Try to target both millennials and boomers

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It’s a challenge that all of us in the industry face. How do we take care of today’s customers while also trying to figure out how to capture the next big generation, gathering on the horizon as we speak?

Picture it as a balance scale. On one side are the baby boomers. On the other, the millennials. Which cohort has more weight? To which do you give more “weight”?

The best strategy, I believe, is to focus on both.

The AARP this year is celebrating the nearly 76 million baby boomers with an initiative called “Boomers@50+,” which acknowledges that by the end of the year every living member of the so-called “Me” generation will have turned 50.

The New York Times in a recent article described AARP’s attempt to refocus the attention of advertisers on the boomer generation rather than on the more coveted 18-to-49 demographic.

The reason? It’s the answer Willie Sutton supposedly uttered when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

In the story, CBS Corp. chief research officer David Poltrack suggested that media agencies pursue two strategies — one for boomers and one for millennials. “It’s not one or the other,” Poltrack told the newspaper. “It’s both. If you decide to focus on millennnials and ignore baby boomers, you’re going to have a good future but a bad present.”

George Harris, president and CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, is following the dual strategy of focusing on current buyers (boomers) while taking steps to attract younger boaters. “This is exactly what we are seeing in the Northwest,” Harris says in a recent email. “I think the boat buyers right now are boomers. Smaller trawlers, fishing boats and pontoons are doing very good. I think boomers are downsizing or using their nest egg to buy a first-time boat that is smaller and more affordable. Going forward, however, we need to prepare for the inevitable aging out of boomers, and we need to replace them with millennials.”

That doesn’t happen by accident, at least not at a pace that you can build a successful business around.

Right now, boomers continue to drive the market, which in Washington is up nicely this year. “New-boat sales for 2014 are up significantly,” says Harris, who also is co-chairman of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council’s youth committee. “The first quarter was up 23.4 percent in units and 26.4 percent in dollars. Second quarter was up 28.4 percent in units and 37.7 percent in dollars.”

As Harris points out, Seattle has a lot of wealth and great jobs for those in the millennial, or echo boomer, generation, which encompasses those born after 1980. That puts the age of adult members between 18 and 33 in 2014. (The youngest millennials are in their teens, and no chronological end-point has been set yet for the group, according to the Pew Research Center.)

“We need to keep boating top-of-mind for the millennials and make boating accessible the way they want to boat,” he says. “Kirkland is a waterfront community on Lake Washington where the employees of Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies live and spend time. Not too far into the future, I think we can also expect to start seeing a transfer of wealth from the boomers to Gen-X and the millennials. I think this will be a good opportunity for boating.”

One thing the NMTA has worked diligently on for several years is to attract younger people to its Seattle Boat Show. Fifteen years ago, the average attendee was 41 years old. By 2013, the average had climbed to 53, in keeping with what we’ve seen across the industry.

Through a series of initiatives ranging from a boat giveaway at the show via social media to wine tastings and craft beer samplings, the association is not only increasing show attendance but also stemming the tide in terms of older boaters. The 2014 show was the first in 15 years where the average age did not go up. “You take your victories where you can,” Harris says.

The goal over the next decade is to drive the age back down to 41. “I think our #iwantaboat social media campaign and doing boating events like our Seattle Boat Show at Kirkland Uncorked in July do that,” Harris says, noting that the association is considering ways of working music into the show to appeal to younger would-be boaters.

The NMTA last year also purchased the Northwest Paddling Festival, the largest in the region. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboards are good ways to bring new and younger people into the sport, says Harris, who I believe is spot-on with that assessment.

One eye on today, one on tomorrow. It’s coming faster than you think.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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