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Target kids, minorities as boating crowd ages

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A boy, a river and a love affair with the water: In the middle of the night, in Tom Sawyer fashion, a 10-year-old boy quietly slipped out of the house and ran barefoot to the bank. His part of the river, his refuge, formed the boundary between Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. Even though it was murky and unsafe for swimming, the river provided secret relief for the boy’s youthful insomnia and an often-enjoyed escape from Depression-era austerity and the intense summer heat. That’s where his love for the water began.

Later as a grown man, husband and father he bought a powerboat and enjoyed water skiing with his family for years until age-related limitations gradually lessened his time on the water. The boy in the story is my dad, and he’s part of a large, increasingly graying boating generation. Similar scenarios are playing out across the marine market, as a growing number of retirees slowly fade from water activity.

As a manager in the boating business, who are you targeting to fill the revenue void that retiring boaters are leaving behind? Rather than watch this sales stream dry up, let’s power up a few proactive approaches for revving up revenue replacement.

• Pass it on: Like my dad did with my younger brother, many retirees are selling or passing their boats down to their kids. A number of family-owned marine dealerships are doing the same as patriarchs leave the business and turn the reins over to the next generation.

This same idea is fair game for filling the revenue hole that retiring customers produce. As graying boaters downsize to smaller watercraft or leave the market, you will want to actively and consistently target the hearts, minds, email addresses and water recreation wallets of their children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends.

Use promotions, relationship-building programs and a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to influence your position as the preferred dealer or builder for multiple generations of boating families. Jazz things up by giving your promotions a “pass-it-on” flair with special service discounts for family members referred by relatives.

Passing on a legacy and enthusiasm for the water should include getting younger clients involved in marine trade associations to intensify their interest and inject new energy into future years of marketing strategy and boating sales.

• Make it easier to get in: As you’re adjusting your market approach to attract a mix of younger buyers while still selling to senior customers transitioning away from the water, make a distinctive effort to grab the attention of first-time boating clients. For these youthful, money-conscious prospects, alternatives for easy boating entry are a must-have.

What are the options? Pontoons are becoming the affordable entry watercraft of choice, as well as a great alternative for those downsizing from a bigger vessel. Now more attractively designed, pontoons carry a versatility that includes running at a fast speed, towing a tube and carrying more passengers than other more traditional designs. Favorable size, comfort and price make it ideal for multigenerational relatives, as well as baby-boomer grandparents and small families, to pile into the pontoon market.

Need other options for enabling entry into the boating world? Consider joint or fractional boat ownership or boat rentals. Used boats are a super alternative, too. Whatever the choice, aggressive, targeted marketing is mandatory as you take into account the slower economic growth that has become the new normal. This means old ways of doing business that assumed fast-paced, bounce-back expansion are no longer realistic.

Adapt your market approach to include a forward-thinking fever that employs regularly updated tactics as your client mix evolves. Looking around the corner to the end of the year is nice, but not enough. Push past your short-term plan and plunge into plotting where you want to be one year, five years and even 10 years down the road.

• Deliberately dig into demographics: While you purposely plan your path for future success, take time to dig into changing demographics. As our nation’s population transforms, so should your go-to-market program. What’s on the horizon? Dramatic demographic changes are occurring across the United States, as reported by SmartBlog on Finance (Feb. 4, 2013) and Esri, a geographic information systems company. With the growth of minority populations and immigration, our society is becoming more diverse.

Ever wonder where our growing minority populations live? If not, you’ll want to take a closer look. Esri indicated in 2012 ( that 115.8 million people in the United States identified themselves as a minority race or ethnicity. This includes 52.8 million Hispanics, 39.5 million African Americans and 15.2 million Asians, as well as other races such as American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. In general, minority-group members live in the western and southern United States; there are large numbers of Asians in big cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. African-Americans live throughout the country, with larger populations in California, along the Eastern Seaboard and all across the South. Hispanics are spread across America and are the largest minority group. The highest concentrations are in California, Texas, Florida and along the Eastern Seaboard, as well.

What does this mean to you, the marine business manager and planner? As minority populations increase, it’s crucial to consider differences in the marketplace when it comes to culture, lifestyles and product preferences. Digest the above data and you’ll notice a sizable impact on waterfront states.

Smart and savvy businesses, including those in the marine market, can expand their market share by providing products and services that each minority group desires. Knowing and taking into account where minority populations are growing can position a business well ahead of its competitors. For example, in the home construction industry, multigenerational Hispanic and Asian households provide opportunities for builders to generate floor plans that accommodate young families and seniors living in the same household. Any ideas as to how this multigenerational thought would affect boat-buying preferences? Now you’re thinking ahead.

For my dad, his love affair with the water began when he was a boy secretly swimming in the Mississippi in the dark of night. Decades later, his participation in boating recreation has diminished, as it has for many of his peers. A slower-paced economy, a younger overall market and a changing demographic provide challenges and rich opportunities for managers in the boating industry. Boating entry must be easy and passed on to the next generation, as well as the new demographic.

No matter how the story may read in today’s water recreation world, there’s a fresh tale unfolding with analogies to a boy, a river and a love affair with the water. Will you be ready to capture the opportunity that comes with it? With a forward-thinking approach and a proactive market plan, I know you will.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.



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