The long-term growth of the industry remains the No. 1 focus of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council.
The group met the day before ABC got under way to discuss six key initiatives that a 2011 Growth Summit identified as critical to the future health of the industry. The leadership council was created during a series of three Growth Summits that the industry has held during the past two years and is tasked with game-planning growth toward the consensus “vision” of what boating will look like 10 years over the horizon.
This was the first meeting of the leadership council as a whole, which had met and discussed the issues separately among the six committees assigned to each long-term initiative. The more than 30 participants at the RBLC meeting represent a broad spectrum of the industry, including associations, dealerships, marinas and manufacturers.
“We had a 10-year vision of what boating would look like in 2021,” says Matt Gruhn, chairman of the leadership council and president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “We started to make progress on the goals, but we still have a long way to go.”
NMMA president Thom Dammrich is secretary of the leadership council and Westrec Marinas vice president Jim Frye is vice chairman.
The six initiative areas are advocacy, marketing, education, diversity, youth and affordability. Committee chairmen for each of the six efforts provided updates about their group’s progress for implementing growth plans, prompting spirited and frank discussions lasting upward of 30 minutes.
Dammrich, who is on the advocacy committee, stressed that strength in industry advocacy will come from presenting policy-makers with a unified voice, regardless of what segment of the industry members come from. “We need to bring the entire industry together to make it an efficient engine,” he told the council.
An early topic of discussion was E15 and two pending bills that would stop or slow its implementation. BoatUS president Margaret Podlich says the industry has made great strides in educating members of Congress about the critical issue. “Go back five years — the concept that ethanol might not be good for engines could not penetrate the Beltway,” she says. “Now they know that ethanol has significant problems for engines at higher blends and are considering a change.”
The NMMA supports two bills: HR 1462, which would cap ethanol in gasoline at 10 percent, and HR 875, which would repeal the EPA’s waiver approving the sale of E15 until the agency seeks an independent scientific analysis to explore the harmful effects of the fuel blend.
Carl Blackwell, the NMMA’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, gave a presentation on behalf of the marketing committee. “Fun is our competitive advantage,” he said, noting that the leading “takeaway” from viewers of the lifestyle videos from the NMMA’s Welcome to the Water campaign was just that, “fun,” with 67 percent of viewers using the word as their description. “It’s not rocket science. We’re selling boats. We’re not selling Dove soap.”
Blackwell says the Discover Boating marketing campaign is targeting a more diverse audience than the current boating community, “one that is more representative of U.S. population demographics.”
Diversity committee chairman Dammrich noted that the country’s growing minority population holds significant potential for sales growth. “We have nearly 16 million African-American, Asian and Hispanic households in this country with household income over $50,000 and nearly 6 million over $100,000,” Dammrich says. “We don’t have to get a lot — 1 percent would be 60,000 — to have a big impact on selling boats.” The key is giving members of minority households exposure to and experience in recreational boating, he says.
Jon Kukuk, owner of Nestegg Marine in Marinette, Wis., and chairman of the Wisconsin Marina Association, heads the leadership council’s education committee. He noted that only two-thirds of boaters nationwide take some form of education course. “We have work to do there.” Kukuk says his committee is looking into ways to increase education — including hands-on, on-the-water training, which many in the industry believe is key to growing the sport — whether the consumer pays for it or dealers who see the expense as money well spent when it comes to sales do so. “If we can get dealers to buy into education as a means to spur sales, we may see boat education take off,” he says.
Youth committee co-chairmen George Harris, Northwest Marine Trades Association president and CEO, and Sea Scouts national director Keith Christopher reported that their committee is building a national database on youth boating programs. Harris called on all members of the industry to contribute program suggestions based on their local knowledge. With a comprehensive database, the committee then plans to develop ways to promote the diverse collection of programs nationally. They typically have little or no marketing budget.
Affordability committee co-chairman Jim Coburn, managing partner at Coburn & Associates, said his group is discussing strategies for getting a better understanding of boat buyers’ habits, with a focus on key entry points for the new- and used-boat markets. These include the potential for added buyer/owner education, greater transparency by developing an “actual cost of boating” database and promotion of the lifestyle by the industry and boat owners. “It’s clear to us that the affordability issue ties to everything we’ve talked about here today,” Coburn said.
The leadership council tentatively agreed to meet again in December at a location to be determined.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.