On The Waterfront: Changing Trends in the Recreational Boating Industry

I love boating and many would say I’m a water rat without the whiskers (that is when I shave). I love to sail, waterski, cruise and, yes, even work on the boat when there is time.

Recreational boating has been with us for a long time, although back in the day it probably had a greater focus on fishing for dinner and basic transportation. As we all know, it really took off in the post World War II era, growing and evolving into a significant recreational pursuit throughout the world, and with a well-established industry to support it, from boat manufacturers to marina operators, service and accessory providers, and so on.

But today we are faced with a dramatically changing market, and the question that keeps coming up is will the industry keep up with the trends, and meet and overcome these challenges?

First and foremost, we should remember that we are not alone. Other industries are and have been through similar issues and have weathered the storms, economic downturns and changing age and attitudes of users. They have, for example, realized that they are not just in the hotel or automobile business – they are in the hospitality business. And that is a realization that in many cases (not all!) has not come to the recreational boating industry – or at least not to the extent that it needs to!

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The cost of boating is going up dramatically and far outpaces other disposable income attractions. Many manufacturers in the automobile industry have moved to produce stripped-down, low-priced, entry level models. But in the boating world the cost of most boats far exceeds that of even perceived high-end luxury cars. Those cars are typically used fairly often, in many cases every day. In contrast, typical boat usage (except for the die-hards), averages about once a month during the boating season.

Less Problems, More Boating

For automobiles, the number of problems requiring warranty or major service has declined sharply. I am told by boat manufacturers that the numbers for warranty dollars are down, and that certainly is a positive trend. But service providers and boaters tell me the number of smaller problems has not been reduced, and the perception is that they are increasing. Candidly, the customer does not overly care if it is minor or major problem. The boater wants to go, get into the boat, turn the key, and go. There is little tolerance for things not going smoothly. When there is a problem with the luxury car and it is in the shop for a few days, a week or more, there is usually a loaner or second car to use. When the boat is not working, it is not working – PERIOD. Given how few days most boaters boat, not being able to on any given boating day is a big deal.

In the automobile industry, most sales and maintenance people are being trained to go out of their way to solve problems, be humble, hospitable, and find ways to make it easier for the customer.

In the boating industry we are suffering from increasingly complicated electronics and mechanisms.  They are outpacing the service providers’ ability to keep up with the changes, or to have good diagnostic tools and problem solving.

And while the industry is advancing toward remote diagnostics, it will never replace and can only complement hands-on experience.

Automobile service providers are now triaging car repairs – with near immediate preliminary diagnoses and then the repairs. It cuts down the turnaround time dramatically and speeds up delivery of parts.

In the boating industry, there tends to be more of an approach that we’ll get to it when we get to it, then we’ll be in a better position to figure it out, what is wrong, what additional parts we need to order, and then we’ll wait for them. It adds to down-time and lack of efficiency that costs the industry money and adds greatly to consumer dissatisfaction.

What does this have to do with hospitality? Everything. Things go wrong – but the industry needs to do a better job on handling problems quickly and cutting down-time for use of the boat. The more expensive the boat, the less tolerance customers have for problems, and the greater the “entitlement” attitude prevails.

When someone calls with an issue I have witnessed on more than one occasion that the first reaction by the dealer or service provider is simply “it’s not our fault,” without a dash of sympathy, rather than setting a much better tone by asking how can we help and what can we do.

We live in a fast-paced society. The more one can be helpful, react to a problem and more importantly, make the customer feel that you are really on his/her side and will do your best to solve it, the better it is for all.

Power of Good Hospitality

A friend of mine had a problem with a consumer product within the warranty period. The dealer went round in circles. She then called the headquarters and was greeted with a promise of “we will take care of it immediately.” Their great follow-through won her over as a customer for life, and she is not bashful about sharing her experience, though she will not be going back to that original dealer!

It would be well for the industry to embrace higher and better customer relations. Not just to close a deal, but to make the customer want to come back, trade up, and tell friends about the experience.

I asked one of the heads of a major boat manufacturer what he considered his best approach to advertising. He listed a slew of approaches, but was missing that his customers are his greatest and least expensive source of advertising – and can also be his worst enemy.

Your customers are out there talking more than ever, whether through online reviews, chat rooms, or the cocktail circuit. The internet is a great source of information – but it is also a great source of people’s experiences and boating is no different. Yet the industry typically does not spend enough time or energy to really harness its customers’ perspectives and input.

In the hotel industry one gets a request for comments after each use. Many use it as a great tool for training and working with their employees on how to better handle issues. How many times have you asked your customers for their feedback?

We also live in a world where negative comments, whether true or not, tend to be perceived as gospel.  How we react to them and what we do with them can make a world of difference as to how much they matter. While no one likes to get negative comments, they can be a window as to what needs doing, whether in your marina or the greater boating world.

Everyone is bemoaning the lack of new and younger new boaters coming into boating. Industry groups and manufacturers are spending great sums of money trying to induce people into boating – such as the Grow Boating campaign. But when the prospects come to talk about a boat, sticker shock is more apparent than in most other disposable income activities. Add to that the limited usage and having to deal with authorizations for warranty claims or delays in obtaining parts, and it all ends up casting a thick cloud over the industry.

New Boaters and Profit Centers

The fastest growing segment in the recreational boating industry is stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) – worldwide. Why? It is inexpensive entry, easy to use, and does not require a lot of set up or put away time. It’s also seen as being pretty green, which tends to be particularly attractive to younger boaters.  You can get a paddleboard for a few hundred dollars to many many times that amount. So even within the SUP segment there is room for trading up, and there is certainly lots of opportunity for luring paddlers into the bigger boating world once they have gotten their feet wet with SUP. In fact, there are paddler groups organizing all sorts of SUP events, both formal and informal, and capitalizing on the numbers, but the overall recreational boating industry as an industry has been slow to pick up on what can be learned from it, and in many cases has been actively discouraging it. I understand that we may not think of these boards as much of a boat, but let’s not miss them!

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 fax at 914/698-7321, by email at or on the Web at