“When I was hired, I had no marine industry experience,” says Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey. “I came from the hotel industry and had no idea how to run an association. I started to set up meetings with important people to ask what they did and what I was supposed to do.”
Seeking information, finding answers and establishing relationships was the start of Danko’s training as a leader. These skills have been a trademark of her tenure. She learns what association members need, finds answers for them, then gets the word out.
“Communication is always important to me,” she says. “In a crisis, I don’t try to be a good communicator; I try to be a great communicator in terms of getting out the information that our members need.”
When Sandy blasted the New Jersey shore in the fall of 2012 as one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history, Danko found herself at ground zero with many association member businesses literally shipwrecked. Uncertain at first about what to do, Danko soon realized her job was to help members get the information they needed and to be an advocate for the industry by making government agencies realize the scale of the destruction and persuade them to provide funding and support.
First, Danko and her only staff member called each of the association’s 300-plus members to learn what happened and what they needed. Armed with that data, Danko leveraged her relationships to reach government agencies for support, such as emergency authorizations for permitting relief in rebuilding docks and dredging. One key call was to the state’s Economic Development Agency, where Danko had a contact who was able to give federal agency representatives a tour of the devastated shoreline — showing them that marinas were not well-funded yacht clubs, but instead were small businesses in desperate shape.
Sandy also taught Danko the value of creating, consolidating and integrating critical information about boating, the industry, its condition and its value. She gathered that information on the association’s website and used it in a steady flow of emails, calls, meetings, workshops and media outreach.
Danko keeps a two-page list of bullet points describing the association’s Sandy recovery and relief efforts — and every point is focused on generating or communicating vital information. That information includes assessment surveys, economic analyses, state and federal administrator lobby efforts and a Go Boating NJ campaign.
Although the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic bore some similarities to Sandy in terms of what members needed, Danko quickly learned there were differences. For starters, Covid hasn’t gone away. “Sandy was a storm. She came in, destroyed everything, and then we were in recovery mode,” Danko says.
When the pandemic began, Danko got “tons of calls from members, boat owners and even some employees of members — something we’ve never dealt with before.” Providing answers was also different, she says, because this was a public health issue where a wrong answer could lead to a future death. Accuracy was paramount.
The other big difference is that more members were online and reading emails during the pandemic than after Sandy, when widespread power outages lasted for days and weeks. This time around, Danko could email every member directly to be sure they knew what the association was doing and to direct them to the website. As with Sandy, Danko established a situation-specific resources section on the site, this time focused on Covid-19.
Taxes, Budgets and New boaters
The association led an effort in 2015 to cap sales taxes on boats in New Jersey, similar to what several other states had done to keep boaters buying and keeping boats in-state. Danko engaged lobbyist Rob Nixon, who found a shore-district sponsor for a bill that was introduced and passed in the same year.
Then in 2020, as part of a larger bill to balance the state budget, legislation was introduced to remove the cap.
“We were directly involved in the original effort and the most recent effort to repeal it,” Danko says. “In fact, I worked hours upon hours both times, with this one being even more challenging as it hit in the middle of Covid. Rob and his work with contacts in the Legislature was critical and effective both times.
“This time around, we immediately prepared information and facts, met [over the phone] with key legislators — the sponsor of the bill, Senate president, governor’s office, et cetera. We also organized our members in a successful grassroots effort and engaged our national partners.”
In tandem with the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, and the Association of Marina Industries, Danko’s efforts led New Jersey’s governor to leave the cap on sales taxes in place.
Like New Jersey, the association itself is budget-challenged during the pandemic, and Danko enters 2021 with revenue down 25 percent because of boat-show and event-sponsorship cancellations. New sponsorship programs and other initiatives aim to close the gap, but with winter shows uncertain, revenues could fall farther.
“I think every day about getting through Covid,” Danko says. “It’s been, financially, incredibly stressful. Thankfully, our members had a great season, and I am super excited about all the new boaters we have. … I can think of six or seven new boaters right here in my town. Now we have to make sure that they stay.”
Danko’s plan includes giving members tools and resources to raise awareness and making sure they realize their important role in continuing to help newer customers.
As the year turns to 2021, what seems certain is that Danko will continue to communicate relentlessly, sharing information in member emails every week. And her 21-member board of directors will hear from her almost every day. “I’ve done that from the beginning,” she says.
At the same time, Danko wants to avoid getting set in her ways. She networks and trades ideas with heads of other marine trade associations who she says have been a lifeline to talk with throughout the pandemic.
“Work hard and work smart,” she says. “Don’t ever give up. And most important, always lead and work with integrity. I look to people I can trust and I have respect for. I want to be that same person.”
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.