During the past year, we have all navigated uncharted waters and dynamic change at nearly every turn. It has affected us as individual leaders, as employees and as consumers. These ever-changing conditions are almost certain to continue as the world redefines how it works, lives and plays. Through it all, we have learned that leadership matters and remaining intentional in setting a strategic direction will be more important than ever in the days ahead.
One way NMMA leads is through our programs and services, which are carefully designed to serve the best interests of our members. We stay rooted in our mission — to ensure the growth and success of the recreational boating industry — and vision that recreational boating is the No. 1 leisure activity in America, with a united emphasis on creating transformational experiences for all. And like many who have successfully weathered the pandemic, we ground ourselves in our most important and integrated areas of strategic focus: advocacy and market expansion.
When it comes to these two priorities, the 2021 American Boating Congress in late April could not have come at a more critical time. There is important work to be done on the state and federal levels to move our industry’s priorities forward, including expanding access for recreational boating and outdoor recreation, reversing damaging retaliatory tariffs left over from the last administration’s trade wars, conserving our nation’s lands and waterways, and addressing supply chain and workforce disruptions.
With progress being made on vaccinations and pandemic mitigation efforts, we are slowly beginning to see positive signs of what a post-pandemic life may look like. It’s a world where Americans will work from anywhere, prioritize health and wellness, and enjoy life outside. That is a world where boating can and should thrive — provided there is adequate access.
Boating participation and sales saw explosive increases in 2020. We have also seen a mass migration toward (and millions of new-home purchases in) boating-friendly regions. Once a family relocates to a boating and fishing community, we can safely assume the acquisition of recreational equipment that allows them to participate in the lifestyle will soon follow. These permanent, consumer-driven behavioral shifts, along with the sustained increased interest we’ve seen at dealerships and on Discover Boating social platforms, indicate the industry is well-positioned for growth.
However, there are important components to attracting and retaining more consumers in the boating lifestyle, including building more access points and conserving the access we already have. Last year, during the height of political bickering and the global pandemic, NMMA and our coalition partners at the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable led the way in passing the Great American Outdoors Act. This legislation drives $6 billion in federal spending into backlogged maintenance projects that will modernize aging recreation infrastructure and $900 million per year into creating new access points, such as much-needed boat ramps. We continue to promote market expansion efforts with the new administration by advocating to steer the historic GAOA investment toward boating-industry-specific needs and priorities.
There are obvious benefits to these investments. Outdoor recreation, especially boating and fishing, has played a critical and leading role in holding up the national economy during the pandemic. It’s also notable that recreational boating and fishing makes up the largest portion of the $788 billion outdoor recreation economy. And while our industry experienced its highest sales volume in 13 years last year, these long-overdue infrastructure investments are desperately needed when so many new consumers are heading our way. Expanded access and infrastructure means retaining these new boating participants, more future business and an overall stronger economy.
This message is being heard. In early May, the Biden administration announced a rule that would allow a massive expansion of recreational access in America’s wildlife refuge system — great news for anglers and boaters. The administration also announced that access for recreational boating and fishing would be preserved under their proposal to conserve 30 percent of America’s land and waters by 2030.
We are being heard at the local level, as well. This year, our members faced dozens of state and local attempts to significantly restrict boater access, and we defeated all of them. These threats still exist, but collectively, we are making progress and proactively leading the charge.
If the boating lifestyle is to grow, we must continuously evolve and expand our current pool of customers. This means providing equitable access to boating for all Americans. And as we all know, there remains a tremendous opportunity within this industry to build a more diverse workforce and consumer base. Increasing our efforts in diverse regions to promote easily accessible boating and fishing opportunities will only bring more diversity into our industry and the boating lifestyle.
It has been a year for the history books. One that has certainly tried us all. But there are tremendous signs of hope and opportunity for all of us on the horizon as the country moves toward recovery. Together we can help families, communities and political leaders continuously discover and rediscover the health benefits and economic value of providing access to boaters.
Frank Hugelmeyer is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.