Keep the Fire Burning – Retaining the Heightened Interest in BoatingPublished on February 18, 2022
COVID-19 has claimed millions of lives worldwide and has dramatically changed our lives in numerous ways. But in most areas of the world, COVID-19 has also dramatically helped generate a booming interest in boating. It has attracted new boaters, former boaters have returned to the fold, and existing boaters have been using their boats more often and/or upgrading to better boats. Additionally, new and used boat sales have been way up, to the point that there is little inventory.
I was in a deli not long ago waiting my turn to order and struck up a conversation with the person ahead of me. He was talking about getting away for the weekend on his new boat. What type of boat? A pontoon boat. I asked him why the pontoon? His answer was that his wife had picked it out. He had never been into boating before but was loving it – getting away and being able to “escape staying cooped up” while having fun with the kids. The woman behind me joined in and said that she had a small cruiser and previously had lost interest in it – but now loved taking the family on weekend adventures.
The man behind her offered that he just bought a used fishing boat and liked catching his dinners on weekends and cooking them on an open fire with his family. Another person in line offered that paddle boarding had become a great passion. Yes, it’s a very popular deli, but even I was surprised at the number of boaters in the line and their enthusiasm!
And these unsolicited comments are just a small smattering of current attitudes in boating.
But just about two years ago at the beginning of the pandemic boating was in the process of shutting down. And before that abrupt “pause”, things were not looking overly rosy in many traditional boating segments. Many national and regional organizations were pushing their ‘grow boating’ campaigns to lure people back into boating. Boating manufacturers, sales organizations, and marinas had been trying to come up with successful approaches to spur interest in boating. While paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, and other individual personal watercraft use had steadily kept growing and leading the industry in sales growth, sales in most of the traditional boating mainstays had been down or lagging.
If one takes a more historical perspective, we see that boating interest has tended to be cyclical with its ups and downs. In down markets there is a focus on what we can do to spur interest, and in up markets we tend to become more of order takers. The problem is that if one waits until one’s interest in boating is falling or has fallen off – we have missed the boat (pun intended) of keeping people’s interest in boating up. Once interest has fallen, we are swimming upstream, trying to regain the desired momentum.
Just a brief time ago, when COVID-19 seemed to be on the decline and the world was opening up, people started traveling again – with a significant percentage of trips not being for business. Sports, music, theaters, and other activities also started more robustly opening up and demands on individual and family time were again starting to compete with boating. Then, omicron suddenly appeared and threw everyone for a bit of a loop. But, by the time you are reading this, it is likely (we all hope) that the current surge is passing, and people’s schedules will again start filling with other activities that will compete with their allotted boating time.
So how do we keep the high boating interest fire burning?
While the national and regional industry campaigns are helpful, they can only be one part of the puzzle.
Each marina, boatyard, yacht club, neighborhood group and other boating organization needs to continue to be proactive in promoting and maintaining interest in boating.
There is no one formula to use and the options are only limited by one’s creativity and imagination.
In terms of generalities, we know that boaters are a very social and communicative group. We tend to talk to other boaters even in the off-season – and even when not in line at a deli. People focus on things they like to brag about as well as bad experiences that often seem to get exaggerated into something more horrible than the original offense. It’s a social network that can be your downfall if you end up on the negative side, but it is great if it can be tapped with positive reinforcements for boating.
And since it is a social network, an obvious tool can be social media. Chances are most of your customers and would-be customers spend anywhere from a little to a whole lot of time on one or more platforms out there. I realize that this many-headed social media monster is often considered a bit of a nuisance, but if this is where your customers are, it just makes sense to try to meet them there. At a minimum make sure you have a Facebook page and keep it updated. You don’t have to post every day, but if your last post was a year ago, it is not doing what it could for you. If you haven’t already, ask your customers to like or follow your page.
You also might want to consider starting a Facebook “group” centered on your facility, whereby your customers may well do much of your publicity/ keep-the-fire-burning work for you. At the moment this seems to have taken more of a hold in yacht club and similar settings, but there is no reason it could not apply to many marinas as well. These groups become a virtual meeting space where folks will post pictures, stories, ask questions, look for crew, etc. Yes, it will require oversight, but by being an administrator you can manage content. Be sure to make the rules for participating clear, for example (in abbreviated form):
Be kind and courteous
No promotions, politics, or spam
Respect everyone’s privacy
No hate speech or bullying
Complaints and special requests of the facility should be directed to the general manager. Negative feedback relating to other group members, facility staff, or their respective actions will be removed.
These groups can be incredibly effective and real community builders.
And since not everyone will be on social media, and as a complement for those who are, it also makes sense to pursue old-fashioned things like email or print.
Some facilities send out weekly to monthly newsletters. Some of the most successful in terms of boaters’ interest include pictures and descriptions of enjoyable events – from birthdays to other virtual or in person celebrations. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true beyond measure. Stories about various experiences or visitors to the facility are also known to be a big hit. Others have included snippets on service and how various problems were detected and solved. And the newsletter does not have to be that formal – or even technically a newsletter. The point is to keep in contact and provide reasons/reminders for your customers to come to your facility.
Another set of reasons to come to your facility might involve boater education or skills training. For example, most states are now requiring boating licenses or boater education cards, with many targeted for children and younger adults. Working with groups such as the Coast Guard Auxiliary or other online entities can be very helpful to your customers and ease the pain of finding places for obtaining the required training for the licenses. It also helps to bring people together. I know of one marina that arranges such approaches three times a year. The marina does not run the courses but offers a room for them – and they even supply hot chocolate and cider with mini donuts. That facility also provides other training opportunities in navigation, electronics, and other aspects of boating that are offered as a means for advancing boaters’ knowledge as opposed to just a class to fulfil a regulatory requirement. For those who are not ready or prepared to host classes on site, there are online courses/trainings available that you may want to encourage your boaters to follow. You might even want to organize a group to take the same course at the same time so they can subsequently discuss what they learned and follow up with each other. The American Sailing Association is just one entity with an ongoing offering of such programs. The more confidence and ability boaters have, the more often and extensively they are likely to use their boats, and the more likely they are to invite friends along.
When COVID-19 is not a limitation, events such as picnics, regattas, socials, etc., are always a big hit. I am always in awe of people showing up for a free burger or hot dog to complement their several hundred-thousand-dollar boat. But, of course, it is not the free food they are really showing up for, it’s the event and the opportunity to mix and mingle.
Other facilities have followed the automobile industry in offering minor service specials for such things as oil changes, spark plug replacements, engine inspections or tune-ups. Just be sure that any additional work recommended in addition to the simple item they came in for is really needed. Never sacrifice your customers’ trust for a few extra immediate dollars!
Communication is Key
Also remember that keeping customers is a lot less expensive than attracting new ones. So, talking with customers and making them feel wanted, appreciated, and respected is priceless. Years ago, particularly in family operated marinas, there was almost always a warm pot of coffee for customers to use and share while they talked to the owner or manager. In many facilities that warmth and comraderie has been lost. Bringing back such opportunities can provide significant insight into what customers are thinking, what they like, what could be improved upon, what bothers them, and so on. And for all of us tea-drinkers out here, you might think of having both at the table!
I would appreciate hearing from you with your suggestions of how to keep the boating interest fire burning, even in good times.
Dan Natchez is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES, Inc., a leading international environmental waterfront design consulting company specializing in the design of marinas and marina resorts throughout the world. He invites your comments and inquiries by phone at 914/698-5678, by WhatsApp at 914/381-1234, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the Web at www.dsnainc.com.