Sail industry charts a growth course

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes

38_feature_1As conference nears, experts share ideas for attacking barriers to wider participation

Analysts continue to debate whether Americans will remain in a frugal mindset as the economy plods toward recovery or whether pent-up demand will propel the pendulum back toward more self-indulgence.

The sailing industry isn’t waiting for a clear answer. It’s focusing on ways to spread the sailing bug to more people — even in this tenuous environment. As Sail America prepares for its biennial conference June 25-27 in Newport, R.I., one of its goals is to provide a plan for business owners to implement when they return home.

“We want to make sure that people … leave with real, practical tools they can apply to their business,” says Josh Adams, president of Sail America and publisher of Sail magazine. “A lot of the seminars would work for any marine business, or any small business, but because we’re so focused on the sailing industry there’s a big part of the conference that does target some of our endemic issues.”

For example, increasing sailing participation will be a focus of the conference, Adams says. “At the end of the day, if we can get more people involved, all companies in the industry will benefit,” he says.

One of the most widely voiced challenges to recruiting new sailors is access, but there is progress on that front, industry leaders say. “Sailing has a great and inexpensive way to allow access to the sport, and that is through community centers and sailing schools and yacht clubs,” Adams says.

There is anecdotal evidence that participation at sailing centers, yacht clubs, and at high schools and colleges is on the rise, says Sail America executive director Jonathan Banks. Although that doesn’t translate immediately into boat sales, having more people who understand and enjoy sailing will only help, advocates of the sport say.

38_feature_2The pathway to access is clear to US Sailing president Gary Jobson: “el cheapo memberships, especially at yacht clubs, and fleets of boats.” Clubs that do that are “ensuring their future,” says Jobson, whose credentials include ESPN sailing commentator, editor-at-large of Sailing World magazine and victories in the America’s Cup and Fastnet races.

Sailing is a life skill and adults who don’t possess that skill are more likely to jump into a powerboat instead of learning how to sail. “Later in life, one of the barriers is, ‘I love being on the water, but I don’t know how to sail,’ ” Banks says. “For those people who have learned sailing as kids, those skills stay with them for [their] lives. They either continue or return at a certain life stage, so it’s encouraging to see so much youth involved.”

The sailing world began emphasizing youth access about 20 years ago, says Sally Helme, group publisher of Bonnier Corp.’s Cruising World, Sailing World and Yachting magazines. That means there is a generation of people who learned to sail at a young age and are transitioning into adulthood.

“In some areas you have more community sailing organizations that are open to the public, as opposed to some communities that have a lot of private yacht clubs,” Adams says. Still, youth sailing programs provide more opportunities for young people to experience the sport without owning a boat than other segments, sailing advocates say. The challenge then becomes getting those sailors back after they graduate from college. Although community clubs and inexpensive yacht club memberships help in that effort, another vehicle is fractional ownership.

Time shares

Fractional boat ownership is a broad term because every company has a slightly different model, Banks says. Some follow true fractional ownership models, with several owners of one boat. Others use the term even if they are employing club membership. An example of that would be if a club had a boat and assigned it eight time slots. A customer who pays a monthly or annual fee would get access to the boat one-eighth of the time, Banks says.

“All have the same goal — reducing the cost of ownership and minimizing the hassles of maintenance and servicing of the boat,” Banks says. “That makes access affordable and easy.”

Fractional ownership helps people who lack time and resources for sailing — recent college grads often fit into that category — find their way back to the water, Helme says. In addition to returning sailors, many who opt for fractional ownership are relatively new to sailing, Banks notes.

“This provides an instant community [with] background and support,” he says. “Many of the fractional sailing centers, such as SailTime, and also sailing schools provide training so people have access to a boat but without having to fork out the full cost of the boat.”

SailTime has 50 locations with 160 boats on two continents, and the business touts itself as an even cheaper way to gain access than through charters.

Another emerging trend is informal fractional ownership, in which groups of friends or a large extended family share a boat and the costs that go with it, Banks says.

More adult inclusion

Sailing is more complicated than operating a powerboat, and that can create a barrier for adults who are new to the sport, Adams says. But newcomers often are surprised to discover that sailing, though requiring more technical skills, doesn’t take long to learn. Discover Sailing is releasing a new video that shows off the lifestyle and demonstrates how quickly the skills can be learned, he says. “For some, whether it’s the terminology or the actual physics of sailing, they just need someone to show them how easy it is,” he says.

Jobson would like to see more yacht clubs and community centers offer adult classes. “In the last 20 years we’ve gotten pretty used to having college and even high school coaches, but we really haven’t done a great job with adult instruction,” he says. That may be changing, however. Sailing clubs increasingly are offering adult classes, and a few yacht clubs are, as well, Jobson says. Those that do usually are surprised by how many adults participate, he says.

59_featureEastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass., hires a coach each summer to train adults in racing. The coach instructs the class on playing the wind, tides and currents, and then records the students on video so he can debrief them later. “That helps because … if they’re winning, people tend to keep doing it, and if they’re losing, they kind of drift away,” Jobson says.

Great Harbor Yacht Club in Nantucket, Mass., offers a women’s sailing clinic with female instructors. That helps create a peer atmosphere, which makes new sailors more comfortable, Jobson says. The class is so popular the club had to get more boats and even turn some people away. “It really worked,” he says. “The intimidation factor went away.”

Jobson also would like to see more variety in sailing events. Non-competitive events would appeal to some people more than racing and would create a more social atmosphere — and sailors are known to be social, he says. And the sport needs to find a way to do things in a shorter time period, Jobson says. “There’s no reason to waste everybody’s time all day,” he says. “I think that’s why Wednesday night and Thursday night races tend to be popular in certain areas, because you can do it in a short period of time.”

Public image

The two racing tragedies in April off California that resulted in nine deaths certainly affect sailing, Jobson says. A US Sailing panel is looking into what happened and whether race rules and safety regulations should be changed. “Every time we have a disaster in sailing, it gets a lot of press and I think it does reinforce that it’s dangerous,” Jobson says. “We need to take precautions to keep it safe.”

As in the powerboat industry, a bright spot for the sail segment is in parts and accessories, as people repair and upgrade their boats rather than replacing them. “Sales of other sailing goods and services, whether it’s charters or gear and equipment or technical systems — all the little things you need to run your boat — all that seems to be pretty strong,” Helme says. “Sailors are still participating and the passion remains strong. New-boat sales are just tough.”

Gasoline prices also could present an opportunity for sailing over power. The situation hasn’t reached the tipping point, but Jobson thinks it will happen sooner rather than later.

Resource-conscious people also might be convinced to take up sailing. “When you look at the relative footprint of sailing versus powerboats, sailing is far greener,” Adams says. “And that’s mainly because we don’t burn much fuel because we rely on wind speed.”

Although people are still conservative about big purchases, there are encouraging signs that consumer confidence is returning, Helme says. “Are these lessons of a more conservative or restrained approach to buying going to last?” she asks. “I don’t know. Part of me hopes we will be more conservative, but the business part of me hopes that people will indulge and go ahead and spoil themselves on that next boat.”

Jobson maintains there’s a truly simple way to grow sailing: “Get your friends on the boat.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.

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