In the boating industry, customer experience presents a unique set of challenges akin to navigating an unpredictable current.
Boats are a large investment, often several hundred thousand dollars, so their owners naturally expect to be treated well. The boating business is rapidly growing, creating fierce competition that makes it hard for boat dealers to stand out.
Yet it remains a niche industry: studies show only about 14 percent of U.S. consumers own a boat. Which means that, as parents often tell their children, owning a vessel that sails the high seas – or powers through inland waterways – represents the difference between want and need.
“For most people, boats are a luxury want, not a need,” Liz Keener, certification manager at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, said in a recent interview with The Experience Maker. That paradigm, she said, makes customer experience in boating even more “crucial … we have to keep the customers engaged.”
Or as one industry publication memorably put it: “A “my pleasure” goes a long way when spending $8 for a combo meal, but what does exceptional service look like when buying a $25,000, $50,000 or $250,000 boat?
In February, that immersive customer experience infused the Miami International Boat show, one of dozens of such shows at the start of each year. It featured everything from kayaks to super yachts and other “nautical toys from across the spectrum,” including an exclusive marina where buyers could “visit with nautical designers for customized interiors and meet world-renowned yacht builders to plan your next project.”
For other boat dealers, customer experience means increasingly popular immersive online boat and yacht tours, such as those offered by MarineMax, where prospective buyers can “step onboard and take a full 360 view of a boat of your dreams.”
Not to be outdone, renters are benefitting from the rise of boat sharing apps that use a business model similar to Airbnb and connect them directly to owners. One market leader offers rentals of yachts, pontoon boats, jet skis and fishing charters to gain “captained experiences” and “find fun on the water anywhere in the world.”
Whatever approach they take, experience makers in boating have a built-in advantage: the romantic appeal of the sea. “From the humble fishing vessels of our ancestors to today’s luxury yachts and high-speed powerboats,” says one marketing site, “boats have served as a symbol of exploration, recreation, and even status.”
A Growing Industry, Fueled by Better Customer Experience
The boating industry is enormous — and sailing ahead at full power. Research shows that the global leisure boat market is valued at about $42 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 5.3 percent through 2030. U.S. sales of boats, marine products and services, totaled $56.7 billion in 2021, a 12.7 percent annual increase.
The global boat rental market, nearly $100 million as of 2020, is also expected to grow rapidly.
While experts say some of the surge stems from increased interest in watersports and, as a result of COVID-19, outdoor activities, it is also fueled by customer experience-friendly changes by boating manufacturers. Those include increased use of technologies such as GPS navigation systems, smart sensors, and onboard entertainment systems, along with other features designed to increase passenger safety.
Customer Experience in the Boating Industry
Craig Brosenne, President of Hagadone Marine Group, isn’t subtle about the importance of customer experience. It is “the lifeblood that sustains our growth” and “infuses what we do with vitality and purpose,” he said in a recent interview. “Our focus on customer service… is what weaves threads of trust, loyalty and genuine care with our customers.”
For boat renters, Hagadone provides detailed instructions to ensure a safe journey… as well as a captain’s hat just for the fun of it.
For Keener, of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, the key to experience is not just attracting boat buyers but also keeping them on board. “Research has found that insufficient use of a boat is the top reason a boater walks away from the sport,” she said, calling for a focus on “retention and referrals.”
Her organization has launched several customer experience initiatives, including a Virtual Business Development Center to help dealers stay in touch with customers post-sale via phone, text or email.
To get boat buyers initially in the door, boat shows are an enormous draw and have typically generated 30-50 percent of annual sales. Other relatively recent innovations to attract customers are boat clubs and subscriptions.
And like in many industries, sellers are increasingly using technology to get the word out, including the first social media platform designed specifically for the boating community. Boaters say it’s helping them share boating adventures and monitor weather conditions in one convenient place.
Experts offer these additional customer experience pointers:
- Allow prospective buyers to “test drive” a boat, just like what’s done in the car industry. If the person is new to boating, take them out with an expert.
- Follow up a sale by pitching accessories, such as towable tubes, skis, wakeboards, and sunscreen.
- Focus on keeping boaters interested during the offseason; the industry is highly seasonal, with sales far higher in the summer.
- Sponsor boating and water-related events to increase brand visibility.
- Offer continuing tutorials on owning and driving a boat, as there are many details that new boat owners may not consider during the “honeymoon” phase of ownership.
In the end, the most important tip about the boating industry experience might be this: boating is supposed to be fun. Do everything you can to make it – and keep it – that way.
This is part of a series of industry articles featuring customer experience examples that any company can use.