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Key to the future lies in welcoming unfamiliar faces

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It’s not easy to look out 10 or more years and imagine what the boating landscape may look like and how to plan for the major changes, trends and permutations. In today’s topsy-turvy economic environment, it’s difficult enough to forecast 12 months out with any surety.

But it was the long view that the diverse group of 160-some industry executives and leaders focused on when we gathered in Chicago in December for the Recreational Boating Stakeholders Growth Summit.

Like it or not, ready or not, the future is hurtling our way. And summit participants were assured that the makeup of the U.S. population will be far different a decade and more from now by none other than former Census Bureau director Steve Murdock, now a professor at Rice University. The non-Anglo population in the United States is growing rapidly and will represent the majority of people by 2050, according to projections. If there was an ‘aha moment’ in that big meeting room at the Hilton Rosemont hotel, it might have been the recognition of what those major demographic shifts will mean for recreational boating.

Assuming a return to a stable, growing economy, demographics likely will have as significant a long-term impact on the health of our industry as will economics. And that’s a different way of looking at the future.

“Long term, changing demographics and the industry’s ability to adapt to them will be the key determinant of our success,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich says. “The economy will improve eventually. Our ability to adapt to changing demographics is not as assured.”

Success would mean that more of the boaters we serve start to look different from the overwhelmingly white audience in Chicago.

New mantra: It’s the demographics, stupid. And it’s diversification.

“I believe we need a major diversity initiative coming out of the Growth Summit, but that will be for everyone involved to decide,” Dammrich says. “We must show people other than white males and white families in our ads, catalogs, magazines, editorial, video, etc.”

As an industry, we are at something of a tipping point, which gave a certain urgency to the Windy City gathering. Although population trends are not going to reverse themselves, there still is time to forge a successful long-term growth strategy — just not all the time in the world.

“We must act now,” Dammrich says. “We are at a critical juncture, and any delay has long-term implications.”

What do the faces of the future look like?

• Elizabeth is a 36-year-old automation engineer from Connecticut who owns a 32-foot, diesel Down East powerboat. In addition to her day job, she has recently started a marine business selling pink foul-weather bibs to female boaters. “There are a lot of women in recreational fishing,” she told me, “more than you’d think.” She is the future.

• Mario is a Cuban-born American in his 50s living the American dream. House and boat on a canal outside Miami. Another home and boat in the Keys. Well-paying job running a large car dealership. You and I can only hope to fish as well as Mario someday. He is the future.

• Pete, who is north of 80, is a tinkerer, a thinker and an engineer (I am reluctant to say “retired”) from Massachusetts with a passion for boat design, waterjet propulsion and fishing. I was surprised to spot him this fall in the hallways at IBEX in Louisville. He was alone and headed into a seminar on some bit of technical esoterica while I was headed into another. “See you on the island this summer, old sport,” said the tireless Yankee, still looking to the future. The millions of baby boomers following in his wake are the future.

• The sailing program was full of tanned, laughing wet-footed acolytes who’d spent the morning racing, paddling, bailing, swimming and generally becoming indoctrinated in the ways of small boats. They were learning basic skills, but to them it was all about fun. They couldn’t wait to get back the next day. Two dozen more faces of the future.

As we look for ways to drive more people into the wide-mouth portion of the boating participation funnel, we need to diversify, broaden our reach and also keep our current members happily engaged in the sport, including our junior and senior boaters. The Growth Summit was a catalyst, a call to action, a gathering of the tribes not so much for a Kumbaya sing-along, but for a serious examination of where we are and where we’re headed.

“The most significant outcome,” Dammrich says, “was the recognition that we are all in the same boat and we must work together … on a common agenda to grow participation.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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