Q&A Frank Peterson, CEO, RBFF

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Frank Peterson joined the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation in February 2007. As CEO, he manages all aspects of RBFF operations and assumes responsibility for meeting the strategic goals set by the foundation's leadership.

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Peterson, who is 57, brings 20 years of expertise in business development to the organization. Prior to joining RBFF, he was vice president and general manager of Marketing General Inc., a consultant agency for professional, trade and special-

interest associations. He also held a variety of management positions at ExxonMobil. In addition, Peterson has launched two successful businesses of his own: Catalyst Communications, which specialized in advertising and marketing communications for industry membership and trade associations, and The Peterson Group, a consultant agency for oil industry retailers and trade associations.

He has a master's degree in business administration from Pepperdine University and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Mercy College. Growing up in New York, Peterson learned to fish for striped bass in the Hudson River. Now a Virginia resident, he still fishes for stripers, or rockfish as they're called in that region. He and his wife, Marlene, have three children.

Q: You've said that when you came on board at RBFF some stakeholders said the "B" in RBFF was missing. Did you agree, and what have you been doing to change that perception?

A: I did agree with some of it. I think if you just take a look at our brand names, "Take Me Fishing" and "Angler's Legacy," where does boating fit into all of that? However, I also think part of it was a communication problem on RBFF's behalf. Our communications mainly focused on consumers and getting the message out to consumers, with very little emphasis on keeping our stakeholders involved in the process. So one of the first changes we made here was to realize that the stakeholders in RBFF are key to our success in the future, because it's through their efforts that we even exist in the first place - the excise taxes on fishing equipment, the excise taxes on motor boat fuel and all that stuff that funds the Sport Fish Restoration Fund, of which we are a part of. So we really need to keep them involved and engaged and keep our fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the various industries.

I think it was not doing enough, and what we were doing [was] not communicating enough. So I think we've tried to change both of those over the last couple of years and get them involved. For example, when we hired our new ad agency to help us put together the great new Web site that we launched last year and the great new campaign, there were over 30 stakeholders from both the boating and the fishing side that were involved in that process. We looked at I don't know how many proposals and how many presentations to come up with the company we chose.

Q: Why is it important for fishing and boating stakeholders to work together?

A: I think it's a symbiotic relationship between the two. One of the challenges that I also noticed when I came on board here is there were a lot of different organizations involved in the boating and fishing industries, and all of them had great ideas, but all of them seemed to be working as individual organizations. I think there's more power in collaborating and building consensus and working together where you can.

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We don't get involved in any kind of lobbying efforts or anything like that; our stakeholders do. But making sure that we are all working together on issues like access [is important]. Maybe now, today, it's not as important, because you have so many other things that are taking the forefront, like financial problems and economics, but before this downturn, access was a major issue for both fisherman and boaters. If you can't get out on the water, you're not going to be able to participate in any activity. So working together on those types of issues I think is very, very important.

Q: Did you ever hear any resentment from the fishing stakeholders that too much emphasis was being placed on boating?

A: I really haven't heard that too much. I think the initial issues around that were more focused on the fact that our brands really didn't reflect boating as much as they should. For example, some of the original ads, as heart-tugging as they were, some of them didn't contain boats. If you're going to represent "where fishing and boating take place together" your imagery, your ads, your Web site, everything you do has to show both, and I think that is one thing we have done with this new campaign.

The other thing is we're really focusing on getting people to participate in the sport. One of the great things about this new campaign, when we took a look at our evaluation this year, the intent to participate in both activities was way up in comparison to the old campaign. In my mind, it was more motivational; it did something that got people to react better with respect to trying to actually do what's being portrayed in the ads and on the Web site. I think that was a positive change.

It's really a balancing act. And there's a third leg to the stool we have here, and that's the state fish and wildlife agencies. We really represent the fishing industry, the boating industry and the states. The states are where it kind of comes together, in buying your licenses and permits for boating [and fishing] and having the access points, so all three of them work together.

Q: Can you talk about the Angler's Legacy program and how it helps boating?

A: The Angler's Legacy program is pretty simple. It's to try to motivate the avid angler - of which there are 7 million to 8 million of them, according to statistics in this country - to introduce fishing and boating to one new person. I say fishing and boating because [of] our Angler's Legacy ambassadors - right now there are 120,000 of them - almost 80 percent of them have boats. There's tremendously high usage of boats.

So we really believe that it can affect boating because, No. 1, these people are boaters and No. 2, they're introducing 4.4 people on average to the sport. If 70 to 80 percent of them have boats, where are these fishing adventures taking place? On a boat. I think the best way to get somebody interested in fishing and boating is to get them out there on the water doing that.

In addition to that, for these 4.4 trips, the ambassadors and their buddies are purchasing about $140 in fishing equipment and about $150 in boating accessories and fuel and things of that nature.

The big thing about this program is it has grown from 974 ambassadors in 2007 to 120,000 today. We've been able to quantify both the impact on participation and the impact on fishing equipment and boating accessories and fuel. How does it help the industry? It gets people out on the water and introduces them to the lifestyle and let's them have fun.

Just this year we launched the first quarterly newsletter. One of the first features of the newsletter was how to get your boat ready for the upcoming season, and each month we have tips, suggestions and articles from pros. We try to encompass boating and fishing in those newsletters, and it's something we're looking forward to growing. There's no reason why we can't have 1 million ambassadors down the road.

Q: RBFF has been proactive in keeping its Web site updated and fresh, as well as using social networking through its "Fishington" site to keep people connected. Why do you think this is     important?

A: Fishing and boating are interests that people share and are passionate about, and we wanted to use this new media to create more buzz and more awareness and more participation in the sport. A lot of social networking sites don't have the backbone of information that we have on TakeMeFishing.org.

Fishington is just another marketing piece that we can use to drive traffic to that Web site. The Web site is the cornerstone of everything we do, and we try to use a variety of different media to drive people there.

That was one of the shortfalls of the old campaign. There was really no call to action - what do you want people to do when they see that ad, some very basic marketing fundamentals. If you go back to look at the original reason we were created, it's to educate the consumer about the benefits of boating and fishing and to increase participation. How do you do that? You need something that is available not when you want people to see it but when they want to see it.

The growth of the Internet, the growth of Web sites, the growth of that whole media has really afforded us the opportunity to have a world-class site that's 24-7, 365. I say that all the time. Whenever the user wants to use it, if it's 3 a.m., 5 a.m., whatever, it's there. By the way, lunchtime is one of the highest use times.

In '06 it had 300,000 visits, today 3 million, in the [fiscal] year that just ended March 31. We have 15 to 20 percent growth models. I said on the "Mike and Mike" [sports] show at the Bassmaster Classic a couple of months back that I'd like to see 12 million visitors in three years. I think we can do that if we continue to keep the content fresh - content is key.

If nothing new is added - like the social networking part, like the boating content we just added in April - people will not come back. Twenty percent of our visits are from repeat visitors, which is up tremendously from where it used to be. It used to be one-and-done. Getting people to come back is as important as getting new folks to the site.

Q: You identify areas of public access on your site, and it must be a huge undertaking to keep it current. How do you do this, and why is it important to include this information?

A: We want to reduce every barrier possible for people to be able to get out on the water. We don't want anything to stand in their way, and the most important thing we can do is impart knowledge of where those access points are in their local community.

It started with my predecessor here, and they started a project where they cataloged sites by using the Web as a tool to go find these places. The states have these access points available. Unfortunately, they're buried inside Web sites that may or may not get the traffic, and may or may not be easy to navigate. So we're going to work with our state partners to catalog and gather this information.

We've already started the project. We put a matrix together. When we started out we had 25 data sets for every access point in the country. To accommodate some of the different information the states and our partners have, it's up to 64 different data sets.

That doesn't mean that every access point we catalog is going to have 64 pieces of information associated with it, but it could have up to that amount. It depends on what the individual states are collecting - everything from boat ramps to restrooms to food to bait to hours of operation. We're starting in the Northeast region with 13 states, and we're going to work our way around the country. Our goal by the end of March of next year is to have this information cataloged for 33 of the 50 states.

It's important because it will allow people to go to one place to [view] access points. What the state is going to get back is going to be a module for their state, where everything will be mapped and cataloged, and they can just plug and play into their Web sites. So if you go to the state of Massachusetts Web site, or TakeMeFishing.org, hopefully you'll find the same information in the same format. The states have said they will help us maintain that, because once we build it, all they'll have to do on a periodic basis is go in and add and subtract, which will be a lot easier than doing it from scratch.

I think the other thing is it can show us where we have some holes. Right now we don't know because we don't have all the information in one place. I think it will become a very good resource to determine where we might need other access points.

Q: This year you partnered with Oregon to help improve boater registration renewals and had success with the program.  How did this come about, and will you be working with any other states in the future?

A: We had been running a series of pilot programs around lapsed fishing licenses, and as a result we rolled out a nationwide program to 30 states where we brought back 225,000 lapsed anglers - people who had not had a license the year before - to actually buy a license. It generated over $4 million in revenue to those 30 states. We're continuing with that program.

So a light bulb went off and we said, hey, if people let their fishing license lapse, we also know through data that people don't register their boats, and they don't necessarily sell those boats. Those boats may be sitting in a garage or in the back yard or someplace else. What the states normally do on boat registrations that they don't do on fishing licenses, they usually have a renewal program the first year where they'll remind that boat owner to reregister their boat. But it's kind of a generic thing, like what you would get from the DMV when you renew your license. It's not a marketing-oriented piece; it doesn't tell you the benefit to doing that; it doesn't tell you what the money is used for or anything else.

So the approach we're taking with these 18,000 folks in Oregon, who we know still own their boats but have not registered them, is we're trying to make a more compelling marketing message on why they should spend their $60-some dollars to register that boat; and where the money goes and how it directly impacts the life of boaters, how it builds access ramps, how it builds parking lots, and all the benefits of it.

In addition, as part of the test, we're also cross-referencing from people who have a fishing license but haven't registered their boat, talking about the great fishing opportunities that exist with their boat.

That is just dropping here, in April, and we will have results very shortly. And we are looking to expand that for other states that have good data and are willing to work with us.

Q: In talking with dealers around the country, we often hear that anglers will be the last people to stop buying boats - they will always fish. Do you agree?

A: I always liken to this: When you don't have a boat you're casting out; when you have a boat you're casting into shore. I think fishing is better in a boat. It allows you to get into more places where the fish are. To get to the places where the fish are, it's part of the journey, it's part of the trip - part of the essential things that you need.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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