As one of the most eventful and turbulent years in recent history comes to a close, enormous cultural, business and political shifts have taken place across every industry. Through my lens as president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, I’ll be the first to admit that the boating industry has fared far better than many others during the volatility that defined much of 2020. Yet given the expectation of continued uncertainty, we would be remiss not to look toward the 2021 landscape with anticipation of the potential opportunities and additional challenges ahead.
Above all else, the most defining development for our industry and the broader business community during the past year was a fundamental shift in longtime consumer trends, triggered by the advent of widespread remote work, a work-from-anywhere culture and the pursuit of social distancing. With greater flexibility in how Americans choose to work and play, we have seen a dramatic movement toward cities with regional economies centered on the outdoor recreation lifestyle. People increasingly are showing a desire to surround themselves with outdoor recreation opportunities, and this growth is driving economic activity in recreation industries and many of the smaller, coastal communities across the country.
While our current crisis gave rise to this consumer evolution, we expect that for many people, the lifestyle trends will outlive the pandemic. As Americans come to realize the immense value of spending time outdoors with their loved ones, quality of life will become a more important factor for families to prioritize. With boating as a signature quality of life industry, this shift has meant an unexpected level of growth that has buoyed our businesses throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, the outdoor recreation industry — of which boating and fishing continue to contribute the greatest share of economic impact — is one of the few sectors that was growing prior to, and that has remained strong during, the pandemic. The latest data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis shows outdoor recreation’s powerful and positive economic impact on the U.S. economy, with $788 billion in economic output comprising 2.1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and supporting 5.2 million jobs.
The remarkable business growth we have sustained as an industry also would not have been possible without the relationships we established in the White House and U.S. Congress. With the transition to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, our advocacy work will remain particularly top of mind for the NMMA and our members. Especially as new boat buyers continue to enter the market, we will work to build bonds with the Biden administration to advance a strong pro-business agenda that supports a recreation-based economy for our members and stakeholders.
We’re also optimistic that the policy issues affecting the outdoor recreation community will continue to resonate with both sides of the political aisle. We already saw under the administration of President Trump how outdoor recreation remained a uniquely bipartisan topic, with Democrats and Republicans alike recognizing its value and coming together to pass legislation such as the historic Great American Outdoors Act. Despite ongoing gridlock in Congress, outdoor recreation remains an area we are confident will garner support across the board.
Another area where the boating industry is excited to get in early with the Biden administration is correcting trade challenges of the recent past. The continued loss of European market share from trade battles has hurt many U.S. manufacturers. Tariffs on hundreds of commonly used components, materials and parts from China have been compounded by supply chain disruptions from lockdowns, a combination that has hindered our ability to meet unprecedented demand during the pandemic. The NMMA will help facilitate the creation of new trade policies that can repair our trade relationships and help our companies keep pace with this growth.
But our advocacy work next year will not stop in Washington, D.C. Access initiatives at the state level have been a growing focus for many of our members, and we expect those initiatives to take a spotlight in the coming year and beyond. Recreational boaters and anglers have worked hard to protect access to our public lands and waters for future generations, but there is more work to do. This year, we intend to steer hundreds of millions of dollars of newly available state grant funds toward boating access projects, proactively address growing access threats to inland waterways, and continue to work with our partners on longer game and fish seasons.
As an industry, we are also making sure the outdoor recreation lifestyle is more accessible to all in the coming years. We have begun to see a shift toward a more diverse set of boat buyers, including more females and millennials.
For the first quarter of 2021, the absence of most boat shows will require an adjustment to find new sources of direct marketing and virtually generated sales. This is where Discover Boating comes in. The 2020 merger of Grow Boating into the NMMA provides the foundation for our three-year strategic plan to integrate Discover Boating with NMMA boat shows. Combining the power of these industry-owned assets enables us to amplify recreational boating’s voice, drive increased ROI to Discover Boating and boat shows, and position us to grow the industry. This capability means that when boat shows do return, they will come back stronger than ever and will be integral in attracting and educating new consumers, driving sales and highlighting our advocacy efforts.
This integrated approach will also allow us to have a more dynamic footing coming out of the pandemic, positioning that will be particularly important as prepandemic ways of life begin to return and we see increased competition for consumers’ time and attention.
While 2020 has been a year full of turbulence, positive opportunities have emerged as silver linings for the outdoor recreation community heading into 2021. Although the unpredictability is unlikely to vanish in the new year, one thing is certain: Recreational boating and fishing are well-equipped to hit the ground and water running in 2021 and beyond.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.