Importance of diversity to the long-term health of boating

Published on July 9th, 2013

Lou Sandoval is a passionate sailor and co-founder/co-owner of Karma Yacht Sales, a successful Beneteau dealership on Lake Michigan in Chicago. He is also very active in the marine industry.

As a member of the diversity committee of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council and being of Hispanic heritage himself, Sandoval discusses the importance of diversity to the long-term health of boating. From the June issue of Soundings Trade Only….

Coming from a Fortune 100 mindset I found it very interesting how insular the marine industry has been to broadening its appeal beyond the traditional buyer profile. I view diversity as the “ad,” if you may, and “inclusion” as the true action that we are working toward. It is mission-critical for the marine industry to attract and develop younger buyers, more women, differing perspectives and a broader range of ethnicities. It doesn’t just come from the buyers; we also need to diversify our work forces within the industry. Plain and simple, that’s just good business.

My business experience comes primarily from the 17 years I worked in the medical products industry. We learned long ago that in order for companies to better connect with the changing demographic of their buyers, their field sales organizations had to evolve to become more inclusive. Buyers are more apt to buy from representatives that understand the values of their culture and their particular use of the product being sold. The medical industry started with the front-line sales teams and carried on into management (at all levels) and operations. This practice started over 25 years ago in many consumer products sectors. The marine industry has a bit of catching up to do. Inclusion is, in part, awareness and action.

In our defense the marine industry never really had to reach out beyond their traditional buyer demographic. Since recreational boats are generally considered a non-necessity, you could debate that it wasn’t necessary to broaden the appeal. Our country is changing. It isn’t until we are faced with the factual evidence of the changing demographic of the United States. We operate in a more globally oriented marketplace, and the facts that the buyer demographic who so often supported boating over the past four and a half decades has a flat to declining birth rate and increasing age are all indicators of a need to alter course.

The good news is that we now recognize it and have some good examples of efforts conducted in other industries to change their course of action. There really isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel – rather [we need to] fine-tune these efforts to the boating community. It has to start at the manufacturer level. It needs to become a part of the way companies do business. It should be reflected in a specific brand’s marketing, from the photography they use in brochures to groups with whom they choose to collaborate.

I gave the example at the recent RBLC meeting of Harley-Davidson, which is also considered a luxury recreational brand. Almost nine years ago the management at H-D recognized that their market position was slipping and the forecast for the future did not look good. Rather than continue to push the image they had, they made a calculated effort to rebrand themselves and sell the freedom that comes with riding a Harley. They found that this “freedom” transcended all buyer and market segments. They focused on targeted affinity collaboration with the market segments they needed to grow in. A couple of weeks ago, they released the results of their efforts. For the fifth year in a row they have seen double-digit growth in women riders, riders aged 25 to 35, African Americans and Hispanics. There are many pearls of wisdom in this case for the marine industry, yacht clubs and other boating stakeholders.

I look forward to the day that I am no longer the first or only Hispanic member of any group. I recognize the impact that being a pioneer in anything symbolizes, yet I am also present to the responsibility that comes with that pioneer position – the responsibility of educating groups on how to attract a broader buyer demographic. Perhaps this is why I’m so vocal about this issue.

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