ABC 2013: Leadership council discusses industry growth plans

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WASHINGTON — Six key long-term initiatives identified by a 2011 industry Growth Summit were discussed in detail Tuesday by the Recreational Boating Leadership Council as the American Boating Congress got under way here.

Committee chairmen for each of the six efforts provided updates on their group’s progress for implementing growth plans, prompting spirited and frank discussions lasting upwards of 30 minutes.

The 30-plus participants represent a broad spectrum of the industry, including associations, dealerships, marinas and manufacturers. The leadership council’s charge is to implement a 10-year growth plan to transform recreational boating.

“We had a 10-year vision of what boating would look like in 2021,” Matt Gruhn, chairman of the leadership council and president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, said of the three Growth Summits the industry has held. “We started to make progress on the goals, but we still have a long way to go.”

National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich is secretary of the leadership council, and Westrec Marinas vice president Jim Frye is vice chairman.

The six initiative areas are advocacy, marketing, education, diversity, youth and affordability.

Dammrich, who is on the advocacy committee, stressed the importance of the industry presenting a united front to policy-makers.

“Someday I’d like to see 1,000 members of the industry here [for ABC] calling on members of Congress,” he said. “It would be such a potent force.”

An early topic of discussion was E15 and two pending bills that would stop or slow its implementation. BoatUS president Margaret Podlich said the industry has made great strides in educating members of Congress about the critical issue.

“Go back five years — the concept that ethanol might not be good for engines could not penetrate the Beltway,” she said. “Now they know that ethanol has significant problems for engines at higher blends and are considering a change.”

The NMMA supports two bills: HR 1462, which would cap ethanol in gasoline at 10 percent, and HR 875, which would repeal the EPA’s waiver approving sales of E15 until the agency seeks an independent scientific analysis from the National Academy of Sciences to explore the harmful effects of the blend.

NMMA senior vice president of marketing and communications Carl Blackwell gave a presentation to the marketing committee.

“Fun is our competitive advantage,” he said, noting that the leading “takeaway,” or comment from viewers about the popular lifestyle videos from the NMMA’s Welcome to the Water campaign was just that, “fun,” with 67 percent of viewers using the word as their description. “It’s not rocket science. We’re selling boats. We’re not selling Dove soap.”

Jon Kukuk, owner of Nestegg Marine in Marinette, Wis., and chairman of the Wisconsin Marina Association, heads the leadership council’s education committee.

He noted that only two-thirds of boaters nationwide take some form of education course, “so we have work to do there.” Kukuk said his committee is looking into ways to increase education — including hands-on, on-the-water training, which many in the industry believe is key to growing the sport — whether it is paid for by the consumer or by dealers who see the expense as money well spent when it comes to sales.

“If we can get dealers to buy into education as a means to spur sales, we may see boat education take off,” he said.

Diversity committee chairman Dammrich noted that the country’s growing minority population holds significant potential for sales growth.

“We have nearly 16 million African-American, Asian and Hispanic households in this country with household income over $50,000 and nearly 6 million over $100,000,” Dammrich said. “We don’t have to get a lot — 1 percent would be 60,000 — to have a big impact on selling boats.”

The key is giving members of minority households exposure to and experience in recreational boating, he said.

The youth committee, headed by Northwest Marine Trades Association president and CEO George Harris and Sea Scouts national director Keith Christopher is creating a national database on youth boating programs and Harris called on all members of the industry to contribute programs based on their local knowledge.

From there the committee hopes to develop ways to promote the diverse collection of programs nationwide.

The affordability committee is discussing strategies for getting a better understanding of boat buyers’ habits, with a focus on key entry points for the new and used-boat markets. These include the potential for added buyer/owner education, greater transparency by developing an “actual cost of boating” database and promotion of the lifestyle by the industry and boat owners.

“It’s clear to us that the affordability issue ties to everything we’ve talked about here today,” said committee chairman Jim Coburn, managing partner at Coburn & Associates.

The leadership council tentatively agreed to meet again in December at a location to be determined.

— Rich Armstrong

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