Are millennials really the future of boating?

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It’s official. Millennials, those 18-to-34-year-olds, now exceed baby boomers as the nation’s largest population group. It’s a demographic that boating needs to attract if we’re to see serious growth in the foreseeable future.

The question is: can we reach them? The answer is complicated.

Some facts: Millennials number 83.1 million. That’s now more than one-quarter of the nation’s population. They exceed the 75.4 million baby boomers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That said, however, millennials are also far more diverse than any previous generation in history with 44.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group (meaning other than non-Hispanic, single-race white).

Boasting such enormous numbers, we might assume boating can cruise into high growth just targeting that market. But we’re still speculating about millennials. Exactly who are they? Are they really different from other groups? How can we best reach them? Like I said, it’s complicated.

We do know, for example, that too many millennials are already burdened with student debt (averaging nearly $30,000). They are also struggling to afford their first homes, made even more difficult by today’s rising prices in many locations. Surveys show most Americans under age 35 don’t have enough savings for a down payment. In fact, one study reports 37 percent of millennials haven’t saved a dime toward a down payment.

Moreover, the oldest of this generation are still some years away from reaching their prime earnings years. Right now, the older ones are having kids and facing the costs and time demands (soccer, baseball, gymnastics, etc.) associated with a growing family. (Younger ones are likely still earning costly degrees.) Add to that the debt burdens being heaped on them by carmakers these days.

I’m referring to the aggressive leasing and financing tactics by automakers that, frankly, look like a repeat of the same things that led to huge losses and bailouts a decade ago. It appears to many experts that the car companies, aiming to maintain last year’s record sales, are now bloating dealer inventories and, in many cases, saddling millennials with loans stretched out over longer periods (73 to 84 months) or lease terms that could, if the economy sours, leave the automakers with huge losses (as in 2008) when the leased cars come back.

Clearly, none of the problems facing millennials are particularly good news for selling them boats. So it might beg the question: should we be spending any resources trying to reach them now?

The good news is the glass is half full. Fortunately, studies that produce these kinds of disappointing statistics only reflect averages. It means that while many, possibly even the majority of, millennials are not able to be boat buyers, we aren’t seeking the majority. We really only need to attract a fraction of them.

Let’s face it — while we like to portray our sport as big by touting the number of people who go boating each year (arguably the best measure of total human impact), the truth is only a small minority of Americans actually own boats. It brings to mind a speech by former Brunswick CEO Dustan E. McCoy, in which he noted that if boating were to suddenly get just 1 percent more of the population to buy, we couldn’t build the boats to fill demand.

So, actually, what would satisfy us is only an incremental portion of the 83 million millennials and that’s certainly doable. Looking at the years ahead, as this huge demographic moves into its peak earnings years, it should generate a steady growth for boating for a span of 16 years or more.

Finally, for dealers interested in developing relationships with today’s millennials, a survey by the market research firm, First Insight, indicates the best way to reach them is via email. Yes, email. More than 40 percent of millennials said they prefer email over social media (5 percent) and texts (2 percent).

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