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Growth panels ‘gain traction’

There’s a boat for every budget. That’s the value message the Recreational Boating Leadership Council wants to convey.

There’s a boat for every budget. That’s the value message the Recreational Boating Leadership Council wants to convey.

On the heels of its seventh meeting, the Recreational Boating Leadership Council, born of the Great Recession, is beginning to produce tangible results in its mission to benefit the industry.

“I really believe we’re making headway in our charge,” says Matt Gruhn, chairman of the council and president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “There’s a clear agenda for each group, and although progress has ramped up at different rates, we’ve collectively made significant progress. It’s exciting to see, and we plan to continue that momentum in 2015.”

The council is a group of leaders from across the marine industry working together to address the growth challenges the industry faces.

The council gathered in Chicago in December for year-end discussions on six long-term initiatives that will form the basis of a 10-year growth plan to transform recreational boating.

Formed at the 2011 industry Growth Summit, the council consists of six committees, each focused on an area deemed critical to the industry’s long-term success: marketing, youth initiative, education, diversity, affordability and advocacy.

“What we have is a group of volunteers working very diligently to make things happen, and it’s really exciting to see,” says Gruhn. The December meeting continued a series of conversations that council members have had about how best to serve the industry.

The RBLC’s Affordability Committee is focusing more on the “value” of boating than on price tags.

The RBLC’s Affordability Committee is focusing more on the “value” of boating than on price tags.

“What I’m most excited about coming out of the last meeting is that, although we have always had good meetings, this was the first where every single committee made significant progress,” Gruhn says. “The RBLC is absolutely gaining momentum, and we feel like we’re really starting to gain traction.”

Although there is no formal deadline for a final report, the council first met in December 2011 with an initial 3- to 5-year cycle of meetings focused on the next decade for the industry.

“This will be our fourth year,” Gruhn says, “and we look forward to eventually sharing our progress with the industry and creating a path for greater success for the industry.”

The council’s next meeting will be held in conjunction with the American Boating Congress, which is scheduled for May 11-13 in Washington, D.C.

Here’s an update on the progress reported by each of the council committees.


“Discover Boating saw results increase drastically in nearly every benchmark, but especially in the number of consumers we referred to boat manufacturers’ websites,” says committee co-chairman Carl Blackwell, chief marketing officer of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and president of Grow Boating. “Our website had 3.4 million visitors, which led to 1.8 million people exiting our site and shopping for boats on a manufacturer website.”

Blackwell has helped spearhead the NMMA’s push to use digital media to connect with potential buyers and boaters. Discover Boating’s Stories of Discovery documentaries, featuring American boating families as well as celebrities such as country music star Jake Owen, were viewed online more than 7 million times last year, Blackwell says. More stories are in the works for 2015.

“Our internal mantra this year is, ‘Think inclusive, not exclusive.’ And we’ll do that by complementing the work that has been coming out of all of the RBLC initiatives,” he says. “We will continue our diversity outreach, address affordability, appeal to a younger mindset, and place more emphasis on boater education and hands-on water skills training.”

Blackwell says Discover Boating’s data shows the industry scored a 6 percent improvement in overall favorability last year among its target audience. Even more important, it saw 95 percent of Hispanics and 91 percent of African Americans scoring boating “very favorably” or “somewhat favorably.”

More than 3,000 local and national youth boating programs are listed at the Discover Boating website.

More than 3,000 local and national youth boating programs are listed at the Discover Boating website.

Another area of optimism, he says, is that among older millennials (25 to 34 years old) there is a significantly higher level of enthusiasm for boating than in the next two older age groups (35 to 44 and 45 to 54).

However, boat ownership as a percentage of the population in all age groups under 50 has decreased, according to the data research firm Info-Link, he says. Info-Link also reports that the average age of a boater increases by 6 months every year. The average age is now 55.

“We are not replacing enough older boaters with younger boaters, so understanding what triggers buying amongst younger adults is going to be very important in the next couple of years,” Blackwell says.


Last May, the council asked the industry for help in developing a searchable national database of youth boating and fishing programs.

The soft launch of the database, the top priority of the Youth Initiative Committee, is now live and hosted on the Discover Boating website (discover The growing list of boating programs for youth is searchable by ZIP code and by type of program (power, sail, fishing, etc.).

“The data suggest that adults are much more likely to become avid boaters if they participated in boating as a child,” says committee co-chairman George Harris, president and CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association. “One way we can spur an increase in the number of children who experience boating is to raise the public’s awareness of the programs that are already in place. This is a first step toward that goal.”

About 3,000 youth programs are listed. Harris encourages industry members to add local programs with a few clicks on the Discover Boating site. When the site reaches the 4,000-program milestone, the group will ramp up its promotion of the resource to the public, he says.

Housing the database on Discover was an obvious choice, Harris says, because the site reaches more than 2 million unique visitors a year. Discover Boating also will promote the new database through its social media and public relations channels, including its Facebook page, which has more than 690,000 fans, and its Twitter feed, which has more than 20,000 followers.

Discover Boating has a designated staff member to manage the growing database.

“We have made some pretty concrete progress, but we on the committee know we need to do more,” Harris says.


Increasing on-the-water training is a priority for the Education Committee, says co-chairman Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation.

“If boaters were better educated, we feel that people would boat more often, get more out of boating and be willing to buy a bigger boat,” Edmonston says. “That’s what we’ve been trying to promote and get a sense of where the industry is and where the market is.”

His committee last year formally surveyed 166 dealers nationwide about educating consumers. The clear consensus was that most dealers support education and believe it supports their business. However, “they like the idea of having more classroom and on-water classes but don’t feel there’s a viable business model for dealers,” he says.

Nationally there is a good class-based infrastructure for theory-based courses offered by multiple organizations that enable new boaters to earn licenses, he says, “but that doesn’t really give you an idea of what to expect on the water.”

On-water training for sailing is much more readily available than it is for powerboating. The National Safe Boating Council, the United States Power Squadrons and US Powerboating, which is part of US Sailing, are among the groups that teach powerboating skills. He notes the success of the NMMA’s on-water demonstrations at boat shows as a selling tool.

“I’ve been working on getting on-water education for more than a decade, and we’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Edmonston says. “It’s my plan to have some sort of business model for dealers, schools, instructors providing education by May of this year.”

Working through a cooperative effort involving BoatUS, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadrons, his committee envisions a two- or three-day course that includes classroom work and on-water training, using standards developed by the Coast Guard.

“Our theory is once these standards are out there, schools can figure out which they need and develop a curriculum for their market,” he says. “We’re trying to develop a model that would make it a revenue source for dealers. In my 30 years in the industry, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in dealers willing to take buyers out and teach them to operate the boat they’re purchasing.”


“A robust committee of 23 was formed this past year to address newly established two-year goals, which include ongoing industry diversity education, along with the development of strategies and tactics that will positively portray and introduce boating to three targeted ethnic groups, including affluent Hispanics, Asians and African Americans,” says co-chairwoman and longtime marine marketer Wanda Kenton Smith.

In 2014 the committee officially partnered with Frank Peterson and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation on its diversity initiatives, which include a variety of Hispanic marketing efforts in Texas and Florida.

The RBFF has served as a leader in diversity development and has contributed greatly to industry educational efforts. The foundation made educational presentations about diversity, particularly the growing Hispanic population, at IBEX and at the Marine Marketers of America meeting held in conjunction with the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

The Diversity Committee created a first-ever VIP Influencers Group, which is composed of Hispanics, African Americans and Asians who are actively engaged and working in the marine industry. The group participated in a comprehensive survey and provided feedback and recommendations on a variety of diversity issues.

“We hope that this group of 12 will continue to grow, and we welcome others to join. The VIP Influencers Group will serve as a sounding board and provide ongoing feedback as we move forward,” Kenton Smith says.

Anyone in the industry who wants to get involved in the committee should email her at

She notes that the RBFF and Discover Boating groups created new photography in 2014 that features boating diversity and made the images available to industry stakeholders free for advertising, promotion and editorial purposes.

“Photos of Hispanic, African American and Asian boaters enjoying the boating lifestyle are important to promote and use if we hope to welcome them to the boating lifestyle,” she says.

Another new industry development of note was the announcement and debut of the national Neptune Award for Diversity launched by the Marine Marketers of America in 2014 to recognize outstanding diversity marketing initiatives. The first Neptune Diversity Award will be presented at the Miami International Boat Show in February.

The Diversity Task Force will meet at the Miami show to review its progress to date and revisit and discuss plans and priorities moving forward, Kenton Smith says. Topics for discussion will include developing lists and strategies to target specific industry audiences for educational opportunities and working with marine media to promote diversity inclusion.

“It has been a year of internal organizational development and team building, and I believe we have made positive progress,” she says. “I’m looking forward to many exciting opportunities ahead to continually educate the industry and to promote and market boating to diverse audiences.”


“ABC is the large touch point for the industry to get together and discuss legislative issues, but there have to be other venues through the year for people to get information. Advocacy goes on 365 days a year,” says Jeff Gabriel, legislative counsel for the NMMA and chairman of the Advocacy Committee.

Last year, Gabriel instituted a conference call on the second Monday of each month that he believes can serve a critical need for information in the industry.

“They are no more than 30 minutes, and I update everyone on Congress, key issues the NMMA is looking at and give everybody an opportunity to bring up an issue that’s going on in their neck of the woods so we can talk about it and see where we can effect some change,” he says.

“I want everybody to sign up. This call is not endemic for just people on our task force,” he says, encouraging those interested in participating to send a request via email to

Gabriel is also promoting Boating United (, the NMMA’s online grassroots platform.

“We know grassroots advocacy works, and both Boating United and my monthly conference call are places for people to share information,” he says. “The more people I can get on to this call, the more people I can get to join Boating United, the more soldiers the industry puts in uniform. It’s that simple. It’s putting boots on the ground.”

Gabriel plans to update committee members and the industry as a whole at the American Boating Congress this spring. The top industry priorities should come as no surprise: ethanol and the federal energy bill; the federal highway bill that funnels marine gasoline tax proceeds into infrastructure critical for the boating experience; and reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.


Jim Coburn, managing partner at Coburn & Associates and chairman of the Affordability Committee, says this issue is best addressed through marketing and education.

“The focus is on perhaps dropping the ‘affordable/affordability’ moniker and emphasizing value,” he says. “That’s something every consumer decides for him or herself. The committee agreed that there is a boat for everyone’s budget, hence the tactic to emphasize value and lifestyle for greater industry success.”

The committee’s action plans are still works in progress, but Coburn says they should be fully developed by the time of the meeting at ABC in May. The top four affordability strategies are:

  • Reach boat buyers and potential boaters in new ways: The industry as a whole, from manufacturers to individual dealers, can promote alternative paths to the water and recreational boating, such as participation in non-marine events, boat clubs and boat rentals. Discover Boating, dealers and all stakeholders should enhance “try-before-you-buy” promotional opportunities with youth, community groups and consumers.
  • Focus on the used-boat market: It’s an extremely large market, and industry players should advertise and deliver collateral campaigns to every segment, with particular attention to the entry level. Associations and dealers should complete the development of certified used-boat programs. All industry stakeholders should work to develop one comprehensive used-boat-buying procedure — an A-to-Z guide for consumers.
  • Develop potential buyer and owner education: Create a single comprehensive (and downloadable) procedure through Discover Boating (an A-to-Z how-to guide) and a comparison analysis guide for new-boat buying and ownership. The National Marine Lenders Association should update a consumer-driven how-to guide for retail financing to assist the affordability efforts through consumer availability. All industry stakeholders must promote local boating through all available marketing channels and personal interaction, in addition to providing clear, full cost disclosures and how they relate to recreational value.
  • Sell bundled products, services and pricing: Dealers, brokers and vendors are encouraged to consider offering bundled sales of products and services to create new value for consumers.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue.


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