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Can sailing shed its blueblood image?

Sail America conference makes inclusion a top priority as the sport tries to fight off its elitist tag


Players in the sailing industry not only are discussing ways to make sailing more accessible to boaters, but they’re also trying to dispel the notion that sailing is an exclusive sport.

Those were among the prevalent themes at the Sail America Conference June 24-26 in Newport, R.I.

Ross Kilborn, CEO of Yachting Australia — that country’s US Sailing equivalent — said at the event that a quarter-million-dollar study, funded in part by the Australian government, showed that people saw sailing as the “most exclusive and inaccessible” of all 96 sports surveyed. “The top line is we’ve got a pretty attractive sport. Most Australians are interested in it, most Australians would like to have a crack at it, but we do such a bad job communicating it they think they haven’t got a chance at it.”

One of the study’s major findings was that the word “yachting” turns off consumers, so the Australian group is changing its name to Sail Australia. The study also showed that a late starting age was a deterrent to creating lifelong sailors, Kilborn says. “It’s about creating a lifetime association with the sport as much as it is getting them in as participants,” he says. “The good news is young moms had some of the highest interest in sailing, and many yacht clubs have missed out on that high interest.”


It’s imperative to “bridge the gap between generations,” Rod Johnstone, co-founder of Rhode Island-based J/Boats, said during an interactive breakout session designed to brainstorm ideas for attracting more people to sailing. Targeting young children and their parents through mentorship programs would introduce more families to the sailing lifestyle, he says.

The time commitment in sailing events also was listed as a deterrent because children have many activities in which they want to participate.

Cost was cited as the No. 1 barrier to sailing in the 140-page study, Kilborn says. Carl Blackwell, who heads Discover Boating’s social media initiative, says affordability continues to be the point that creates the most discussion. “Consumers now believe boating can improve their lives,” he says. “We’re creating the awareness of the value of the boating lifestyle, and the reality is the industry needs to manage the cost of the boating lifestyle.”

Reducing entry costs was a major theme of the conference.

The club scene

The consulting firm Gemba made recommendations to increase sailing’s presence in Australia, and many of them were touched on during the interactive workshops designed to grow sailing in the United States. Making yacht clubs more inclusive was the No. 1 recommendation. “If you heard some of the responses from some of the focus groups’ experience when they went into a yacht club, I’d be embarrassed to admit some of the comments,” Kilborn says. “The key issue was if you want to increase participation in the sport, you’ve got to work with yacht clubs. I’m sure we all have knowledge of ‘Members Only’ signs or ‘No Entry’ signs.”

One of the recommendations unique to sailing involved the focus on racing. “Twilight sailing,” or non-competitive sailing, was mentioned by several who said the competitive aspect is a turnoff to some who would rather sail socially.

Diversity, a topic that has been gaining traction throughout the marine industry, also was discussed. “We need to change the industry mindset to appreciate and understand diversity as the enormous business opportunity it is,” while also making sure to do that carefully, Blackwell says.

Boater education is important to keeping newcomers in the sport, Blackwell says. Research shows that many new boat owners buy “driveway to driveway,” as opposed to from dealers, and that they aren’t likely to stay in boating because they don’t have the community and support they need, he says.

Discover Boating, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the American Boating Council have made it a priority to step up their lobbying efforts. “We need to capture key relationships with decision-makers to create an effective industrywide recreational boating advocacy network,” Blackwell says. “We have to make sure that the government stands out of our way in our effort to grow boating.”

America’s Cup organizers are trying to reach the “Taco Bell demographic” in their continuing effort to grow sailing. Bob Billingham, Cup infrastructure manager, and Iain Murray, regatta director and chief executive of America’s Cup Race Management, told attendees that the Cup is partnering with Red Bull to launch a youth series. “America’s Cup has been closed to too many people for too long,” Murray said at the conference. “The response we’ve had to this has blown through the roof.”

The series will be for 12 to 15 crews between the ages of 18-1/2 and 19-1/2, and the first race will be held in 2013 between the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America’s Cup finals in San Francisco. The best sailors in the world will coach the young sailors, Murray says.

Red Bull has committed to a long-term sponsorship of the youth series, Murray says.

The business side

Other major themes of the conference focused on business owners and managers creating an environment among employees that would ensure the best customer care. Keynote speaker and business consultant John Spence challenged owners to improve themselves and their businesses each day, providing a survey for them to fill out about their own performance.

Nancy Ansheles, owner of Catalyst & Co., led a workshop on effective office communication. Tom Knighten, founder of the Recreational Powerboating Association, led sessions on using hands-on training and education as effective marketing tools in competitive and challenging environments. Dean Brenner, president of The Latimer Group, provided an update on the U.S. Olympic sailing program and a workshop on reinventing organizations.

Organizers were pleased with the turnout and feedback at the conference. “It was our most successful conference yet. There was quite a bit of substance,” says Josh Adams, president of Sail America. “The seminar team that organized the content did a good job delivering talent, value and speakers, and also subject matter.

“One of the things I liked most about the conference from an industry point of view was the attendees represented a range of industry categories,” Adams says. “We had builders, dealers, equipment manufacturers, charter companies, insurance companies, media and others. I think that’s a good sign that Sail America’s serving a diverse cross-section of the industry.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.



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