The marine and RV industries have several similarities: They’re both seasonal, rely on healthy economies for discretionary purchases, and have an aging (and largely white and male) customer base. They also are industries with long-standing marketing campaigns to help capture new fans, and to grow participation and ownership.

The Go RVing campaign is 26 years old, while Grow Boating has been around for 17 years. Both campaigns promote the recreation’s lifestyle, rather than products, to highly targeted groups. However, the fragmented marine industry funds its campaign differently than the RV industry; in the latter, three parent companies account for around 80 percent of the market.

Go RVing’s media buy-in budget was $24 million last year — triple Grow Boating’s 2018 budget, which was just shy of $8 million. Though Grow Boating is widely deemed an industrywide accomplishment, the financial disparity compared to the RV campaign has become an increasingly sore spot for boating advocates. They are watching funding shrink at the same time that new-boat expenditures soar to record levels.

Millennials are a key demographic that Discover Boating and Go RVing are targeting as potential first-time buyers. 

Millennials are a key demographic that Discover Boating and Go RVing are targeting as potential first-time buyers. 

“Right out of the box, we’re getting beat 3-to-1,” says recently retired Grow Boating president Carl Blackwell, who ran the campaign for 16 years. “The system is older and has gotten complicated, and is probably a little antiquated. It ought to be looked at and simplified. That would be a win-win for everyone.”

Some people question why the burden of promoting the boating lifestyle, which is largely carried by engine manufacturers, isn’t spread more evenly among sectors. “There is just overall resistance to big increases in funding,” says Joe Lewis, owner of Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina and past chair of Grow Boating’s board of directors.

By contrast, members of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association fully support Go RVing’s funding structure, says Karen Redfern, RVIA and Go RVing brand marketing and communications vice president.

“Go RVing is an anomaly of a program in many ways,” Redfern says. “It’s one of those things that the industry still feels extremely proud about and extremely vested in. We have the full support of our members helping us to keep that program alive.”

Support for Grow Boating has increased somewhat in recent years but still doesn’t have the level of engagement that Go RVing enjoys, Lewis says.

“When the downturn happened, they contributed more to their campaign instead of less like we did,” Lewis says. “They have been doing a wonderful job the last 20-plus years telling people how wonderful camping is, while we’re still playing catch-up.”

The Campaign that Almost Wasn’t

In the early 2000s, when Discover Boating was first being debated, manufacturers and dealers had a somewhat adversarial relationship, resulting in two failed attempts before the program moved forward in 2003. Inevitably, at least one company or another feels like it has been stuck contributing more than its fair share.

The RVIA also “heard all the political turmoil” when it began proposing campaign models in the early 1990s, says Redfern, who was with the association during the transition. Its largest member threatened to leave, arguing that it didn’t want to pay to advertise less-popular brands. That company ultimately decided to support Go RVing when the board opted to move forward with or without its largest member.

“We’ve had full buy-in by the membership that the program brings consumers to dealer lots,” Redfern says. “We really are focusing on bringing dealers to the very top of that purchase funnel. We’re trying to create interest, a want and desire, and motivate people to say, I can see myself doing those things — and then set them loose on the dealer to follow through and introduce them to the various products available.”

Models for Leisure Industries

In an era that gives multiple choices to consumers about how they spend leisure time, both the RV and marine campaigns have earned attention from sectors like the hot tub industry. “The boat and RV industry have it right,” Valley Pools & Spas owner Larry Berczyk told Aqua magazine. “Whoever is leading them is doing it right, and we just don’t have that type of leadership in the hot tub industry. And we need somebody or some group of people to draw everybody together.”

Even still, not all industry-funded efforts are created equal, says Blackwell, who worked with a $25 million ad campaign during his time in the beef industry. “We do the best we can with the money we have,” he says. “If you lined up the tactics, we’re pretty much doing the same things that they do in RVing, but they can do it a lot stronger and a lot louder. We’re very strategic and targeted in our efforts, but if our stakeholders don’t see it because it’s not big enough, in their minds, we didn’t do it. Among our targets, we are crushing it.”

Aligning goals with budgets is critical to successful campaigns, according to brand and marketing consultant Jeff Manning, who helped develop the “Got Milk?” campaign. “Frankly, associations sometimes establish objectives that are unachievable within their budgets,” he wrote, “ensuring that they will miss their marks.”

Diversity has also become a primary theme in both industries’ marketing messages. 

Diversity has also become a primary theme in both industries’ marketing messages. 

Budget Fluctuations

The RV industry has a fairly straightforward funding model. RV manufacturers must be RVIA members to be certified through a self-regulatory process, and all members must be certified. They must also pass six annual health and safety inspections. Manufacturers then buy a “shield” for every RV they build, and the shield they purchase is based on the category, not the unit price, Redfern says. There are four tiers. Shields for motorized RVs, the most expensive models, cost the most; towable RVs come next; then small towables and park models. Those tiered fees directly fund Go RVing.

“There’s a price for that shield, which is pretty minimal, but it’s part of the membership requirement,” Redfern says. “It’s becoming more prevalent that campgrounds will look for those so they can be sure it meets their standards. That way they know that if someone plugs in, they are not going to have a problem with that RV.”

Grow Boating has three sources of income. The largest comes from assessments on engines; another source comes from manufacturers’ accessories companies, which pay double dues (one for Grow Boating) to the National Marine Manufacturers Association; and the final source comes from a surcharge on booth space at the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference, Lewis says.

In 2005, engines 50 hp and above were assessed with a $10 Grow Boating fee, and those with lower horsepower had a $5 assessment. At one point, the industry was collecting $65 to $75 on engines over 150 hp, Lewis says. Today, the assessment is capped at $60.

“When this was created back in 2005, a 250-hp engine was a pretty big engine,” Lewis says. “Now that’s in the middle because the horsepower in engines has gotten a lot bigger, but we haven’t increased assessments.”

And there is a caveat. Engine manufacturers report how many engines they ship to NMMA member boatbuilders for domestic use, rather than collecting a fee upfront, because in 2004 when the funding model was established, boatbuilders paid engine companies after getting paid by dealers, Lewis says. That’s no longer the case, but the program still relies on engine manufacturers collecting money from boatbuilders, who in turn collect it from dealers, who presumably pass the fee to consumers.

“There are three entities involved — engine builders, boatbuilders and dealers,” Lewis says. “All three of them think they’re paying for the program, but we’re only getting one check. So if all these people think they’re spending all this money for Grow Boating, we’re only getting a third of it.”

A Smaller Pot

In 2008, funding for Grow Boating was cut as the industry reeled from the recession. When the full engine assessment was restored, it was a smaller amount because far fewer boats were being sold, Lewis says.

Just as funds were rebounding, the “Miami debacle” happened, he adds. In 2015, because of site renovations, the NMMA began a yearlong scramble to move the Miami International Boat Show from Miami Beach to Virginia Key. The association had to cultivate the virtually abandoned site of Miami Marine Stadium, which had been devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

During that already expensive process, the NMMA wound up entangled in lawsuits from residents who worried the show would cause traffic and environmental harm. The whole mess cut deeply into what had been a tremendous revenue source for the NMMA, prompting what amounted to about a 30 percent, or $3 million, cut to Grow Boating’s funding.

The NMMA board of directors reduced the Grow Boating assessments on all engines purchased by its members after Oct. 1, 2016. At the same time, the board approved a proposal from the NMMA Engine Manufacturers Division to implement a charge of $5 on all recreational marine engines under 50 hp, and of $10 on all recreational marine engines of 50 hp or greater sold by NMMA member engine manufacturers in North America, Lewis says. Unlike Grow Boating funding, these fees were assessed on all engines sold, with funds submitted by the engine manufacturers directly to the NMMA. It was a different process from the model used for Grow Boating funding. In short, manufacturers are still paying the same assessment fee, but the funds are now falling into a different bucket.

As the Miami situation stabilized in 2018, the NMMA restored $1 million from its core funding to Grow Boating’s budget, followed by another $1 million in 2019. “Rather than restoring the assessments, they’re giving back the money,” Lewis says. “Hopefully next year, we’re finally going to get back to that $3 million they took away from us, but that’s not going to hit the industry until the 2022 marketing program.”

Why not Both?

Adjusting for inflation, funding for Grow Boating would be more than $16 million today if the industry were matching its 2007 investment. “Granted, the industry needs a strong NMMA advocating on our behalf,” Lewis says. “Where I differ is this notion we can’t have both a strong NMMA and a robust boating marketing campaign. New boat, motor and accessories sales in 2018 were just north of $21 billion. I just don’t understand why we can’t come up with 0.2 percent, or $40 million, to adequately fund both.”

The industry has been focused on more immediately pressing issues, like the Miami show and the succession plan of longtime NMMA president Thom Dammrich, Blackwell says. “Nobody’s avoiding it; there’ve just been other things to talk about,” he says. “Hopefully when the dust settles, industry leaders can come together and look at different funding models. I think it would behoove the industry to simplify it.”

Blackwell, who says engine manufacturers are already doing more than their fair share, would also like to see sectors including marinas, brokerage, boat shows and marine bankers step up to the plate. “Where are the canoes and kayaks and SUPs?” he asks. “They desperately want to be featured in Grow Boating’s marketing, but when it’s time to ask them to contribute to the campaign, they run for the hills. Everyone throws this on the backs of a few.”

While Go Rviing enjoys unwavering support from RV manufacturers, Blackwell would like to see boating industry stakeholders become more united around Grow Boating. “We’re an ecosystem,” he says. “If everybody works together, we’re going to raise the tide of the whole ecosystem.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.

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