The Challenge to Make Boating Grow Again

A parting prescription from a boating business veteran
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There is much truth to the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. That said, my final column for Soundings Trade Only will contend that while marketing has fundamentally changed since I got into the boating business during the Carter Administration, the industry’s business model has not. Until it does, the industry will continue to face headwinds that will stall any prospect of significant growth.

For a good part of my nearly 40 years in the industry I have been arguing that in order to grow, this industry has to alter the way it does business, which is largely reliant on the sale of evermore expensive new boats, whose sales peaked in 1989.  It especially must change the way it interacts with and attracts both existing and potential customers.

I recently asked some non-boatbuilder colleagues with decades of experience to weigh in on what the industry needs to do in light of Grow Boating’s recent study with marketing consultant Olson. The study noted there are 1 million fewer first-time boat buyers today than a decade ago — a 30 percent decline in first-time used-boat buyers and a 54 percent drop in first-time new-boat buyers. Furthermore, only about two in 100 people who are researching their first boat will buy one, and only one of the two will keep it.

The overwhelming response was twofold. Boating has become too expensive, and folks just don’t have the time to fully utilize expensive watercraft, which remain tethered to the dock for large portions of the year.

“The boating industry has for too many years been pricing itself out of reach for young families, and it’s getting worse every year,” says industry veteran Jim Rhodes, summing up the main hurdle. “The problem is simple — it’s the price of admission.

“When an new entry-level boat retails for well over $100,000,” Rhodes adds, “how in the world would you think a young family, already burdened with tens of thousands in student debt, car payments, maxed out credit cards and a mortgage payment, could dream of buying that new boat?”

Noting that the average American household spends $2,913 annually on entertainment, marine journalist Lenny Rudow asks, “What kind of boat can you afford to buy with $2,913 in discretionary funds, a nice kayak?”

Rudow echoes a common refrain heard throughout the industry. “While I applaud the work of NMMA and Grow Boating, and I’m quite sure that their efforts have helped the industry retain both the interest of potential boaters and their expenditures, I’m not sure it’s within the NMMA’s power to reverse or even influence these trends.”

A review of NMMA’s recent three-year strategic plan confirmed my suspicion that the boatbuilders that dominate the marine industry will continue to go with the flow by continuing core activities, doing more Discover Boating research and juicing up NMMA’s advocacy activities.

While it may not be within the power of NMMA to reverse these trends, the coming retirement of NMMA president Thom Dammrich presents the industry with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshuffle the deck and develop a plan that will actually grow boating.

Boating Writers International executive director Greg Proteau says solving the “Grow Boating conundrum” is not as simple as hiring a marketing hot shot to lead the NMMA. Proteau notes that industry promotions over the years, such as “I’d Rather Be Boating,” “C’mon Aboard,” “Life is Better with a Boat” and “Take Me Fishing,” have only slightly goosed sales.

Freedom Boat Club president John Giglio says the NMMA has to expand its scope to represent “boating,” and not just the boat.

“While I feel that the sharing concept is gaining more acceptance, it is only recently that non-traditional boating options have been more well received,” Giglio says. “There are still boat shows that will not allow boat clubs to participate because they are ‘competition’ to boat retailers.”

Giglio says that NMMA’s support of the boat club/sharing concept is done as an afterthought, rather than statement of principle. “The next leader needs to be one who thinks outside the boat mold and has a real desire to get people on the water. More people on the water today equals more boats being sold tomorrow.”

Though I agree with Giglio that the fundamental challenge is getting more folks out on the water so they can have the experience that only boating can deliver, renting them the platform to do so is putting the cart before the horse.

What we need to do is to promote a lifestyle that people will aspire to by using every available marketing channel to present boating as an experience that is cool, hot and affordable. We need to encourage people to want to go boating before trying to sell them a boat. Our first job is to get people to identify with products and services we are marketing.

I’ve used this column over the years to make suggestions on how this could be accomplished. As we part, here are some of my insights on how we can make boating great again.

1. The naysayers who claim this industry doesn’t have the money to advertise on national television should take a look at a 30-second Watercraft spot from The Florida Keys and Key West (ispot.tv, search “Florida Keys Watercraft”). If this one tourist destination can afford national television along with brands hawking pillows, car mats and sealing products, what’s really stopping us?

2. Thanks to cable TV there’s a television show for nearly every hobby and avocation. While not everyone agreed with my embrace of Bravo’s Below Deck, something like Jay Leno’s Garage would be a step in the right direction.

3. There’s noting like a major motion picture to attract eyeballs and build an ethos. The next time a film like Robert Redford’s All is Lost is seeking advertising sponsors, the boating industry should jump in bed feet first.

4. One of the best ways to get consumers to identify with a product or service is to use a spokesperson they can identify with. It was well-known that actor Jonathan Goldsmith — aka the “Most Interesting Man in the World” from the  Dos Equis beer commercials — was a longtime sailor. Why the industry did not embrace this opportunity is beyond me.

5. By now, it should be obvious that you can’t sell the experience until you get folks into a boat. Some of the best ambassadors for boating are boat owners. The industry, especially dealers and marinas, have to get fully behind a National Recreational Boating Week that provides incentives (such as free boat show tickets) for owners to take a friend boating.

6. The current boat show model is too one-dimensional. The industry needs to create a new presentation model that allows customers to experience the challenges and joys of boating, rather than simply allowing potential customers to ogle the merchandise.

michael-sciulla

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS, he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000. As chief lobbyist, he testified more than 30 times before a number of congressional committees.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.

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