Marked by a global pandemic, 2020 was a year of resilience, reprioritization and a lot of personal reflection. As an industry, we faced down an unprecedented threat to our very existence, livelihood and companies. Consumers were forced to choose what is most important in the lives of their families, and when it came to their recreational time, the boating lifestyle jumped to the top of the list.
This once-in-a-century pandemic brought into sharper focus the value of our sustained industry investments in advocacy to protect marine businesses, and in the Discover Boating campaign to grow our consumer market share. We have entered an era where long-held beliefs, habits and approaches evolve, which means the most agile companies and industries will be rewarded.
For instance, the initial spring shutdowns in China and across America rattled the global supply chain. Companies large and small were forced to reassess every aspect of their execution and go-forward spend. Material and labor shortages emerged as supply chains were thrown into disarray — first by the quarantine, then by labor shortages.
These disruptions and market conditions forced companies to adapt and innovate. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen suppliers start new product lines, manufacturers find creative ways to replace workers or build missing parts themselves, and dealers revamp their consumer-acquisition strategies.
Like our members, the National Marine Manufacturers Association was forced to adjust. We formed a rapid response team and ramped up Covid-19 relief and communication efforts for the marine industry across the United States and Canada. We assisted companies in remaining open and positioned the industry to quickly rebound. We worked one-on-one with senior executives at member companies to ensure they obtained the government relief they needed, including millions of dollars for marine businesses as part of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. And we advocated for the safe reversal of Covid-related manufacturing and boater access restrictions.
Because of these important advocacy and industry engagement adjustments, boating was open for business. Consumer enjoyment happened in all 50 states just a few weeks following the onset of the pandemic. Few industries can say the same.
And it didn’t stop there. The boating industry needed consumers to know that the water was open. So we partnered with the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas to build a first-of-its-kind, industrywide campaign. This campaign ignited an unprecedented rallying cry and public relations effort that encouraged Americans to take to the water, connect with loved ones, and experience the restorative health, wellness and social-distancing benefits that only boating and fishing can provide.
The “Get On Board” public service campaign amplified our collective voice like never before, reaching more than 1 billion impressions that drove 20 million video views on YouTube and millions of engagements on social media. To date, more than 400 marine industry businesses have helped amplify the message throughout North America.
Together, we helped spur a remarkable shift this summer in how consumers made choices related to recreational spending — whether it’s about time or money. Families yearning for escape, recreation and stress relief took to the water. The varied and meaningful experiences boating offered allowed us to attract new boaters, reel in returning boaters and generate much-needed sales for recreational boating businesses.
Our work doesn’t stop there. In this time of immense change, we all must work hard to position the industry for this redefined future. That means maintaining our momentum as an industry by proactively engaging on policy and regulatory issues of importance, and ensuring that our relationships with the next presidential administration, the U.S. Congress and the Canadian government are strong.
Along with our Outdoor Recreation Roundtable partners, we must steer the investments of the historic recreation legislation known as the Great American Outdoors Act toward recreational boating projects. This act permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually and invests $9.5 billion in outdoor recreation and federal maintenance backlog infrastructure critical to the marine industry. The proper implementation of this act will expand critical access points and repair boat ramps across the country.
Equally critical to future industry growth is our plan to reinvigorate and re-establish NMMA consumer-focused boat shows and Web platforms under one comprehensive and cohesive Discover Boating brand.
We’re creating a new, long-term strategic partnership with the MRAA that sets the stage to expand Discover Boating in the years ahead so that we, as an industry, will continue to be seen and heard like never before. As part of this effort, we will build a unified North American Discover Boating brand and a digital platform that leverages all industry-owned boat shows. The MRAA will create a heightened focus on tools to assist dealers in providing a best-in-class consumer ownership experiences so we can attract and retain next-generation consumers and our new existing ones.
It is also important to recognize that industry sales this year were carried by smaller, more entry-level boats. This experience proved that if we are to broaden the opportunity for more Americans to enjoy the boating lifestyle, manufacturers need to continue to design, build and offer more affordable options. Doing so will ensure that we have a strong pipeline of consumers far into the future.
Finally, we cannot lose sight of what the next generation of consumers expects from our industry, especially the commitment to social responsibility. There is good work happening around durable construction, lean manufacturing and energy efficiencies, and the marine industry can be proud of its groundbreaking efforts related to water quality and sustainable fisheries. But there is significant room for us to innovate around important issues such as renewables, chemicals management, cradle-to-cradle design, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
In this year of great disruption, we saw consumers with more time to spend on safe and distanced enjoyment go boating. We learned that we have a more powerful voice, and that we can grow our market share, by quickly adapting and further uniting as an industry. These valuable lessons will be important to remember as the change in our politics and consumer market continues, and as the intense competition for the consumer’s time and mindshare returns.
As they say, the only constant is change, so let’s embrace it.
Frank Hugelmeyer is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.