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The kid equation: progressing from Optis to bigger boats

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Lou Sandoval is a passionate sailor and co-founder/co-owner of Karma Yacht Sales, a successful Beneteau dealership on Lake Michigan in Chicago. He is also very active in the industry.

I spent time with Sandoval at the American Boating Congress two weeks ago, where we kicked around a number of issues during a Recreational Boating Leadership Council meeting. Sandoval is vice chairman of the RBLC’s diversity committee.

Sandoval, 48, is on the board of the Yacht Brokers Association of America and the Chicago Yacht Club, where he is chairman of the club’s venerable Race to Mackinac.

Sandoval is the subject of an in-depth Q&A in the June issue of Trade Only. One topic that does not appear in the magazine interview involves the key role that kids play in the future growth of boating.

I asked Sandoval, who is the father of a 4- and a 6-year-old, to discuss the issue. How can we make it easier, for instance, for a kid sailing an Optimist dinghy today to be sailing a 34-footer 20 years from now? How do we attract younger buyers? And how do we bring younger people into the industry?

His answer is thought-provoking:

I can’t begin to emphasize how important this is. People that know me well at my yacht club or in the Lake Michigan sailing community know how passionate I am about this topic. When we bought the dealership, we were in our late 30s. In our industry we were often looked at as “kids.”

As we attended boat shows, we started noticing a trend. Everyone was our parents’ age or older. We surveyed our customer base and identified the mean age of our buyers to be about 58. Doing quick math, we realized that, at this rate, in a couple of decades many of these boaters might be out of the sport with no new generation behind them.

This was a huge business problem. It might have been because of where we are in life — younger families, active lifestyles — but little by little we started to change how we locally marketed the sport in the imagery or wording for our hard-copy ads and in conversations with buyers. We started attracting a lot of younger buyers — sailors who, like us, were Generation Xers that had kids or younger families. We started to see the median age decline for our buyers.

The lesson in this is that you attract what you are and who you are. For the sport of sailing to remain pertinent, we need to continue to involve young people in the industry at all parts. We need to continue to incorporate their perspective. The “gray-haired” group can’t be the only ones making the design decisions.

Taking it to another level: A little-known fact about sailboat racers is that for every racing boat sold there are about four to five cruising boats sold. Sailboat racing is a subsegment of a broader grouping, each important to the growth of the overall sport of sailing. Sailboat racing is undergoing its own transition and has experienced a decline in participation of its own.

There are many yacht club-driven efforts to engage more youth through community sailing centers and activities that nudge cruisers into the racing subculture. Those need to continue. Our goal needs to be to get more people out on the water and using their boats. The next generation of sailboat racers will come out of that group of boaters. Exposing them to the water early in life is the key.

I recently showed a client from the East Coast a boat we were representing. In the course of our conversation during his visit, he indicated that he had done some research on my background and wanted to ask about some of the initiatives I had seen be successful locally for recruiting younger people to the sport. He also serves on the board at his yacht club. I shared some of the statistics and what our club has done locally to recruit and retain a younger member base. There are a lot of new ideas being implemented around the country.

One of the challenges that our club places on our board of directors is to visit other yacht clubs across the country. As I travel for various reasons, I try to do that and meet with colleagues that are members at those clubs and bring some of those ideas back, especially the ones involving youth sailing programs.



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