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Distilling the idea yield of the Chicago summit

Years ago, when the Grow Boating Task Force was first organized, I complained that its membership was so elitist it resembled the roster of an all-male, all-white, members-only yacht club.

Many of the industry’s top marketers were excluded, and only those with the deepest wallets and largest memberships were invited to play. Many colleagues and I watched from the sidelines — left out of the most exciting marketing initiative ever undertaken in our industry. As a result, I organized Marine Marketers of America so all of us would have a voice.

Fast forward six years.

We’ve all watched the launch of Discover Boating through the engine assessment formula, which generated the money for a marketing campaign to build boating participation. The Grow Boating Task Force hired its ad agencies and PR firms, conducted marketing research and focus groups, launched the boating wave, captured dogs wagging tails in boats in TV spots, and took media on escorted boating trips that generated terrific press coverage.

A comprehensive Discover Boating website was designed, top-notch videos were produced and a resulting flurry of prospect leads was distributed to manufacturers and dealers alike (with mixed results).

Ahhhh, those were the glory days of Discover Boating, when we all basked in the excitement of seeing our products, services and lifestyle captured in living color beneath the glow of a national spotlight. Remember?

After that impressive start, the flailing economy choked much of the life from our campaign’s war chest. Many of those hot-shot execs who previously devoted significant time and attention to Discover Boating activities throttled back as they worked to salvage their own companies. That was understandable. What didn’t make sense was when the engine accruals flagged specifically for Grow Boating were diverted for a time back to manufacturers to do their own marketing. That was a monumental mistake. Many simply used the funds to prop up their own bottom lines at the expense of the national campaign.

Remember, too, that the original plan had leveraged the healthy sales of a much larger fleet of new boats (with their respective engine assessments) to underwrite the marketing campaign. Compared with the less-than stellar new-boat production figures of the recent past, it’s no surprise that the Grow Boating crew had to severely slash its spending.

Although I’m the first to criticize where I think it’s appropriate, I also believe in giving credit where it’s due. First, kudos to the MRAA for fighting to restore the engine assessment money to the marketing campaign where it belongs. Second, the NMMA — its marketing staff, in particular — deserves recognition for rolling up their sleeves and stretching the few available dollars to launch guerrilla-style grassroots marketing tactics that kept Discover Boating afloat. Aggressive and inexpensive social media and PR efforts were put into play, with some impressive results and ROI.

It would have been easy to simply have shelved the program, but thanks to the work of those mentioned and others, it survived. And now a new rallying cry has been sounded for a repackaged marketing initiative.

Good news: That original elitist mentality has now swung 180 degrees, replaced by an embrace of the industry at large. It appears that an important lesson was learned: A more inclusive, all-industry approach is needed to rejuvenate and sustain a successful marketing effort.

Some 200 industry stakeholders were invited in December to attend the Recreational Boating Stakeholders Growth Summit in Chicago. I was pleased to have been invited, but had to decline because of the pre-holiday timing and the $1,000 travel and accommodations outlay that I simply couldn’t justify.

An advance survey was sent to all participants to help direct the discussion. The stated purpose of the summit was to “develop a shared commitment to collaborate for results” across all sectors. Expected outcomes included defining the issues, identifying themes for success in the decade reaching to 2021, defining priority challenges and related joint actions, developing specific commitments to engage in next steps and a clear process for continued post-summit discussion. What a herculean undertaking for this crowd in just two days.

However, a summit facilitation team from the Florida State University Consensus Center was hired to manage the process and reportedly did an excellent job of keeping the agenda focused and the pace brisk.

One attendee described the program as “brutally focused,” while another called it “highly intense.” But the handful I spoke with agreed that a mountain of relevant topics was addressed and lots of valuable insight gleaned. The bulk of the time involved cross-segment teams who were paired at pre-assigned tables to brainstorm a broad mix of topics that emerged from the pre-event survey.

The sheer amount of commentary is stunning. Grow Boating chairman Joe Lewis says one tabletop session alone generated 30 printed pages of feedback. I’d hate to be the person tasked with managing the findings.

How do you drill down this volume of data and organize it in some digestible, usable fashion? How do you determine the next step in the process? I would recommend that a smaller task force representing all segments be organized and elected by their peers.

What about the governance of the resulting process? There are some who think a totally new organization should be formed, while others propose that Grow Boating Inc. remain at the helm. Please explain why a new group is needed when the current machine is well organized with a board in place, representing a cross-section of industry players.

I’ve heard some rumblings that the NMMA should play a reduced role. Its role should be reviewed, as should those of all organizations, to avoid any conflict of interest. Truthfully, however, I shudder to think what would have happened to Discover Boating without the NMMA’s and MRAA’s joint efforts and resources. Let’s hope whoever is navigating this ship is careful not to forfeit all of the experience that has been harnessed for the sake of change alone or for some misguided political agenda.

Without knowing all of the summit outcomes, I have a few initial thoughts. First, I applaud the effort to continue marketing the boating lifestyle; it is not only needed, but also fundamental to our industry’s long-term survival. This new effort encompasses a 10-year strategy, which is smart. We need a plan; we need a committed leadership team and an organized superstructure; we need a working funding mechanism that is equitable across all sectors; and we must adopt an attitude of staying power, regardless of what good or bad news the economy dishes out.

We also need much better industry communication. The current Grow Boating and Welcome to the Water website ( offers a plethora of super marketing tools that are available now, but few seem to know about it or take advantage of the available resources. If you haven’t done so yet, check it out. We need to use every communication channel available to pound the messages and tools as they are developed.

In conclusion, I’m eager to study the full summit findings and to hear the subsequent action plan. Although I know there are some who are watching with a jaundiced eye, and others already predicting funding controversy, I hope we can make a conscientious effort to focus on the real goal of increasing boating participation and not get tripped up by past failures or setbacks. It’s a new day, and there sure seems to be some strong momentum building with a whole lot of powerful industry horsepower engaged.

I’m all in — and I hope you are, too.

Wanda Kenton Smith is an award-winning, 31-year marine industry marketing veteran based in Destin, Fla. She is president of Kenton Smith Marketing (www.kenton and president of Marine Marketers of America. She also edits two online sailing publications.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.



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