Boat Show Best Practices-Today’s Yacht Buyers Have Changed. You Need to Change the Way You Identify and Interact with Them

Nov 01, 2016

Imagine, for a moment, your perfect boat-show prospect. What does he or she look like? Do you envision a polo shirt with a yacht club’s emblem and a pricey watch? Cocktail attire and equally suitable accessories? What if we told you that you’re more likely to see a concert T-shirt and Crocs? And that prospects dressed like this have likely stood right at your display, but you may have looked past them?

The far more relaxed attire is indicative of bigger trends across the nation. Consider a recent article from Bloomberg Businessweek, which reports that the median U.S. worker is 42 years old. Do the math: This translates to a birth date in 1974, and a work experience where business casual has always been the norm. In Silicon Valley, rife with high- and ultra-high-net-worth consumers, the median worker is even younger, 29 at some companies. There, too, “older” workers report to bosses younger than their own kids.

Your next client may very well not remember President Richard Nixon (or Presidents Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, for that matter) and have no idea who shot JR. They might be keeping up with the Kardashians as much as they are with their stock portfolios. They don’t commute, they telecommute. They don’t chat, they Snapchat.

If you wouldn’t know a Kardashian from a cardigan, you’re not out of luck in engaging with these prospects. You just have some serious rethinking to do. People like this are at every boat show, at every display — it’s a matter of figuring out how to identify and relate to them.

As Steve Gale, the store manager for MarineMax Pier 66, says, “You can’t just go to a boat show and hope someone walks up and says, ‘I want this boat.’”

And as Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida puts it, “Everyone always asks when you go to a show, ‘Where are we going to get new buyers from?’ Well, we get 100,000 people who show up to FLIBS, so there’s plenty of buyers. I think we’re not looking at what they look like.”

Here are a few best practices you can put to work for your company:

1. Use your ears more than your mouth – “The art of listening has gone away,” Purcell says. This extends as much to the people who work your registration desk as it does to your sales team. Encourage what Purcell calls “lateral conversations.” “If someone says, ‘I’m from Manitowoc,’ say, ‘Oh, do you know Burger, or Marine TraveLift?’,” he said. Things like this, rather than chatting about the weather, can help engender a relationship. Gale agrees, emphasizing that natural conversations with the right questions make the difference. “Maybe you’ve been to the same destination,” he says. “You can use it to break the ice.”

He also says that his team reminds its salespeople that talking about the boat is important, but focusing on the customer is more important. “We keep telling our salespeople, ‘You don’t need to impress them with your knowledge,’” Gale explains.

2. Use tools as “silent salespeople” – Matthew Vetzner, vice president of marketing for the Marquis-Larson Group, sees value in providing, “Something the customer can touch or watch or see, to validate their interest before they speak with a salesperson.” It can be as simple as a welding sample, or stitching on seats. Car dealers do it all the time, he points out. Besides, Vetzner adds: “Salespeople can’t get to everyone at once.” So if you see someone out of the corner of your eye who’s really engaged, you can then head over, knowing he or she is truly a good prospect.

Purcell takes the concept a step further, believing paddleboards or other gear at your display can serve as conversation starters about the overall experiences they enjoy. “Their 30-foot boat might just be the vehicle to get to that little farther place with their kayak,” he says.

3. Don’t just use social media, communicate with it – Gale believes having an active Facebook page, where you post photos, upload videos, and “chat it up with whoever might be interested,” is key. “It’s amazing to see how many times a video gets shared,” he adds.

MarineMax sales reps shoot video walk-throughs of both new models and trade-ins, ranging from Boston Whalers to Benettis. “They all have a buyer somewhere,” Gale says. “You never know what inspires people.”

Vetzer believes social media is powerful in building customer leads in other ways, too. He suggests creating a special hashtag as part of, say, a Twitter selfie contest during a boat show in which you select a winner to receive some gear.

4. Leverage your website for booking appointments – Vetzner likes an approach he’s seen a few brands take, where a page on their website or a dedicated website allows customers to set a day and time to come see a particular boat. As a complement to this, at the show itself, the companies create fast-lane access for these customers. “You’re creating an exclusive, unique buying experience,” Vetzner says. After all, he adds, chances are they’re spending millions of dollars. It also helps brokers and dealers better manage the flow of people at the show.

5. Follow up, follow up, follow up – Gale, Purcell, and Vetzer all have seen some salespeople become so hyper-focused on arriving at the shows and getting the boats into place that they forget to ask potential prospects for their contact details.

“Not all sales take place physically during the show,” Vetzner says. “You don’t want to be intrusive or forceful, but you have to ask questions and see if you can follow up with them.” At MarineMax, Gale says, thank-you emails are going out, “as they’re walking away down the dock.”

Ultimately, a show is just one aspect of an ongoing sales process.

“This industry is a marathon, not a sprint,” Purcell says.“With a marathon comes training, and you’re doing all these other things throughout the year to prepare for it. It’s a lot more than just showing up for a race. It’s the same thing for a boat show.