ABC 2019: American Boating Congress ends on high note

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The American Boating Congress yesterday ended on a high note, with NMMA organizers saying attendance was up 40 percent, with nearly 25 percent being first-time attendees. The event had 250 organized visits to Capitol Hill, compared with 180 last year.

It also had two presidential cabinet-level speakers, the Administrator of the EPA and Secretary of the Department of Commerce, who addressed the event. The Secretary of Interior sent in a video message because he was unable to attend the event due to a scheduling conflict.

“It took a lot of work to get that level of speaker,” Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for NMMA, told Trade Only Today. “But it also is a testament to the fact that the agencies understand who we are as an industry and that we have a strong economic impact.”

Vasilaros said ABC retooled its workshops this year to go beyond “core manufacturing” issues. “We had workshops aimed at the superyacht world, including issues around import duties and workforce shortages, that were dedicated to their world,” she says. “That brought in many from that industry.”

Other companies, which have traditionally sent one or two people to ABC, beefed up their presence. Beneteau America, Jeanneau America, Brunswick Corp. and Yamaha Marine Group sent larger contingents this year. Of the 350 attendees, 86 were first-timers.

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“They get very strong speakers here from Congress,” said Nick Harvey, president of Jeanneau America, who noted that his group and sister group Beneteau America tripled the number of people it brought to ABC. “I’ve noticed that many boating industry leaders have developed good relationships with them, and several of my colleagues are on a first-name basis. That provides us with an exceptional level of access to the issues that impact our industry — and will impact our grandchildren.”

The Groupe Beneteau members spent much of their day on Tuesday visiting congressional representatives from Maryland, as their corporate headquarters is in Annapolis. “I want this advocacy mentality to run in the veins of my company,” Harvey said. “I think it’s very important for us to give back to our industry, and ABC is a very good way to do that. It’s easy to get discouraged on issues, but I think it’s important to never give up fighting for the industry.”

Ben Speciale, president of Yamaha’s U.S. Marine business unit and chair of the NMMA board of directors, said more people from other associations, including state associations and regional sportfishing groups, attended ABC this year. “We’ve been doing that outreach and used more focused messaging on specific issues, like ethanol and infrastructure,” he said.

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Speciale said that increasing the impact of advocacy on the federal and state levels will be a central piece of his efforts, as NMMA board chairperson. He says the congressional visits have become more effective over the last few years, with more focused messaging so that everyone is “speaking from the same hymnal” about vital issues for the industry.

The passage of the Modern Fish Act late last year also has given the industry credibility among members of Congress. “It’s fun to walk into an office and have people refer to us as the ‘fish people’ or ‘boat people,’ ” Speciale said. “It means we are being seen as an important group.”

He said that the passage of the Modern Fish Act was a “vastly important” milestone for the boating and sportfishing industries, one that could make it easier for the passage of other legislative issues.

“Advocating in Washington, D.C., sets the foundation for the next 10 years,” Speciale said. “It will help us get through legislation that will provide better infrastructure for boats or improve access. We always need to look at growing the industry through legislative issues in the long term. We have a strategic plan that we need to keep building on.”

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Joe Lewis, owner of Mount Dora Boating Center in Florida and former MRAA chairman, said he has noticed more “diversity” with ABC participants this year. “I saw more marinas and distributors here,” he said. “We’ve also noticed the increase in the number of people that long-term company attendees are bringing. They clearly see value in it.”

Lou Sandoval, vice president of marketing for Nautic-On, said he held a “Boating Simplified” work group at this year’s ABC, which brought in a dozen new attendees. “These folks came from areas like marina management apps, so they were coming from a different angle,” Sandoval said. “But I think they now see that they should have an interest in participating in the boating industry and need to take a more active role.”

The quality of speakers at ABC has certainly gone up. Fifteen years ago, congressional speakers would have delivered stump speeches about nothing that had to do with boating. This year, every congressional speaker had a direct interest in boating and fishing, as well as a personal connection with both recreations.

Thom Dammrich, attending his last ABC as NMMA president, was thrilled with the turnout. “We saw attendance shoot up from 250 to 350 in just a year,” he said. “That’s a very impressive number.”

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