Plotting a course into unfamiliar waters

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Like crew aboard a ship about to get under way, you could feel the thrum and vibration as the diesels were started and then idled for a period. After the tugs eased her into the channel, the ship slowly picked up speed and gathered momentum.

It’s not easy to move an entire industry, but that was the goal of the crew who were mustered in Chicago last week for the first Recreational Boating Stakeholder Growth Summit. It’s sort of like maneuvering a great ship down a narrow channel for open waters.

There was the sense during the two-day meeting that this was a pivotal moment for the industry, that time was running short and that everyone was going to have to put a shoulder to the issues of today and tomorrow to move the collective wheel forward. Collaboration was in the air. Tough times and a forecast for continued unsettled weather is sometimes the right environment in which to initiate broad change.

The goal is to come up with a shared vision and strategy for growing recreational boating during the next 10 years, one that will address the many and varied hurdles we face.

“We need to take a long-term view,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich told the audience of about 160 industry leaders and representatives from a broad spectrum of recreational boating. “We’re looking out 10 years. What can we do to change the course?”

The challenges run the gamut, from boating access to declining registrations to the cost of boating. And they include a trend over which we have little control but one that likely will have a profound impact on our future: the changing demographics of the country.

The current demographic of boating is overwhelmingly white and middle-aged, which just happens to be the fastest-shrinking portion of the U.S. population. “The boating population is getting older faster than the general population,” Dammrich told the audience.

Moving forward, we either do a better job of attracting a younger, more diverse audience, one that more closely mirrors the broader shifts taking place in the U.S. population, or we wind up fighting over a smaller and smaller pie.

That point was driven home in a clear-eyed presentation by Steve Murdock, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Rice University and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The makeup of the country is changing dramatically — the largest increase will be in the Hispanic population — and boating will have to change with it to have any hopes of growing.

“The future of boating does not look like us,” one participant remarked, “and we have to get that through our thick heads.”

The two-day summit was hosted by the NMMA, and the sessions were guided by the Consensus Center from Florida State University. Detailed surveys that participants filled out before the summit helped establish four main “vision statements,” which attendees then discussed and helped flesh out in small working groups in Chicago. Action plans to address key challenges were developed and prioritized from those efforts. (The presentations and survey results can be found by clicking here.)

During the next six weeks the Consensus Center will produce a report of the action items and focus areas the group agreed on, and it will be a blueprint of sorts for moving forward.

The industry needs our best ideas and our best efforts. “Don’t let what you know limit what you imagine,” Dammrich told the gathering before it got down to work. He later reminded everyone how much can be accomplished when you’re not concerned about who gets credit. Good advice.

We left Chicago, as Dammrich pointed out, in agreement that we had to work on a plan — not with a plan. In other words, we got the engines on the big ship warmed up and broke out the charts, dividers and parallel rulers. We know the general direction. Now we have to plot the course.

Look for a full report on the growth summit in the next issue of Soundings Trade Only.

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