The Recreational Boating Leadership Council gathered in Chicago for year-end discussions on six long-term initiatives that will form the basis of a 10-year growth plan to transform recreational boating.
The RBLC, formed at the 2011 Growth Summit, had last met at the American Boating Congress in Washington, D.C., last May, but members of the six initiative committees have done varying degrees of plan development within their groups.
The 20 participants at a five-hour December meeting at the Hilton Rosemont hotel heard reports from the chairmen of each of the initiative committees: advocacy, marketing, education, diversity, youth and affordability. It was the third time the group has met since the initial 2011 summit.
The council agreed that each chairman needs to do a better job of conveying the content and strategies emerging from the group discussions to their constituents, including marine trades associations across the country.
Ideas discussed to improve communication and participation from industry peers in the process included more frequent, concise communications with clear directives to recipients about spreading the news and participating in the process.
RBLC leaders also made the point that others in the industry are invited to join the process.
“The council is open to anyone,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and secretary of the leadership council. Those interested are encouraged to contact Dammrich or Matt Gruhn, chairman of the leadership council and president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
Here are highlights of the committee reports:
NMMA senior vice president of marketing and communications Carl Blackwell of the marketing committee says the industry’s Grow Boating campaign continues to deliver with its Discover Boating website and increasing social media presence.
Blackwell says the site tallied 928,000 referrals to manufacturer sites in 2013 alone, up from 67,700 just three years ago.
“Many manufacturers have told us we are their second-largest source, after Google, of website referrals, next to search engines,” Blackwell says of his limited survey of industry manufacturers.
The next step is to start tracking these referrals to see whether or when they purchase boats, he adds.
Blackwell notes that the growth campaign ramped up its Twitter activity by 159 percent in the past year, reaching 4.5 million viewers, and that its Facebook page added 120,000 “likes” in the past year and will increase its presence on YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and other social media sites.
For 2014, Blackwell said the campaign will add fresh photos and videos, with some of them promoting diversity in the boating lifestyle, in order to target a younger audience. Content marketing also will be ramped up.
The youth participation committee, headed by Northwest Marine Trades Association chief executive George Harris and Sea Scouts national director Keith Christopher, is creating a national database on youth boating programs.
Harris says the work in progress should go online in the spring and have at least 3,000 vetted youth programs. Local marine trades council leaders will be asked to add to the database, which will have an online form to enter the information.
The database eventually will serve as an asset for other industry groups to promote and partner with local youth programs.
“We’ve got to get the information out that there’s a national database and ask others to help grow it,” Harris says.
John Kukuk, owner of Nestegg Marine in Marinette, Wis., and chairman of the Wisconsin Marina Association, heads the education committee, which is developing a national database of education and training programs. Kukuk says his dealership has offered on-water training to customers for years, and it has helped to produce numerous boat sales.
“Do our dealers realize that education can aid in selling boats? I don’t think a lot do,” he says.
Kukuk discussed the possibility of conducting one of the popular “track” education sessions at the 2014 Marine Dealer Conference & Expo to spread the word about on-the-water training as a sales tool.
Although powerboats dominate the U.S. recreational fleet, education programs to learn sailing far outnumber those for powerboats, a situation that has to be addressed by increasing the number of certified powerboat instructors nationwide, he says.
Lou Sandoval, co-owner of Karma Yacht Sales in Chicago and a member of the diversity committee, says an on-the-water training program initiated at his Chicago Yacht Club yielded an increase in membership and produced several boat sales to members who became hooked on the lifestyle.
“[Training] builds competency and it builds engagement in the sport,” he says.
Other council members note that the NMMA and Sail America water training programs at boat shows are creating enthusiasm among those who participate.
“Somehow we have to make on-water training more accessible and readily affordable,” Dammrich says.
Dammrich announced that he is handing over the chairmanship of the diversity committee to veteran industry marketer Wanda Kenton Smith, who stepped forward to volunteer.
Dammrich says the headway the industry has made on increasing participation among members of minority groups has been noteworthy. “Two years ago when we first met, nobody was talking about diversity. Nobody,” Dammrich says.
He cites the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s recent five-year plan to increase participation among the burgeoning and increasingly affluent Hispanic population and an informational session at the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo in November as steps in bringing diversity, and its growth potential, to the forefront.
Census data show that 6 million Hispanic households now have an income of more than $50,000 and that Hispanic household incomes topping $75,000 grew by 152 percent between 2000 and 2012.
“If your customers are primarily Caucasian, and you don’t know this, you’re probably not thinking about reaching out to this potential market,” Dammrich says.
Sandoval suggests that the industry make an effort to recruit minority-group members as employees and not just as customers.
“We need to promote the industry as a landing deck and a career opportunity,” he says. “The quickest way to have minorities assimilate is through other minorities in the industry and promoting it,” he says.
NMMA legislative counsel Jeff Gabriel, who leads the advocacy committee, touts the industry’s effective fight against increasing the level of ethanol in the nation’s gasoline supply from 10 percent to 15 percent, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency has backed away from the increase until further scientific testing is done.
Gabriel says that increasing the already growing participation in the annual American Boating Congress was critical to maintaining “a very robust advocacy group.”
For 2014, Gabriel says, goals include improving the NMMA’s “alert system,” which acts as a two-way avenue for information on critical national legislative issues and local issues from the front lines.
An increase in the number of conference calls on legislative issues also is in the works and a session on effective lobbying techniques will be added to ABC to better arm participants for their meetings with legislators.
Jim Coburn, managing partner at Coburn & Associates, heads the affordability committee, which is tackling an issue connected to all of the other key council initiatives — particularly marketing and education.
“Perception is reality, and there is a perception that boating comes with a high cost,” Coburn says, noting that auto and RV sales have rebounded far better after the Great Recession than boats, “in part because new-boat costs have risen exponentially.”
Alternatives such as fractional ownership and rental and peer-to-peer programs were discussed as offering some relief.
“Affordability means a lot of things to different people,” says Joe Lewis, owner of Mount Dora Boating Center in Florida. “You can get into boating for $300 per month, and we need to drive that message home.”
Lewis says industry marketing also should stress “the value of boating” through the family-oriented lifestyle that “creates lifetime experiences” that transcend generations.
“There is nothing else out there like boating,” he says.
Jeff Behan, vice president of planning and business development for Brunswick Corp., notes the “costs of time and hassles” that compound the economic cost of boating.
“As a manufacturer, we see affordability as the biggest long-term threat to this industry,” he says.
Brunswick announced in November a push to use multiple strategies to offer consumers more affordable boating options.
The next meeting of the RBLC is scheduled to be held in Washington in May on the day before the start of ABC.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.