The unprecedented disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic has been a blessing and curse for the recreational boating industry.
On the one hand, we have witnessed a remarkable shift in consumer spending choices. For many American families, outdoor activities such as boating and fishing are providing one of the safest socially distanced atmospheres to spend time relaxing and rejuvenating during the pandemic. Covid-19 has reintroduced the unique value of outdoor recreation to Americans, creating a trend we hope lasts long after the crisis is resolved.
On the other hand, we have seen many of our recent and near-term industry gatherings and boat shows either canceled or compromised. Iconic events such as IBEX and the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show went forward digitally or as a fraction of their normal footprint. Looking to the first quarter of 2021, the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, one of the world’s most renowned and impactful boat shows, has been canceled along with dozens of other events. This level of disruption has never happened, so the natural question is: What comes next?
To understand the path forward, it is helpful to recall how we arrived at where we are today, because the industry was extremely fortunate in multiple ways. First, the pandemic-related shutdowns occurred after the majority of our industry’s major seasonal boat shows had been produced. Had the rise of Covid-19 shifted even a month earlier, the impacts on the industry would have been dramatically different.
As luck would have it, dealers and manufacturers entered the crisis with strong order books. Early 2020 sales, along with critical federal assistance and other actions that the National Marine Manufacturers Association championed, allowed the industry not only to survive the shutdowns, but to reopen boating access and attract new business. So the late-spring rebound our industry realized was largely buoyed by the successful and undisrupted winter boat show season that preceded the crisis.
Soon after the strong early selling season came unforeseen circumstances that benefited the marine industry. Gone were the immediate opportunities for consumers to tour on cruise ships, travel internationally or attend amusement parks and sporting events. Gone were the overscheduled family calendars with play dates, sports leagues and music lessons. Instead, families were cooped up at home and
researching how they could use their unscheduled time and available dollars to recreate safely.
Fortuitously, the water was open, and the boating industry was ready and willing to embrace a massive wave of first-time and returning boat buyers. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen many marine companies quickly reinvent themselves to take advantage of the unique market opportunities and conditions. Dealers enhanced their digital showrooms and set up socially distanced VIP tours. Manufacturers and suppliers smartly adapted to address supply-chain disruptions.
The NMMA was no different. Discover Boating, the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas joined forces to engage more effectively with consumers, and to drive new customers to our members and stakeholders. Our collective marketing efforts, closely aligned with the industry’s major brands, allowed us to communicate jointly with great breadth and clarity. Our message: Boating is the ultimate solution to American quarantine life. We welcomed first-time boat buyers to the lifestyle in historic numbers.
The past nine months rewarded agility, and our industry was one of the winners. However, there is danger in thinking this performance will be easily duplicated in 2021 and beyond.
Yes, we anticipate manufacturing growth in 2021 as we catch up on the current shortages in retail. And, yes, we should expect consumer interest in outdoor activities that enhance social distancing to remain strong and popular throughout next year. But we must be prepared to address new and greater challenges in the months and years ahead.
Without boat shows in the first quarter of 2021, dealers and manufacturers will need to rely significantly on direct marketing and virtually generated sales. It is safe to assume that the sectors we normally compete against for consumers’ time and discretionary dollars will mount aggressive multiyear campaigns to rebuild their lost market share. And because resources are scarce, we can expect companies within disrupted industries to combine efforts behind a single message. All of this means it will only get harder for a brand or industry to stick out of the crowd.
As America’s largest boat show producer, the NMMA plans to defend 2020’s recreational market share gains vigorously. With traditional competitors expected to return once the pandemic’s hold weakens, it is important for the industry to unify around a comprehensive strategy that keeps the consumer’s attention on recreational boating. As we all know, there is no better place than boat shows to attract consumers, highlight our advocacy needs, celebrate the growth in water sports and promote the boating lifestyle.
As large consumer events return, Discover Boating and boat shows will play a vital role in protecting and growing the market. The NMMA will leverage the millions of dollars we traditionally invest in our boat shows around the country, and combine those with the industry’s Discover Boating brand to create one singular consumer-facing brand. This strategy will let us amplify recreational boating’s voice, drive increased ROI to Discover Boating and boat shows, and position us to expand the industry for years to come.
While we plan to rebrand our shows under Discover Boating, integrating them goes beyond rebranding. The focus of our strategy is to provide a seamless, consumer-first experience that meets boat buyers where they are today and where they will be tomorrow.
This seamless Discover Boating brand encounter will expand the number of consumers engaging with the industry and direct more leads to exhibitors, dealers and sponsors. What’s more, following the NMMA’s investment in connecting our boat shows to Discover Boating, we plan to make the campaign available to non-NMMA boat shows. This strategy will allow the wider industry to have a more direct connection to Discover Boating, all while strengthening our collective industry voice and impact through Discover Boating. Expect to see more details on what the brand integration entails later this year.
In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the return of boat shows for two key reasons: They provide a unique opportunity to excite the consumer, and they allow recreational boating to stand out in a crowded and competitive consumer marketing landscape.
In a post-Covid world, large consumer events such as our industry-owned boat shows should and must evolve to remain relevant. We will begin that journey with the integration of Discover Boating across boat shows and a revival of great experiential showcases in major markets. Make no mistake: Boat shows will be back strong, and they will be integral in attracting and educating consumers, driving sales and leads, highlighting our advocacy efforts, and inviting a larger and more diverse consumer base to get on board.
Frank Hugelmeyer is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.