At last, they’re beginning to get it: it’s not just a white male market

Posted on Written by Wanda Kenton Smith
Wanda Kenton Smith

There was no one more delighted than me at the Boating Writers International meeting at the Fort Lauderdale boat show. For the first time in industry history — to my knowledge — there was a panel on diversity in boating.

The theme said it all: “Expanding the Boating Universe beyond Middle-aged Males.”

As regular readers know, I’ve been pleading with the industry for years to promote marketing to minorities in order to grow the sport beyond our tired WASP demographic. I’ve written several times about the need to wake up to the potentially lucrative markets represented by women,  African-Americans and Hispanics. I’ve shared statistics pointing to the opportunities each segment could bring to boating, along with the buying power of the highly influential youth market, and the lifestyle-oriented gay and lesbian market known for its liberal discretionary spending.

The issue finally is getting some traction, perhaps because the economic maelstrom is forcing more of us to recognize the need to develop new revenue streams. Whatever the reason, I’m just tickled pink.

I was ecstatic when NMMA honcho Thom Dammrich championed the benefits of marketing to minorities.

As keynote speaker at the Marine Marketers of America awards ceremony, Dammrich addressed “The Waves of Change” and the future of boating.

“In the next 40 years, the U.S. population is projected to grow by 50 percent — from 300 million people to 450 million,” he said. “If we do our job promoting the boating lifestyle and get 33 percent of them to just go boating, that will nearly double boating participation. And I think we can do better than that.

“But, caution: most of that 150 million more people — in fact most of the 450 million U.S. population in 2050 — won’t look like me or us,” he warned. “They will be black or brown, and we need to adapt to that.

“Look at all the beautiful product catalogs at this show. Look in our boating magazines. Look at the thousands of boating Web sites. Now tell me, if you are black or brown or other than Caucasian, do you see yourself in those catalogs? In those magazines? On those Web sites? Do you see yourself in any boating advertising? Well, the companies who figure it out and help non-whites see themselves in boating, who make boating inviting to them, stand to reap a major reward in new business and sales,” Dammrich says.

I’m stoked that our industry’s top guy clearly recognizes the demographic trends that are creating seismic shifts in the market sphere. I’m equally pleased BWI and organizer Mike Sciulla had the smarts to bring the issue to center stage.

The panel generated a lot of feedback. I served as the spokesperson for the marketing to women segment; Raymond Blue represented the Black Boaters Club of America; and Pedro Diaz, editor and president of Mar & Pesca, addressed the Hispanic market.

Blue, a retired Federal Aviation Administration executive, talked about the Atlanta-based Black Boaters Club of America, which now includes nearly 100 members and has three more metro-market chapters in the works. It was founded by a group of avid boaters that included Blue’s wife, Wanda. The goal was to expose African-Americans and other cultural groups to boating.

Blue says social and economic restraints of the past had stood as a barrier between blacks and the “luxury of recreational boating.” He discussed those obstacles — both real and perceived.

For example, in the 1960s, public pools were off limits to blacks in many areas, inhibiting the pursuit of water-based activities. He says 58 percent of African-American children today lack swimming skills, compared with 38 percent of their counterparts. Part of the club’s initiative is to introduce boating to youngsters; to that end, they’ve partnered with F.I.S.H. to host youth-oriented activities.

In the days of slavery, Blue explains, blacks were forbidden by their masters to swim, for fear they’d escape. Combine these past realties with the lack of boating industry marketing initiatives, and it’s no surprise we’ve failed to tap the reported $845 billion annual buying power of this segment — a figure that is expected to top $1.1 trillion by 2012.

I was pleased to learn Blue’s club is working with Holiday and Aqualand marinas on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, and that it has a primary sponsor in MarineMax of Buford, which has partnered with the club in providing boats and manpower to help expose non-boaters to an on-the-water experience.

A few months ago, the popular TradeOnlyToday blogger Norm Schultz initiated online debate about minority marketing. Check out the archived postings, and you’ll find a trail of naysayers who claim blacks just don’t boat. Well, try telling that to Raymond and Wanda Blue, who are proud owners of a Carver 355 Motor Yacht, and to their 100 boating friends. Sorry, guys, that old stereotype just doesn’t hold water anymore.

Pedro Diaz is publishing the nation’s first Hispanic boating magazine. A native of Cuba who was imprisoned for his journalistic endeavors there, he now lives in South Florida and is producing a highly targeted magazine that reaches affluent Hispanics.

According to Diaz’s media kit, of the 1 million registered boat owners in Florida, 300,000 are Hispanic. He submits that this hefty base, coupled with visiting Latin American and Caribbean boaters, pumps $5 billion into the U.S. boating industry. He firmly believes the industry is totally missing the boat by failing to nurture, or even acknowledge, this “muy grande” market.

Despite the response I’ve gotten over the years from a handful of ignorant male boaters (who would relegate women to bikini ornaments or second mate status), there is growing evidence to support my long-standing claim that women are, in fact, viable prospects for boat ownership.

Let’s first knock down the presumption that ours is exclusively a male market simply because boat registrations say so. Dig deeper into the demographics and see how many of those registered boat owners are married. The boat may be registered in “his” name, but ours is predominantly a family sport and lifestyle. While “she” may be invisible on the records, make no mistake: more often than not, she influences not only the choice of brand and model, but whether there is a boat purchase at all.

It’s a cold fact the auto industry understands. Women purchase 65 percent of all new cars, 53 percent of all used cars and — here’s the real news — have veto power on 95 percent of all family car purchases. In addition, 80 percent of all consumer purchasing decisions, according to consulting firm AT Kearney, are made by women. Old-school white male purists can beat their chests all day, but please don’t whimper when your sales continue to plummet.

An article in Soundings Trade Only by Reagan Haynes a few months ago included J.D. Power statistics on female boat ownership. I was shocked by what was taking place right under our noses. In 2002, 8.5 percent of all boats were registered to women. That figure has risen to 8.7 percent in 2008. This same article pointed out that 18 percent of the small runabouts manufactured by Maxum are owned by women. With small Bayliner runabouts, the figure is 16 percent; with Chaparral runabouts at 15 percent. Thirteen percent of Bayliner Express Cruisers are owned by women, and the list goes on.

Glen Justice of conducted an online poll and shared with me the results of his 200-women response. While I don’t have space to share all the numbers, a few of the findings were particularly notable. A solid 23 percent of the female respondents consider themselves “veteran” boaters; 31 percent had taken a boating instruction course; and 66 percent drive the boat.

All of this leads me to conclude we have an outstanding opportunity to grow our industry. But it will require a concerted marketing effort at the manufacturing and dealership levels to sell these groups on the rewards of the boating experience. Other recreational industries are ahead of the game, with marketing programs already well under way.

Each presenter at Fort Lauderdale had ideas on how seize and develop these opportunities. I plan to go into them further in another column.

Our industry’s long-term future hangs in the balance, and we need stimulus for change. No longer can we rest on tradition, past sales history and the great white shark to feed us.

There is much to learn, and for those smart enough to see the big picture, there is much to gain through diversity.

Wanda Kenton Smith has 28 years marine industry marketing experience. She is president of Kenton Smith Advertising & Public Relations and president of Marine Marketers of America. For comments on this column, e-mail

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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