Q&A with Josh Adams, Sail America president - Trade Only Today

Q&A with Josh Adams, Sail America president

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Josh Adams was recently elected president of Sail America, the sailing industry’s trade association. Adams, 40, is the publisher of Sail magazine, which is owned by Soundings Trade Only’s parent company, Active Interest Media. He joined Sail as an editor in 1996 and was named publisher in 2006.

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An accomplished sailor, Adams was a three-time collegiate All-American at Tufts University, a past member of the U.S. sailing team and a member of the 1999 America’s Cup challenger Young America. After graduating from Tufts in 1994 he conducted an Olympic sailing campaign in the 470 class from 1993-1996.

Adams, his wife and their two young boys live in Essex, Mass. A lifelong sailor, as well as an avid runner and surfer, he enjoys teaching his sons about boats and the water.

Q: Congratulations on being elected president of Sail America. What are your plans and goals for the association?

A: As president of Sail America you’re surrounded by a pretty exceptional team. It’s a volunteer board of directors that [is made up of] leaders in the sailing market across all segments of the industry and a really hard-working and efficient staff that’s led by Jonathan Banks. They’re all tops in the industry and it’s a pleasure to be working with them.

Our goals going forward are to excel at three things because Sail America works best when it’s an industry advocate, a business resource and a marketer of the sailing lifestyle. In the coming months and years, we’re going to be doing some specific things to execute on all three of those.

We have a number of initiatives in the works right now, in early 2012, and top among our strategic priorities is to recommit Sail America to the marketing of sailing. It’s something that we need to do a better job at as a trade organization and we will, for starters, with a new website that our marketing committee has been working on. This will be a pretty all-encompassing website that represents the sailing industry and does a good job of connecting consumers to the industry and to sailing. That’s one specific project that is in the works. Development is starting now and will be happening this spring.

A second example of our recommitment to the marketing of sailing is a video that we have produced for Discover Sailing that will be released shortly for use by our membership.

As an example of how Sail America can be a positive business resource to our membership, this June (June 25-27), we’re hosting our third sailing industry conference in Newport, R.I., and we’re timing it with the America’s Cup World Series. We’ve held two of these. They’ve been very successful. We bring in people across the country and across the sailing industry, and we offer up a variety of seminars and bring in a deep cast of experts. Since most of our membership is made up of small businesses, we try to give them real practical business tools they can apply immediately to their organizations.

Q: Can you talk about the state of the sailing industry in 2012? Is the industry healthy?

A: The state of the sailing industry pretty much reflects what is going on in the broad marine market at the moment. All indications [are] that we will continue to be slow. If sailing has proven anything over the last three years, it’s that it has staying power. But we do anticipate a continued slow recovery.

It also depends on the segment of the market. Some segments of the sailing market have withstood this downturn better than others. The highest-profile part of the market that has dealt with a big setback has been new-boat sales, and that’s obviously a big engine for our industry. But we’ve seen that the manufacturers that have committed to innovation and new product have been persevering and doing better than others, and the dealers who were either prepared or have moved to change their businesses to have more diversity — whether it’s service or brokerage elements of their business — those types of dealers are getting through.

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Used-boat sales far outnumber new-boat sales still, from all indications, but there are some signs that the market for quality used boats is starting to slow. One would hope that leads to more demand for new boats.

We have other segments in the sailing industry that also are affected by this economy, and some have done better than others. Gear and equipment manufacturers who serve the aftermarket have, in some cases, experienced healthy business. The charter market has withstood this economy better than many would have thought, and that’s been a real positive. That’s also an indication that while the economy has been down, active sailors have stayed really engaged in sailing, and charter is always a real indication of how engaged sailors are with the sport. The fact that charter has held up pretty well is a good sign.

Q: How important are boat shows in the sailing community, and what are your expectations for the 2012 shows?

A: Boat shows are a great way to connect with consumers who are engaged in sailing, but not all shows are alike, and it’s really important for marketers to recognize that. As an industry we need to try new ways, not just to sell at shows, but to entertain and connect with consumers, and I think that it’s really important for marketers to temper their expectations and really carefully analyze their show results.

Some shows are what they are as regional events, and in the case of Pacific Sail Expo (Strictly Sail Pacific) out in Oakland, [Calif.], we consider that a super-regional event. And then, of course, there’s the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, [Md.] that is our biggest and most national show of the year.

In the sailing industry our show calendar is a little different than the rest of the market. We have important shows in Miami and Chicago — two winter shows — but we also have Oakland in the spring, and then two early fall boat shows in Newport, [R.I.] and in Annapolis, and there’s the St. Petersburg show as well. I think that looking at attendance numbers between Chicago and Miami will give us a good sign of how the year’s going to go.

One partnership that we have entered this year is we’re bringing a Sail America village to the South West International Boat Show in Houston, which is March 22-25. That’s a good example of how we can use our position as a trade organization to try to help regional shows better connect with the sailing consumer. We’re always looking at those partnerships. Our single biggest partnership is with the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which does an excellent job in running Miami and Chicago, and we learn from that relationship and we’re always looking at other opportunities.

Q: Recently there was a Growth Summit in Chicago to bring together all sectors of the industry to discuss how to grow boating. From your perspective, how can the industry work together to achieve this goal?

A: We can get more people out on the water — plain and simple. The old saying is ‘More butts in boats,’ and we all need to see that. I participated in that event and I applaud Thom Dammrich and his team for bringing together so many different voices from so many different segments of the marine market, and now the hard part is enacting some real specific actions out of that meeting.

There was a kernel of a good idea at that meeting — this concept of a national ‘Go Boating’ week or month that has been kicked around before. I think it’s something that is really hard to pull off, but if it can be well-executed it could be incredibly successful for the whole marine market. Really, what it takes is all companies and all stakeholders in the industry to embrace the idea and to view it as a great marketing opportunity and to get behind it.

The different groups within the marine market are going to have different priorities, and initiatives like that one I just mentioned are going to be valued differently by different groups, and I think that we’re going to have to all put our faith in the NMMA that they will be able to take a lot of the data that came out of that summit to identify what would be the greatest common denominator for spurring growth in boating. It would behoove us all to follow their lead.

Q: How do you view the relationship between the powerboat and sailboat manufacturers and dealers?

A: In some cases there’s overlap there, and in many cases we’re dealing with the same consumer. I think that from an industry standpoint we in the sailing industry can learn from the power side of the market. There’s much more volume there and there’s some very professional organizations on the power side of the market that we can really learn from.

One of the things that we can also learn as a sailing industry is making the barrier to entry a little bit easier in sailing, which is a problem that is less so on the power side of the market. We can learn from that.

Where we do intersect is, the sailor is aging, on average, and that’s our single biggest problem in sailing, and we lose a lot of those sailors to the power side of the market. As we try to keep them engaged in sailboats we can also learn from our peers on the power side of the market what those consumers are looking for.

At the end of the day we are all in the same business — getting people out on the water with family and friends. Boating is unique in its ability to bring people together. It’s a lifestyle that we all need to embrace and sell. Different segments of the market, power and sail, can learn from each other. And there are many best practices that can be shared.

Q: How is the Discover Sailing program going? Do you think it’s helped raise awareness of sailing?

A: I do think it helps, and I think that where it’s most effective in the sailing industry is at the boat shows. We need to do more to support and to promote Discover Sailing and the first step is the new video that we will be releasing soon. It’s something that we want to promote to people who are discovering sailing and really sell them on the sailing lifestyle. And it’s also a marketing tool that our membership can use.

Q: With 2012 being an Olympic year and the next America’s Cup taking place next year, sailing’s visibility to the general public will increase. How do you take advantage of the publicity of the sport?

A: It’s hard to measure whether or not the Olympics and the America’s Cup and also a high-profile event like the Volvo Ocean Race really help increase participation in sailing. What they do incredibly well is they get active sailors — the core of our market — more engaged in sailing.

Olympic sailing is the icon of youth in sailing. It’s young sailors in high-performance boats achieving at the top of their game. And that’s particularly important for sailing because sailing has an age problem. As the average sailor continues to get older, we need to be looking for new blood and for tomorrow’s buyers. A pinnacle sport like Olympic sailing is something that will help engage and does help engage young sailors and get them fired up on sailing.

In the case of the America’s Cup, it’s a premier example of where trickle-down technology impacts sailing. There is incredible technology in the America’s Cup … and it benefits sailors of all kinds — cruisers and racers alike. I’ll give you one fine example of how professional sailing impacts the market that we work in. The hottest design trend in cruising sailboat design right now is hull chines. A hull chine is a little hard turn in the hull down by the waterline, usually aft. This design element came from the Volvo Ocean Race. It was innovated in the Volvo Ocean Race to help beat a racing rule. It made the boat go faster. But that’s not why it’s used in cruising sailboat design. It’s used for style. It’s a unique aesthetic, and the good news is that it’s a really nice aesthetic, and the really good news is it’s helping sell boats.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misperception about sailing and how do you go about changing it?

A: That it’s too expensive. For people getting into sailing, there’s often the perception that you have to join a yacht club, which is expensive, and it can take years to even get on a list to join. But the fact is, all over this country there are accessible, inexpensive community sailing programs, many of which are incredibly well-run and fun social organizations.

As an industry we need to do a better job of promoting those grassroots organizations. If people want to learn how to sail, there are sailing schools all over the country — very well run, very professional and won’t break your bank. When it comes to high cost of ownership, there’s no question that owning a boat is a commitment. But there are ways to get in at lower costs than people might imagine, whether it’s buying a smaller boat or buying a used boat just to get started.

Q: What do you see as the future of the marine industry?

A: The future of the marine industry is it’s going to be a successful industry, and here’s why: What we have seen the last three years is people have not gone away. People are still enjoying sailing with their family and friends, and we’ve seen that in our business here at Sail magazine with the active sailors who read all of our media.

Sailors have not gone away. You can also make the argument that some are more engaged in their favorite lifestyle than ever before. What the industry will look like — obviously we will be dealing with contraction. It’s not going to be the same size industry that it was in 2006 and we should not be expecting sales volumes like we saw in 2006. What we will see is really strong brands that survived, really strong brands that have redefined their businesses, were not afraid to take risks and were quick to innovate and adapt their businesses to a different economy. The businesses that are sitting around, biding time, waiting for sales volumes to return are probably going to find themselves in trouble. But those businesses that are taking a proactive step to market themselves, change their businesses, improve their businesses in current levels of sales will probably succeed.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.

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