Sailing industry charts its future course

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Conference is told the road to recovery will be long, but data shows an encouraging rise in participation

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There has been much talk of late about saving, reviving and promoting sailing - not just the sport, but the whole industry. It was very much on the minds of the 133 who attended the 2010 Sailing Industry Conference, held June 14-16 in Annapolis, Md.

The event - hosted by Sail America, with the theme "Adjusting to the New Economy" - featured seven general session speakers and six breakout sessions. It provided an opportunity to present and discuss ideas and strategies to help industry businesses recapture some of the prerecession momentum and to provide networking opportunities.

The program was complemented by the Sailing Industry Regatta (won by Sail magazine) prior to the conference and an off-site barbecue at the end of the first day.

The positive response by attendees reflects appreciation for this event, which was put together with the help of volunteers from Sail America member companies and the financial support of 37 sponsors. "The conference allowed us to spend some time thinking about how to improve our industry, our business and our own future," says Doug Sparks, chief operating officer of Colgate Offshore Sailing School.

For others, it was a chance to size up the state of the industry, take a step back from their day-to-day businesses, and get inspired by the ideas and concepts presented by the speakers.

"Overall, I left feeling better about the sailing industry, although that's not meant to sugarcoat that we all realize we're still in a major hole with a long way to go to recovery," says Scot West, CEO of Ronstan USA and a member of the conference committee. "I left feeling like I have a lot of work to do myself to get better at my job."

Bob Bitchin, publisher of Latitudes and Attitudes magazine, says the "timing and the content were good because it addressed people who run a business." Bitchin, who is on the board of Sail America, will help the organization develop individual membership in an effort to directly connect with sailors.

Attraction and retention

If there was one strategic point everybody could agree on it is that the industry's future will depend on its ability to attract and retain new participants. Sailing has seen a 2.7 percent increase in overall participation since 2007, which is better than many comparable water sports, according to Neil Schwartz, who presented the "Sailing Participation Trends" general session. But challenges remain. Nearly two-thirds of core participants are men older than 35 and the number of new participants is nearly offset by those leaving the sport.

"For my money, the single most important analysis is the one I like to call the 'leaky bucket,' " says Schwartz, director of business development at the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "You can do everything right with respect to bringing new people to the sport, but if you are not able to retain them, then all efforts can be in vain."

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The reasons for leaving usually are connected to time and financial constraints, but more analysis is necessary to understand where they are going. "You need to work from empirical data, not from gut feeling," Schwartz says. "Once you understand the issues, you need to develop a menu of ideas and fund the ones that are most feasible." To attract a new demographic, Schwartz suggests, sailing must find ways to better relate to those potential participants.

"There is no magic turnaround," says Gary Jobson, a world-class sailor, television commentator, author and president of US Sailing. Jobson presented the "Making Sailing Essential" general session. "It is an inch-by-inch process."

The challenges he called out are well-known: lack of time and access, difficulties with boat storage, financing, an aging demographic and the ever-increasing complexity of the sport. On the other hand, there are encouraging signs in teenage and young adult participation, which are due to more than 400 high school and 200-plus college sailing programs.

"Get people out on the water, one at the time," Jobson says. "Remove barriers and make sailing easy."

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Success ultimately rests with leadership and its ability to adapt, says Dean Brenner, president of the Latimer Group and chairman of the U.S. Olympic Sailing program, who presented the "Leadership Communication in the 21st Century" session. "No individual and no team stay the same. We are in a state of constant change. As individuals and teams evolve, leadership style has to evolve, too."

Sail America's action items

At the board meeting following the conference, Sail America took this advice as a call to action and set out to chart the group's future course. "We gathered to ask the big questions: Why are we here, what is our mission and how do we best go about achieving that mission?" says Sail America president Sally Helme, framing the agenda in the group's newsletter.

There are two different sets of challenges. Member companies are facing financial difficulties (profitability, cash flow, margins) and sluggish sales along with inventory and work force issues. Industry-specific challenges include connecting with buyers, responding to shifts in demographics, dealing with economic conditions and financing issues.

Following the planning session, Sail America executive director Jonathan Banks set the promotion of sailing as a key objective, followed by industry support and education, advocacy for sailing businesses, and playing the role of catalyst for collaboration. In his address to members, Banks outlined specific steps: developing a Web portal for consumers to connect with the sailing industry, formulating a mission statement that reflects Sail America's role and membership benefits, sourcing market data and industry information, clarifying the boat show plan, sharing customer and market data with members, developing a sustainable business model and providing education to the members.

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When and where the next Sailing Industry Conference will be held is still not clear. Banks indicated he's leaning toward an 18- or 24-month cycle, but he wanted to wait for the returns of the attendee survey before making that call.

"One reason is that we want to keep the content fresh," he says. "The other one is that this is an industry-sponsored event and asking our members to step up to the plate with volunteers and financial contributions again in a few months might be putting too much burden on them."

Sail America has vowed to become more customer-centric in its effort to help grow the sport, which is vital for the well-being of the industry. In his presentation, Brenner talked about "servant leadership" that gives direction, shares ownership and removes roadblocks to help team members succeed. Most importantly, leaders need to set examples. "Define the desired behavior and act as a model," he says.

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In the quest to promote sailing, it sounded like marching orders for everyone at the conference.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Trade Only's sister magazine Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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