Growth panels are making headway

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NMMA president Thom Dammrich addresses the American Boating Congress.

NMMA president Thom Dammrich addresses the American Boating Congress.

The Recreational Boating Leadership Council at the American Boating Congress in May fleshed out plans to increase participation by focusing on six crucial tasks, including attracting minority-group members and younger boaters and finding ways to make boating more affordable.

Committees responsible for each of the council’s previously identified six priority actions reported their progress since the group’s meeting in December. Those areas are marketing communications, youth, affordability, diversity, education and advocacy. I attended the meeting for Trade Only editor-in-chief Bill Sisson, who sits on the affordability committee.

“Let’s face it. Boating can be expensive, but it can enhance the quality of life for a person and for families — that’s what we’re trying to drive home to the public,” said Jim Coburn, chairman of the affordability committee.

Jim Emmons, who sits on the marketing committee, said the youth and diversity committees have gotten a lot accomplished since the last meeting. “They really have some momentum going,” said Emmons, president of the Water Sports Industry Association.

The Diversity Task Force has formed a 21-member committee that aims to work in three areas during the next two years, committee chairwoman Wanda Kenton Smith said via teleconference during the meeting. The first is “to quantify and educate the economic opportunity that diversity development represents — the bottom-line economic potential we will all benefit from,” she said.

The second is working with the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, “which is already leading the charge on the Hispanic front,” Kenton Smith said.

The third area is to “positively portray and position boating to three diversity groups — Hispanics, African Americans and Asians — over two years,” she said.

To help, the committee is reaching out to businesses and individuals who already are in touch with these populations. These “influencer groups” will function as effective sounding boards for the committee, and subcommittees will report their findings in July.

“We’ve come a long way since Miami,” said Kenton Smith, referring to the Miami International Boat Show in February. “We really have a great team — 21 people all passionately committed and excited about the opportunity to work on diversity.”

Nearly 30 people participated in the five-hour meeting May 5 at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington. Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, serves as the council’s chairman. Association of Marina Industries president Jim Frye and National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich are vice chairman and secretary, respectively. The council was created during the industry’s third Growth Summit in December 2012.

“Of the six areas we are identifying, affordability is clearly the most challenging,” said Dammrich. “If there was one thing we could do, that would be enough. That would be tremendous. I do know that 83 percent of the boats owned today are preowned boats. Discover Boating has put its toe in the water in terms of trying … to teach [consumers] how to buy a preowned boat. Maybe there is more work that could be done. If we get them into their first boat and they have a good experience, they’ll want to buy another one.”

Promoting preowned boats is a good idea, said George Harris, youth committee co-chairman and president and CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association. “In our state of Washington, we have seen people move to much smaller boats, particularly aluminum boats,” he said. “There are ways to get into boating other than expensive fiberglass.”

Coburn said in a follow-up phone interview that tackling affordability has been challenging because numerous ideas and strategies have been voiced. “We probably need to focus on one thing, such as the preowned market, but not take our eye off the ball in other areas,” he said.

Highlighting the value of the boating experience — the “ing,” not the “thing” — stood out as a critical theme during the meeting. Discover Boating has already tapped an exciting new face and voice, country singer Jake Owen, in its marketing communications committee.

Committee chairman Carl Blackwell, chief marketing officer for Discover Boating and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, told the group that it was wrapping up the production of four documentary videos that illustrate real-life examples of passionate boaters. One of them features a Hispanic boating family in Florida and another highlights Owen, with video showing him driving his boat, wakesurfing and fishing. Owen also talks about how boating has shaped his life and his music.

“Jake is a natural,” Blackwell said after showing a short teaser of the videos. “We did not have to give him one sound bite. Talking to him, you can tell he is a boater. He gets it and has become a great ambassador for us.”

“It’s just a relaxing time,” Owen told Trade Only’s Sisson in a recent phone interview. “That’s what boats are for. It’s a total way to get my mind off things. I’m definitely grateful I have a boat.”

Emmons would like to explore marketing efforts that will complement those of Discover Boating. “If we’re trying to make boating more appealing to millions of Americans, I think there should be things we are doing in addition to Discover Boating,» said Emmons during a follow-up phone interview. «Maybe they are cost-prohibitive and will never happen, but we should try to look beyond Discover Boating. [The marketing] is pretty much only Discover Boating now.”

The Youth Task Force delivered some important news: the launch of a national database of youth boating programs on the Discover Boating website in mid-May. Harris said the goal was to seed the database with 500 programs by May 19 so program providers and participants could immediately see its potential and value.

Content for the database’s website landing page will provide a brief overview of the youth boating programs, along with more detailed content and stories designed to encourage and motivate families to enroll in programs. Families that would like to contact a youth program from the Discover Boating website will be able to send an email request to be contacted and receive more information. The task force will monitor the referrals and follow up with referral recipients, Harris says.

Collecting data on the programs has been rough, he said, adding that Florida leads the way with 62. “Merely getting people from these programs to call you back with information is challenging in itself,” Harris said. “It’s just hard to reach these people.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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