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Watering the seeds of boating growth

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The first phase of a study released at the Fort Lauderdale show says boating must do more to attract young people.

The first phase of a study released at the Fort Lauderdale show says boating must do more to attract young people. Photo courtesy of Jerome Kelagopian for Beneteau.

The first-phase findings of a study to identify “key levers” for translating participation in boating into passionate engagement with the sport and eventually boat ownership have been released to sharpen the focus of efforts to reverse a decline in ownership.

The study, commissioned by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida and the Active Interest Media Marine Group, examined national boating and demographic data and trends, as well as those specific to Florida, and surveyed 3,500 boat owners — subscribers to AIM boating magazines.

The study’s aim is to identify the most likely candidates for boating, estimate the size of the potential boating market nationally and, in Florida, explore the pathways of entry into boating that are most likely to result in long-term participation and eventual ownership. It also hopes to determine the main obstacles to growth in ownership. The first-phase results were unveiled at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

“It’s in all of our interests to see the industry grow and to bring in new blood,” especially in South Florida and Fort Lauderdale, says Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III, chairman and CEO of Active Interest Media. AIM is the parent company of Show Management, which is part of the AIM Marine Group and produces FLIBS. MIASF owns the show.

Outpacing golf, tennis

Thirty-one percent of the U.S. population has engaged in some form of boating, giving the sport a significant edge over activities such as tennis, which has a participation rate of just 8.1 percent, and golf, at 9 percent, says Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates, the Boulder, Colo., market research and consumer intelligence firm that authored the study.

Yet the industry has not been able to translate those high levels of participation into boat ownership. Although boating participation went up an average 3.2 percent a year from 2002 to 2012, boat ownership has declined by an average of 0.3 percent each year. Meanwhile, new-boat buyers are getting older — up from an average age of 44.9 in 1997 to 52.7 in 2011.

Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates.

Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates.

Fristoe calls it “the aging of the base,” and it affects every segment of the sport. For instance, the average age of a PWC buyer is up from 39.6 in 1997 to 47.9 in 2012; the age of small cruiser buyers is up from 45.7 to 51.3; saltwater fishboat buyers have seen their average age go from 46.1 to 52.7.

Overall sales of ski boats, wakeboard boats, cruisers, sterndrives and sailboats have declined from about 110,000 in 2001 to a little more than 30,000 in 2012. The sharpest decline came after 2006, as the recession that took root in 2007 began to affect the boating industry.

Meanwhile, the cost of new boats is going up as sales go down. For instance, in 2001 the average cost of an inboard cruiser was $348,000; in 2012 that figure was a whopping $898,800, according to Fristoe.

Taken altogether, “This is not a sustainable pattern,” he says.

If the industry does nothing, Fristoe projects a 13.5 percent decline in the number of boats nationally by 2030. Florida would do better, showing only a 1.4 percent decline, even though its per capita boat ownership rate has been falling faster than the national rate.

Florida has some good things going for it: expected robust population growth through 2030, the growth of young and diverse population segments; and the 42 percent of Florida boaters who are strongly family-oriented and pass their love of boating on to their children.

Yet the state has underperformed in wooing residents to boating. From 2000 to 2012, Florida’s population grew by 20.9 percent, but the number of registered boats grew only 2.9 percent. Florida ranks eighth in population growth, but 17th in the growth of registered boats. “There has not been a commensurate increase in boat ownership,” Fristoe says.

The $75,000 threshold

As glum as these projections look, boating’s future does not have to be one of diminished expectations, Fristoe says. With the right intervention, the national trend could be turned into a 15.4 percent increase in the number of boats, and in Florida the turnabout could be even more dramatic — 35.2 percent growth in boats by 2030.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he says. “You’re facing some headwinds, but they’re not insurmountable.”

The number of adult Americans who have boated numbers 87.8 million, but realistically the pool of potential boat owners probably is about 28 million, or about 9 percent of the population, Fristoe says. That is the number that has participated in boating in some fashion and earns more than $75,000 a year. (Just 14 percent of boaters earn less than $75,000 a year.)

He says that figure seems to be the threshold for a family of four to feel financially secure enough to pursue a range of recreational activities. He notes, too, that half of boaters report a household net worth of $1 million or more, but only 7.4 percent of U.S. households are that well-heeled — a challenge for growing boat sales.

MIASF president Kristina Hebert.

MIASF president Kristina Hebert.

Fristoe estimates the size of the powerboat and sailboat market — the number of registered sailboat and powerboat owners — at 10 million, or 3.2 percent of Americans. The aim of the action plan is to grow that number instead of seeing it shrink.

He says the research shows that 67 percent of first-boating experiences were on a powerboat and that the majority of powerboaters had their first experience at age 10 or younger. The majority of sailors had their first boating experience at 18 or older.

Until about the age of 10, the first experience typically is with family — parents or grandparents; during the teen years that family influence drops off sharply. Friends become more influential in introducing youngsters to boating, and this continues into their 30s and 40s.

“Friend and colleagues are a pathway into the sport,” he says.

Encouraging the sport’s ‘social animals’

The RRC’s psychographic study of the attitudes, interests and opinions of the 3,500 boaters it surveyed provide keys to the levers for growing boat ownership.

Fristoe identifies four groups: the “modest mates,” the 20 percent of boaters who typically are 55 to 64 years old with a modest income, less socially connected and pretty insular in the boating they do; the “family-first” boaters, the 35 percent of boaters, half of whom are 55 to 69 years old, who are very family-oriented and say transmitting the family boating tradition to their children is very important to them; the “social animals,” the 24 percent of boaters who have the youngest profile (44 percent are 45 to 59 years old), tend to be single or divorced with no children, socially connected leaders in their social circle and twice as likely as the other three groups to have influenced 35 or more people to go boating with them; and lastly the “autonomous upper crust,” the 21 percent who have the highest income, but also are the oldest (half are 65 or older). They tend to be unconcerned about sharing their boating with family or friends and are winding down as boaters.

Boating has a strong family orientation, but the study’s conclusions note, “While this is a potential strength, it occurs in the context of shrinking family sizes and high incidence of single-occupied households. … Tapping into the ‘social animal’ profile to leverage growth has potential to grow the industry.”

That’s where AIM president and COO Andrew Clurman sees the study pointing. “Absolutely, activating the ‘social animals’ we’ve identified and encouraging them to bring even more people into the sport than they already do will have a multiplier effect,” he says.

Fristoe says the study also points toward involving younger and more diverse demographic groups — women, Latinos, African Americans — in boating. “Boating makes skiing look ethnically diverse,” he says. “That’s a real problem.”

In any case, he says, the key is to focus on getting existing boaters to introduce more friends and family to boating and to grease the pathways for these new boaters to deepen their involvement in boating and become owners themselves.

“The most important thing [the industry] can do is go out and chase new prospects,” based on targeted, focused research, Fristoe says.

Phase two involves “key stakeholders” refining the model to see how specific interventions can change growth projections and writing an action plan based on that.

“Part of our job [at AIM] is to promote the industries we’re in,” Clurman says. Besides doing the study with MIASF, AIM likely will use the boat shows it produces to create Florida-specific “messaging and programming” to implement the action plan, he says.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association is in the third year of a 10-year industry-funded Grow Boating campaign that includes Discover Boating promotions, advertising, videos and on-water experiences, marina-based Welcome to the Water promotions keyed to National Marina Day and efforts to address education, diversity, affordability and advocacy.

Clurman says the efforts of AIM and the MIASF could dovetail with those of the NMMA. “The research is to inform programs and initiatives that could easily and likely include collaboration with Grow Boating and other programs,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.



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