The National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Discover Boating initiative wants to help us all grow our sea legs and relish the boating experience.

A day in the life of your typical American family is best summed up in one word: hectic. There’s work, school, shopping, housework, extra-curricular activities for the kids, more work – the list seems never-ending. Outside of this mundane routine, however, the reality is we are spending less time with family today than ever before. Many things pull us away from spending time with our loved ones, but it’s clear Americans yearn for a means to draw themselves closer.
That’s where boating comes in.

Recreational boating generated $39.5 billion in sales last year, making it a major player in the leisure goods and services industries. Participation in boating increased an estimated 7 percent in 2006 to 72.6 million Americans. This means 32 percent of all U.S. adults went out on a boat at least once last year. The number of boats in use also swelled to 17.7 million, up approximately 60,000 units from 2005.
Overall, pretty impressive numbers.

But in spite of the rise in boating participation, our industry has felt the effects of a challenging economy and is experiencing declining sales. Over the last 15 years, unit sales within the recreational boating industry have ebbed and flowed in a five-year cycle. This cycle appears to peak in years ending in five and zero and usually contains two down years and three up years (though the most recent cycle was made up of three down years and two up years). In our last five-year cycle, unit sales declined in 2001, 2002 and 2003 before rising in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, the industry’s last peak year (2005) failed to reach the same heights as previous peak years in 2000, 1995 and 1990. We know 2006 also experienced a downturn in unit sales (a 5 percent decrease from 2005), and if the sales cycle theory holds true, we should likewise expect a down year for unit sales in 2007. Consumer confidence has been all over the map, and the slump in the housing market, combined with variable rate mortgages and home equity loans re-pricing at higher rates, have negatively impacted boat sales.

So the question remains: What are we doing to stem the tide of these declines?

Charting new courses:
The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) is leading the charge to help increase participation in recreational boating and boat sales on behalf of the entire marine industry via an effort known as the Grow Boating Initiative (GBI). NMMA is the nation’s largest recreational marine trade association, and as such has taken the reigns to rally all segments of our industry together – boat, engine and accessory manufacturers, dealers, marina owners and operators, local and state trade associations, marine service providers – to unite behind one common goal: Grow our businesses and encourage more people to get out on the water and experience the joys of boating.

To date, GBI has made clear progress in each of its four strategic areas: increasing and protecting water access; improving boaters’ sales and service experience through certification of marine dealerships; certifying the boats themselves to ensure consumers receive a quality product; and unveiling Discover Boating, a national marketing/advertising/communications campaign designed to help dreamers become boat owners and current boaters enrich their experiences.

Last year marked the debut of Discover Boating, the recreational boating industry’s first-ever, fully integrated national consumer marketing campaign. Discover Boating is GBI’s consumer face, comprised of a national television, print and online advertising campaign, public relations and promotions effort, event marketing and a very helpful Web site, www.Discover- Boating.com. The campaign, now in its second year, is funded through industry contributions via a surcharge on marine engines and voluntary contributions through the initiative’s Rising Tide Fund (visit www.GrowBoating.org to learn more).

But the Discover Boating campaign isn’t just about advertising; it’s about taking an integrated marketing approach to help Americans appreciate the positive benefits of boating. Boating not only provides the best way to spend quality time with family and friends, it’s a great stress reliever and a terrific way to enjoy the outdoors or go fishing. Along with advertisements, there are several other Discover Boating components being included in the overall campaign this year. One of the biggest changes is the addition of a viral marketing element. With assistance from General Motors (GM), we have created, filmed and distributed a three- and a half-minute short film highlighting the life of a boater as he reflects on experiences aboard a boat from childhood through his senior years. The film, titled Good Run, was placed on YouTube.com, several boating Web sites, turned into a Father’s Day e-card on AmericanGreetings.com and sent via e-mail to thousands of passionate boaters. Our interactive marketing efforts and Web site, DiscoverBoating.com, play a major role in bringing the Grow Boating Initiative full-circle.

Making waves
For years, the boating industry has watched other industries like RVs, milk, and beef launch national marketing campaigns. Now, with the introduction of GBI, the industry finally stopped talking and started acting. The initiative is a long-term plan and still somewhat in its infancy. But in just two years time, our industry has accomplished what was once deemed impossible: We have united under one common umbrella and are now working together to grow and improve our business in the years to come. And the plan is working. We know this based on research conducted during the first six months of the Discover Boating campaign in 2006. People exposed to positive boating messages are already buying boats. According to a study conducted by independent market research firm Russell Research, since March 2006, one out of every six people registered on Discover- Boating.com as a boating prospect has purchased a boat since visiting the Web site. And that’s just in the campaign’s first eight months.

Our challenge in 2007 and beyond is to scale up our efforts; to get more people interested in boating and keep them interested. As the Initiative moves forward, we not only intend to continue progressing in all strategically defined areas, but also look to generate increased momentum. At a time when sales are soft and the existing economic climate creates feelings of uncertainty and uneasiness among Americans, it becomes more important than ever to secure our industry’s future. And through the Grow Boating Initiative, that’s exactly what we’re on target to achieve forging ahead in 2008 and 2009.

Thom Dammrich is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). Headquartered in downtown Chicago, NMMA is the leading association representing the recreational boating industry. NMMA’s 1,700-member companies produce more than 80 percent of the boats, engines, trailers, accessories and gear used by boaters in the United States. The association is dedicated to industry growth through programs in public policy, market research and data, product quality assurance and marketing communications. Visit: www.nmma.org