Challenges and Opportunities to Grow Boating

Published on August 19th, 2013

The 2013 International Sailing Summit (ISS) has corralled the sailing industry leaders in San Francisco this week for the 12th edition of the conference. Thom Dammrich with the National Marine Manufacturers Association spoke on the challenges and opportunities to grow boating. Here are a few excerpts from his presentation….

Before we can get people into boating, we need to encourage outdoors activity. The more people that spend times outdoors, the more people we have an opportunity to capture. Outdoor recreation is what you do with left over time, left over money, and left over land. We are kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of economic drivers. But outdoor recreation is a major economic driver, accounting for 646 billion dollars of direct sales, with recreational boating representing about 86 billion dollars of the total. So its big business, both economically and socially.

But in 1997 boating participation peaked, and went into a 10 year decline. Since 2006, participation has been growing, and in 2012 it reached an all-time high 88 million Americans or 37-38% of US adults that went boating. This is a trend that other recreation activities, such as fishing and hunting, have also seen. So more Americans are getting outdoors, and that is a good thing, because the more Americans that are getting outdoors, the more people we have an opportunity to capture.

But there are some concerning trends. The average numbers of days that boaters are getting on the water to use their boats have declined in the past decade. We know that the more time people use their boats, the more likely they are to stay in boating, and the more likely they are to introduce other people to boating. So finding ways to get people out on the water using their boats is one of the important challenges if we want to grow boating.

We also are concerned about the curiosity in sailing. If you look at online Google searches for sailing related terms, we see that searches have been declining in the past eight years. Compared to 2004, there have only been 42% as many searches for sailing on the internet according to Google in 2012. There is another study from 2005 to 2013 that shows the searches are seasonal, peaking during the summer months, but the overall trend is clearly in decline. As for the location of the searches, they are largely in the Florida region, in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and all of California.

Growth will rely on increased marketing and awareness of the lifestyle, and our ability to provide access to experiences. We have to give people sailing experiences through training, rentals, clubs, etc. Whatever way we can to get people on the water and give them an experience is going to be a key to the future growth of sailing.

Transitioning young sailors into adult sailing must become a priority. Junior sailing is booming. High school sailing is burgeoning. College sailing is thriving. But by the age of 22, it is believed that 95% of those people are not sailing anymore. So we need to find a way to transition people from these youth sailing programs into adult sailing programs. Why aren’t they sailing? For most of youth sailing, you don’t need to own a boat, and many exit college saddled with significant student loans. Boat buying is not a priority. The increase of college education of time and money has been a major impediment to the growth of sailing.

Looking ahead to the next 30 or 40 years, we must recognize the population changes in the U.S. There will be a 150 million new Americans by 2050, and 92 million of them will be Hispanic, while only 7 million will be Caucasian. Last year was the first year the number of Caucasian deaths exceeded the number of Caucasian births in the United States. Reaching out to Hispanic and other ethnic minority groups will be imperative to grow sailing.

If we look at people who own boats, about 80% of people are Caucasian compared to 67% of the population. If we look at Hispanics and African Americans, the penetration is about half of what it is in the US population. But growth is already occurring. From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of Hispanic boat owners has gone from 6% to 18%, and based on the number of Hispanics with a household income of $100k+, there is significant room for growing boating sales. So this is a huge opportunity for sailing.

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