If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is affordability. After all, one person’s yacht is another’s runabout. It all depends on your perspective — and what you can afford.
“Affordability means different things to different people,” says Jim Coburn, managing partner of Coburn & Associates and immediate past chairman of the Michigan Boating Industries Association.
One thing is for certain. Cost has always been an issue with recreational boating and will likely remain one. “It’s the nature of the beast,” says Coburn, who for the last several years has been the capable chairman of the affordability task force, one of six growth committees under the aegis of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council. (The others are youth, marketing communications, new markets, education and advocacy.)
At the May meeting of the RBLC, held during the American Boating Congress, the work of the affordability committee was deemed complete and the group was officially retired (and a new work force committee created).
Although the affordability task force is gone, its initiatives, strategies and findings will continue to be pushed by the education and marketing committees, with Discover Boating having a major role in promoting the value of the boating lifestyle, which is the most compelling counterweight to the cost hurdle.
A number of industry folks, including me, had the honor of serving on the committee and examining the challenges posed by new-boat sticker shock in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. Our goal was, in part, to examine the issues, raise awareness and come up with ideas for addressing growth concerns. “I’m really proud of the work that the committee did,” says Coburn.
To be fair, the affordability committee may have had one of the toughest assignments, given that boats aren’t cheap and nothing the committee could do was going to change the price of boats and boating. “Of the six areas we are identifying, affordability is clearly the most challenging,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said at a meeting two years ago.
“It was so subjective and so emotional,” Coburn recalls. “And at the time [the committee was formed], the recession was still pinching people a lot harder than it is now. And everyone had an opinion about affordability, which was great.”
The committee raised an industrywide discussion over a host of ideas and strategies pertaining to affordability and alternatives to ownership, which in hindsight might have been its major accomplishment. The group developed a “tool kit” of affordability, some of which is on the Discover Boating site.
Although the ideas and suggestions are too numerous to list here, they range from new and less costly ways of introducing people to the sport — boat clubs, rentals, peer-to-peer models and so forth — to the recognition of the key role preowned boats play in the ownership process. There is no one silver bullet, but the strategies, taken as a whole, will move the dial.
“One of the avenues to affordability are things like boat clubs and fractional ownership, which will eventually turn [new boaters] from renters to boat buyers,” says Vin Petrella, executive director of the Yacht Brokers Association of America, who sat on the affordability committee. “I think dealers have to look at alternative ways of attracting people other than just saying, ‘Buy this boat.’ ”
Boating will never be “cheap.” We all know that. And when it comes to new boats, just the opposite is true. Ever-larger boats with more content, amenities, accommodations and horsepower invariably carry a higher price tag. “I don’t think there’s any way we’ll ever make boats less expensive,” says Petrella.
And that’s really the reason the industry needs to continually promote and remind consumers of the many benefits the boating lifestyle delivers that transcend the price tag. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for families to bond and spend time together,” says Petrella.
I am confident that people will find a way to get out on the water if that is truly their “thing.” The conveyance for newcomers may be a paddleboard, a kayak, or a rental or used boat, but there is a vessel for just about anyone.
“Whatever gets you that on-the-water experience,” says Coburn. “That’s what’s important.” It’s also the reason early exposure to boating remains so important to long-term growth.
Time on the water with family and friends is not something you can measure with a calculator or enter and analyze on a spreadsheet, although I did know a gentleman some years back who tried to do just that. He bought a new boat during the winter, took delivery in the spring, kept a spreadsheet detailing every outing and at the end of the year figured out exactly what each hour on the water cost him. He sold the boat before the start of the next season. In my opinion it was wrongheaded, especially since he had the wherewithal to “afford” the boat.
Boating is fun, freedom, adventure and camaraderie. It’s the sun on your back, the wind in your face, and leaving stress and workaday concerns shoreside for a few hours.
“You can’t put a price tag on that,” says Coburn.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.