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Dealers need new ways to draw new boaters

Last Thursday, I posted a blog about potential new boaters in the Carlos C. Gomez family and their apparent frustration in finding what they considered an affordable first boat. Several of your comments, thank you, raised the conversation in ways worth further exploration.

My encounter with Gomez took place at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, an amazing show that, by its nature, I think really isn’t the real world. Gomez could likely find more “affordable” small boats in the Cleveland or Nashville or Houston shows. Nevertheless, it seemed to support the idea that we might be succeeding in “selling” the boating lifestyle to newcomers, but we aren’t doing a good job of building or, especially, showing product that first-timers will see as affordable.

Matt Gurnsey identified in his comment to the blog a dilemma that most dealers likely face when it comes to their boat show participation. He said: “One of the biggest problems for dealers is the cost of space to exhibit at boat shows. Do we show a $10,000 boat or show a $30,000 in the same space that makes us more money?”

It’s hard to deny it is problematic for a dealer, especially when considering these points Gurnsey also makes:

  • Commissioned salespeople naturally want to sell more profitable larger boats to current boaters rather than deal with first-time buyers that require more time — “more hand-holding and more education” says Gurnsey — and deliver less profits and commission.
  • He admits he’s heard the comments from show visitors about no small boats in the show and has used space for 12- to 16-footers that price from $5,000. And he has sold some. “But we wonder what sales we missed by not having the more expensive boats there.”
  • In addition, products nationally advertised at promotional pricing by manufacturers takes the margins even lower and makes it harder to assign limited exhibit space in shows.

So is there an answer? Well, there are some things worth pondering:

Can the cost of exhibit space be reduced? That’s difficult. The costs of major shows are dictated by the venue’s required rent/labor/security/cleaning and much more. Add in decorating, advertising, feature costs and general overhead and every show manager struggles to hold the space price down. I know, having managed more than 125 boat shows.

Should each show allot free space for an “affordability” display of low-priced boats provided by dealers? It’s being done now in some shows where space is available. However, in cases where the show is a space sellout and dealers can’t get all they want now, the show would have to set aside some floor space, thus reducing what’s available to exhibitors. Moreover, if the show budget is based on income from a floor space sellout, the cost of the free space will have to be covered by increasing the basic space price to all. Still, even with that, it is something those who produce shows, particularly marine trade associations, need to talk about.

Could manufacturers provide assistance to dealers for holding in-store weekend events that focus solely on entry-level boats? A variation on a theme like: “Want to Be A Boater? Twenty Boats You Can Own for $250 or less! Demo Rides, etc.” Manufacturers could provide supportive promotional materials, unique economic incentives and even some product where feasible.

Can trade groups develop separate new boater promotions? It’s worth serious exploration. For example, could a trade association create a single day or weekend event(s) that is aimed squarely at new boaters . . . say a “Discover Boating Boat Show & Sale. Every boat on display is priced at $25,000 or Less.” Or every boat can be purchased for a payment of $250 or less, etc.

Such a venue won’t be an expensive exhibit hall, but perhaps a popular mall’s outer parking lot or on adjacent land to a large public marina or in the parking lot of a sports stadium or a local fair grounds. It would be a low-cost self-liquidating promotion or, perhaps, even partially subsidized from a trade association’s general funds. Moreover, such events could be held at different times in different parts of the trade association’s member area, thus serving a membership that’s geographically spread out.

Back to Gomez and his family. He was really saying: “I’m having trouble balancing the desire to get a boat with the cost.” Clearly we weren’t able to show him enough choices at the show.

I get every dealer’s concern when it comes to shows, space and profit margins. So we need two things to happen: 1) We need to produce more reasonably prices boats in this industry to appeal to newcomers and 2) we need to bring them to the marketplace where the new boaters can see and touch them . . . and maybe that has to be done in new and innovative ways.


2 comments on “Dealers need new ways to draw new boaters

  1. Jeff Erdmann

    Norm, your article clearly illustrates the challenges in getting new blood hooked on boating.
    We will never be able to make boating cheap enough to justify the expense without selling the value associated with boating the memories & pleasure it brings, “priceless as they say”.
    Try it before you buy may be part of the solution especially with millennials who seem more interested in use than ownership, as demonstrated by car sharing.
    Industry subsidized boat rentals, chartering and ownership clubs that get new boaters past the sticker shock and on the water, where they will eventually become “boat-aholics” might be a better tack.


    Show costs today make it impossible to cater, never mind address the low cost first time boater, or the average “Joe”. Realistically, in order to afford some of the small craft “18-24ft now being pushed by the high margin seeking dealers, with triple and/or 4 outrageously expensive to buy and maintain <>> high HP outboards, excludes a large numbers of “first timers” working folks. They have to seek the used affordable market, and that’s where we loose them, as they loose interest, inheriting someone’s else problems and usually due to inexperience, get burned <<then we never get them back, plus all they talk about is the hole in the water syndrome, <>etc..>>. I have yet to talk to a dealer at a show, where they mentioned that if present show craft was unreachable, ((when they are talking to a possible working stiff newcomer)) that they could curtail costs, offering single engine, with less glitz, bells & whistles packages; which most new boaters wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. For instance a program which targets first timers while at the show, via visual media <> promoting an after show dealer upcoming “party” BBQ what have you, featuring small and affordable crafts only, providing food <> tickets to such event while at the show,after all dreamers are a captive audience, and those w/ free “food party tickets” would be willing to give personal info, if its in the interest of FREE pre-qualifying, pre-approval for a specific minimum down, plus low affordable monthly payment, which will tell them specifically the type of vessel they can easily afford, quite easily done with what tools we presently have, and proper sales training of personnel, or direct access to finance manager, etc… plus consider the eventual potential present & future customer data base as a result. You say maybe I’m drinking moonshine??? But Its being done by car dealers now!!

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