Boating and fishing have been continuous threads in Stephanie Vatalaro’s life. She was born in Ohio “into a boating family,” spending weekends aboard her grandparents’ boat on Lake Erie.
Things changed dramatically when she turned 7 and her immediate family moved to Islamorada, Fla. “When we moved there in 1983, it was the authentic Keys. A little more of that beatnik personality,” Vatalaro says. Her dad found his calling as a guide and offshore captain. “[He] really fell into and stayed with it a long time — flats fishing, backcountry fishing. So I grew up in the fishing capital of the world, and my dad was a fishing guide, so obviously [I] spent a lot of time on the water growing up.”
After attending college, Vatalaro fell out of the salt life for a spell, but kismet brought her back in when she started dating her future husband, Michael. When he bought a boat, it was a turning point in their relationship. “We were, by far, the youngest people at the dock in our 20s,” she says. “We used to go out and overnight on it, and it was old. It was a 1979, so we did all the work on it, and it was a lot of fun.”
Michael — who grew up outside of Annapolis and is a digital innovator manager at BoatUS — heard of an opening at the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. “That’s what got me to RBFF,” Vatalaro says. “I thought, personal interests, professional interests, the stars are aligning. ... Well, it worked out and here we are 14 years later.”
How has your role at RBFF evolved through the years?
I came on board as a communications manager in 2006, and at the time, I was focused on the stakeholder side of things: reaching out to trade media publications, doing stakeholder newsletters, communications work and whatnot. Over the years, I’ve kind of bounced around back and forth within our consumer outreach [segment]. I have experience in public relations, so there was a time where I was managing the work we did with our vendors on that. I started to step into leadership roles several years back. It’s just been fun and challenging all along the way, so I’ve stuck with it.
What are you most proud of during that time?
Hiring has been super rewarding. I’ve had the pleasure to hire and work with some really amazing people, and to see them grow, learn the market, learn the business, and grow in it and still be with us six and eight years later. Another thing I would say is — I don’t know if everyone is aware — we have to actually compete for our funding, and we do that every five years. It used to be every three years, and the last two rounds of it, I have led our internal process to put together that bid, the response, get all the right people lined up, and get it in to the Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s huge. I mean, the last one that went in, we’re talking five years and $60 million of funding, so it’s very complex. It’s very challenging, but it’s also very rewarding because it’s not just an award and accomplishment for me, but it’s helping sustain the whole organization.
When’s the next time you have to do that process?
2022. It’ll be here before you know it.
RBFF has worked hard to increase diversity. What has your role been in that effort?
Diversity is essential to the future of boating and fishing and our industry. That current participant is made largely up of older white males, and that’s not reflective of our younger generations. We believe in a research-first approach: Let the consumer decide what they need, or let them tell us what they need. Going several years back, we do an annual participation study, and from that, we get kind of the broad brush of fishing and boating and what’s going on there, but then we have questions on niche segments and motivations and behaviors.
I’ll use the Hispanic market as an example. The Fish and Wildlife Service puts out a report every five years on participation, and their survey came out saying participation was up 11 percent, and we all went, “Yeah, good job.” But when you start to dig into the numbers, what we found was that Hispanic participation during that same five-year time period — while the population in the U.S. was exploding — was actually flat, so RBFF president Frank Peterson, in his infinite wisdom, said, “We need to get on that.” If we’re charged with growing future participation, this is a group we need to be talking to, and that was the impetus for the Vamos A Pescar campaign.
We worked with our board to vet it and develop a strategic plan. We used our own best practices to bring diverse staff on board, not just to translate material, but to give us those cultural insights and understandings that we would need to really resonate with that campaign.
I will say that we can’t take full credit for it because there’s a lot of factors at play, honestly. But Hispanic participation is at an all-time high. In 2019, they hit a record high 4.4 million.
How is progress on 60 in 60, the team’s effort launched in 2016 to increase participation in the sport from 49 million anglers to 60 million anglers in 60 months?
We haven’t been talking about it too much this year because, obviously, the pandemic. That’s kind of taken over everything we’re doing. But 60 in 60 is alive and well, and if there are any silver linings to this pandemic for our sport, we may just come really close to hitting that number for 2020 or possibly even surpassing it. This was Frank’s brainchild. It’s really a rallying cry to bring the industry together, to understand if we all do our part and we hit the 60 million number, it reaps rewards for everyone. It increases sales. It increases tackle sales, license sales. It increases dollars for conservation.
How about the Women Making Waves campaign?
Women Making Waves came to be in a similar way to Vamos A Pescar. Digging into our research insights, we started to see that a lot of women were coming into the sport each year. When you look at participation in fishing, it’s at about 35 percent women and the rest are men. But when you look at newcomers, women are close to 50 percent. However, they’re dropping out of the sport at a very high rate, so we start to dig into that a little bit.
We wanted to keep them from dropping out, so we created Women Making Waves as a way to do that, to celebrate and empower women in the sport [as] an offshoot of our advertising campaign for Take Me Fishing. Creatively, the execution is very similar, but it’s a, “Come join us if you’re new. Here’s some tools about how to get started.”
One key finding was that [women] don’t identify as anglers; they don’t see themselves in the sport. They’re walking into a tackle shop, they’re opening a catalog, and they don’t feel like they belong. They literally don’t see themselves, so we wanted to change that. We wanted to empower women and help them see themselves on the water and help them get started.
The other key finding there was that moms are actually fishing with their kids more than dad, which was very surprising. They’re likely playing that role of teacher, so they’re important to the growth of the sport.
Women’s participation is at an all-time high, so we’re hopeful that our campaign has had some impact on that. In 2019, it was 17.9 million women participating in fishing,
Let’s talk about this year’s pandemic-driven partnership with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
We’ve aligned our campaigns with them [in the past] — things like organizing who purchases keywords in the market so that we’re not stepping on each other’s feet — but this was the first time that we partnered with both the NMMA and MRAA to develop a full creative campaign, and obviously, looking back on it now, it feels like we did the impossible. We created a new campaign and launched it in five weeks, and that’s something that normally takes months to do. Uniting our resources and message allowed us to issue a very powerful and widespread directive to consumers: The water is open, get on board!
We had a wonderful experience working with their team. Just wonderful, smart minds at the table. The partnership allowed us to really focus and amplify our message to consumers. We were able to combine our assets, so our photo library and our video library was more extensive than normal, and we all knew we had to get something done quick, and we did it. It was successful, I really believe, coming back to that research point — research and insights underpin everything we do.
The numbers that the campaign generated were just staggering. All in, both Discover Boating and our campaign generated 2.4 billion impressions. That’s insane. And the Take Me Fishing digital properties in the first six months of our fiscal year, which goes from April to October, normally, we see 16 million visits, and in that same time period, we saw 40 million visits.
What challenges are ahead, and how can the industry address them?
I would say retention is our immediate future challenge, and that’s something that we’re working on hard now to not only help our campaign, but to help the industry. We had a slew of new folks come in this year, and we know that a certain percentage are going to drop out. How do we keep as many of those as we can? We need to be reminding them about all the great fun they had on the water this year. We need to be educating them on how to boat, how to fish, where to go near them. We need to support them. It’s not a one and done: Here’s your papers. Have a nice life.
I still think we have a long-term future challenge of recruitment. Millennials are the most diverse generation in the U.S., and children of color already make up the majority of kids in a lot of states. That doesn’t fit what our current participant looks like, and we need to be looking forward and thinking about those groups and getting fishing and boating into their consideration set now, or we’ll start to see a decline in our numbers. For fishing, it’s two-thirds of newcomers drop out every year. It’s a lot.
Who’s going to replace the baby boomers with bigger boats retiring out of the sport? What strategies can we use?
We have to start by really breaking down the barriers to the sport. We have to show people that it’s for them. One thing that brands and companies can do in their outreach and advertising is show diversity, be inclusive, show audiences who may not typically participate in the sport.
Also — and this goes to the retention I was speaking about — help people be successful. Don’t just sell them something and wish them on their way. Collect their email. Talk to them about places they can go, tips for getting better at boating or fishing. Newcomers need support, and they need two or three tries before it’s really going to stick. Training and education on the boating side, that’s super important.
What people really need and want, what these new anglers and boaters really want, is tips and tools to make it easier. They may have had some frustrations out on the water. They want to catch more fish. They want to be more successful at it. They want to know places to go near them. They want to build on their skills, so anybody who interacts with the consumer can do this, whether it’s the state agency selling the license, whether it’s a tackle shop selling equipment, or a boat dealer selling a boat. We all kind of have a responsibility.
RBFF’s main mission is recruitment. We’ve been the recruitment arm for the industry for many, many years, but 2020 was kind of a special year, and we cannot look away from this opportunity of retention, so we will be incorporating some of these elements into our campaign creative, but we’re also working to produce tools that the industry can use in their own campaigns.
What is your ideal day on the water?
A perfect summer day with my family usually involves heading out mid-morning. We go to a — it’s technically an island, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s like a giant sandbar, but it’s private property. The owners sell a pass to it, so we go out with the dog and our 10-year-old daughter, and we set up camp for the day.
We beach the boat. We bring an umbrella and snacks and music, and we hang and we chill, and sometimes we take the paddleboard out. We float. We build things in the sand. For me, it’s all about the relaxation. I love being on the water. I always have, and I find my most peaceful calm times when I’m out.
How do we get more people into the sport to enjoy those kinds of days?
I sound like a broken record, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that it really does take the whole industry, everyone doing their part, to ensure the future of the sport. As an industry, I think we all have a responsibility to do our part to make sure that people are having a great experience on the water, and that’s what’s going to keep them coming back year after year.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.