The hidden costs of boat ownership

We all agree the industry needs to increase the number of first-time boat buyers to ensure healthy long-term growth. That’s going to require a bit of a course correction from our current trajectory.
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We all agree the industry needs to increase the number of first-time boat buyers to ensure healthy long-term growth. That’s going to require a bit of a course correction from our current trajectory.

The number of first-time buyers has decreased nearly 20 percent since 2005, which is apparent in the increase in the average age of today’s boater, which is about 55 for a powerboater and 60 for a sailor.

“Today’s first-time buyers will one day determine the size of our industry, so it’s essential we find ways to attract and keep them,” says Carl Blackwell, the NMMA’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer and president of Grow Boating. “First-time buyers can be any age, but the sooner they get into boating, the larger their lifetime value will be.”

Discover Boating last year released the findings of a study of first-time buyers, including how to move them from “boating” to “owning.” The goal was to come up with strategies for attracting — and retaining — buyers.

One of the findings focused on the need for more transparency when it comes to the so-called hidden costs of boating. These include everything from slip fees and annual maintenance to insurance, repairs and registration costs. (You can get a copy of the study at GrowBoating.org.)

As an industry, we don’t talk enough about the hidden costs. First-time buyers find boating confusing enough with so many brands and types of boats, says NMMA president Thom Dammrich. “But they don’t find information about the costs of boating,” he says. “They only begin to find these out as they get far along in the purchase process, and these unexpected costs can derail them from the purchase.”

The solution? More straight talk about the expenses that come after the purchase. “It’s believed that if we were more transparent about all the costs of ownership — and they are different for different types and sizes of boats — people would acclimate to these costs as they move along the purchase funnel, rather than getting derailed at the end,” Dammrich told me. “I don’t believe it was the costs, per se; it was the fact they were ‘hidden’ until the end of the [purchase] journey.”

The challenge of increasing — and retaining — new boaters is significant. “Info-Link (the research firm) says 54 percent of first-time boat buyers sell their boats and leave boating,” Dammrich notes. “This attrition likely has to do with the experience not living up to the expectation. We need to do a better of job of matching expectations and experiences.”

When the dream that new boaters bring to the water doesn’t match the reality they find, we have a problem.

Unless you grew up in a boating family, owning a boat is one of those activities that is hard to accurately suss out until you actually have your pride and joy resting on a trailer or in a slip. The learning curve can be steep.

Even with early exposure to boating, you invariably have to pay some dues as you move from passenger to owner. You make a few mistakes, learn through trial and error, and after a handful of seasons you become a member of the tribe. But too many opt out before they reach that stage.

Dammrich says another study this year will look at the causes of and solutions to boater attrition. Don’t be surprised if “lack of time” shows up on the list. The three perennial complaints I hear most from boaters focus on time, cost and product reliability.

The cost calculus of owning and maintaining a boat is tied, in part, to the time one actually spends on the water. Are you getting enough hours on the boat to justify the dollars you’re spending?

And the “value” one receives from boating — camaraderie, family time, relaxation and so on — can be difficult to put a price tag on. What is a great weekend on the water “worth” to a family in which both parents work hard?

“People have a dream of boat ownership,” Dammrich says. “That dream is about all the things they will do with the boat and all the experiences they will have with the boat. It is not about the product, yet much of our sales efforts is about product features and benefits and not lifestyle benefits.” Boating is not cheap. After 35 years of owning boats, I am still sometimes surprised by the dollars spent in pursuit of the wet-foot lifestyle. We’re not going to make boating less expensive, but we certainly can be more upfront about the various costs ownership entails.

And as an industry we can do a better job of easing people into the sport, be it through on-water training, rendezvous and cruising events, fishing tournaments and a host of other activities.

If we make it easier for people to enjoy their boats, the costs have a way of working themselves out.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.

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