I’ve been blessed to spend the past 30 years of my career in the outdoor recreation industry, including in the outdoor retail sector and at the helm of the Outdoor Industry Association, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association and in my current role as president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. When I’m asked what we in the boating industry can learn from other outdoor industries, including the RV sector, there are three areas that come to mind where I see potential. These are opportunities to create three legs of a strong, stable stool to stand upon as we help the next generation of consumers become uniquely connected to the boating lifestyle.
Build a Unified Message Around Experiences
The entire RV industry is united behind one lifestyle message, Go RVing, and this cohesion has created an effective and powerful voice for the industry. On the boating side, we talk to the consumer in a variety of ways, mostly by pushing products first and our lifestyle second. It is an industry strength to have so many types of boats, boat shows and brands speaking to and exciting the consumer. We’re capable of telling a great story but, it’s a highly fragmented one.
Today’s consumer is deeply interested in new and unique experiences — something we’re well-positioned to deliver. When we talk with the consumer, there’s an opportunity to communicate that the boating lifestyle offers a wide range of inspirational activities and connections you can only have on the water.
Just think about the meaningful experiences our industry provides — cruising, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, wildlife-watching, tailgating, water sports and much more. We can tell these stories — we can explain and excite — but to make this case effectively we need to start by selling the experiences, not just the widget, and do so with a more cohesive, unified voice. Things are disposable to today’s consumer; experiences are invaluable.
Provide Pathways for the Entry-Level Consumer
It’s important to get more lines in the water for everyone, especially the entry-level consumer. The RV industry has been focused on cultivating beginners, fighting tooth and nail to keep prices down on products that target them. You can enter RVing with new products that range from $8,000 to $15,000, which makes the experience accessible to more people than we’re seeing in boating.
The popularity of “teardrop” RVs is a great example. They’re inexpensive and garage-ready, so from the moment you take one home it’s packed and ready for the next adventure. But it’s nearly impossible to find family-oriented products that provide the same lifestyle-changing experiences at entry-level price points to would-be boaters. Yes, there are exceptions, but as it stands today our good-better-best ladder has a very thin bottom rung, so those consumers go elsewhere.
Part of this conversation must include doing everything we can to put entry-level consumers into new products, as opposed to preowned boats. Five years after making a purchase, 71 percent of first-time boat buyers who bought a new boat stay in boating. That figure falls to 53 percent if they bought a preowned boat (according to data from Info-Link). Clearly, the experience is more satisfying when a beginner starts with a new boat rather than a used one.
While one solution is to make sure we’re doing all we can as an industry to provide a better preowned experience, the other is ensuring our industry’s growth and future consumer pipeline is well-stocked by providing affordable, new boats for today’s consumer.
Again, the RV industry presents an example we can learn from. When a dealer puts a preowned RV on the lot, they can park it next to a new one that might be smaller or less advanced but has a similar or slightly higher price point. That makes it easier to sell the new product, creating a soon-to-be-satisfied customer who can climb that ladder and upgrade to a bigger or better RV in the future. The RV industry has made it possible for entry-level consumers to buy new from the very start, and we need to make boating just as accessible to beginners.
Target Future Consumers
Eight out of 10 people who enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle were introduced to their activity of choice by a mentor when they were between the ages of 5 and 18 (according to The Outdoor Foundation). This fact is often discussed in outdoor industries, RVing among them, and most of us understand mentoring youth into boating is critical.
We need to put this to work by micro-targeting young adults and their parents in new and emerging demographics. That includes meeting the consumer where they are and utilizing the media they’re accustomed to, including social media and non-traditional channels, with campaigns specifically developed for their segments. We need to continue to get a whole new set of multicultural influencers talking about boating, the lifestyle and their unique connection with the water. By doing so, boating enthusiasts will begin to better reflect the face and diversity of our changing society.
Boating remains strong entering 2020, and while there’s certainly more we can glean from other industries, the above lessons are important across all recreation sectors. If we can capitalize on these three things better than anyone else — building a unified message around experiences, providing pathways for the entry-level consumer, specifically targeting the consumers of the future — boating will not only have a solid base to work from, but can increase its market share as we strive to ensure the growth and success of recreational boating in America.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.