out to local USCGAux and/or US Powersquadrons groups. Perhaps a coordinated effort at our National level would help us all.

  5. Captain Rande

    I agree with the article, it is on the water, hands on training that is in demand.
    I am qualified to instruct the US Powerboating and National Safe Boating Council on-the-water courses.
    Doing small courses or even private instruction brings it all together….great article and right on.

  6. Roger McAfee

    Don’t limit the learning to boat driving. The Seattle boat sho does about 200 seminars during the course of that show and all are well attended. The Vancouver show did 70 last year on two stages and are adding a third stage in February for that show.. Seminars keep people interested and boating and focus boaters on nedw and updatewd equipment.

  7. Captain Rick Mendez

    As an Certified Instructor for RPBA Hands On Training, In our clinics, we often teach husbands and wives, once the wives got behind the helm, they actually get more excited about boating, … Dealers … Want to upsell? Have the family take this course. The better educated your consumer … the longer they’ll stay in the sport and the bigger boats they’ll buy.

  8. CaptA

    I have been stating this on here in different forums for years. I have also discussed it on Lnkediin. Typical dealer responses to these past discussions has been it is too detimental to closing the deal. Most dealers do not what to offer in-depth training. They want to provide only the “THIS IS YOUR NEW BOAT” seminar on the new owners boat. Coastal Navigation? Naaah—We have electronics and of course electronics never fail. Docking? Naaah—it is just timein the boat. Yada yada yada.

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