Recreation Industries Work Side by Side to Retain Customers

Those who work in the outdoor recreation industry have known for a long time that the industry offers many benefits. Mental and physical health, expanded awareness of the environment, and a boost to the nation’s economy can all be had from more people hiking, biking, fishing, and boating. The benefits were brought to the forefront during the pandemic, as people escaped to the outdoors in record numbers. But now that life is slowly returning to what it once was, will the outdoor recreation industry continue to hold its place as a leading economic driver as well as the perfect solution to a population needing to get out of the house?

Recreation Industries Join Forces
Chris Edmonston, vice president of government affairs for BoatUS, and Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America, are both working hard to retain the popularity of outdoor activities through their day jobs as well as their roles as board members with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR). Both have been involved with the organization from its early days and see the positives of working side by side with those entrenched in other recreation industries such as camping, off-roading, and skiing. “The large amount of effort we expend is to present a collective voice that can get us in the door to have real conversations with those in Congress. We can share our needs and what opportunities there are,” Gruhn said.

Edmonston concurred, citing the Bureau of Economic Analysis report that showed outdoor recreation had an economic impact to the nation on a level with agriculture or mining. “With that financial data and our combined voices, we have a powerful message to share with legislators. The best part is that the message is bipartisan. Everyone sees the positive results for supporting outdoor recreation,” he said.

Boating plays a key role as the number one economic contributor in the outdoor recreation economy, but the industry still has issues with a lack of infrastructure and regulatory impediments. These issues are not unique to boating and are common among all of the ORR participants. Just as boaters are challenged to find adequate access to the water through boat ramps and marinas, campers need better roads and vacancies in existing campgrounds and RV parks. Edmonston gave Dade County Florida as an example of the struggles faced for access. “The ramps in Dade County are often closed in the early morning because the parking lot has already filled. The demographics of today with people moving around, especially into Florida, have created challenges that communities didn’t anticipate. We need some regulatory reforms to reduce the time it takes for a private entity to build a new access point and for permits to be released,” he said. Having the collective voice of ORR to tackle these issues will be beneficial.

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Along with similar obstacles, the various groups in the ORR also see their customers as basically the same since many sectors of recreation have overlapping participants. It further gives the ORR a unified voice when they are working on behalf of similar, if not the same, populations. And because participants cross sectors, all recreational pursuits are facing the question of whether the popularity of outdoor recreation will continue now that vacations, youth activities, and work schedules have returned to normal, and if it does, how can the industries avoid growing so big that overcrowding becomes the new problem. “We’ll (new boaters) return to other things, but boating grew quite a bit. It will plateau at a place higher than where it was before the pandemic. It can’t continue at this current rate though. I’m pretty confident in that,” Gruhn said.

Selling the Boating Lifestyle
To retain active participation and interest in outdoor recreation, industry leaders are relying on the consumers’ passion for the lifestyle, and not just a means to get away during a pandemic. “Many people who went boating during the pandemic weren’t looking for a new lifestyle, but for a way to get out. Those people will be harder to retain. We need to educate them and remove the hassle factor. They need easy access to water and to service, they need to know how to operate their vessels and how to find qualified yards to give them seamless service,” Edmonston said.

Gruhn agreed. “The foundation of why recreation enthusiasts choose their pursuit is based on passion and they will go to great lengths to continue that pursuit. They choose to be passionate about the lifestyle surrounding the activity which is huge and why they won’t quickly turn away,” he said.

A benefit for the boating industry is that organizations such as Discover Boating and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation were working to attract people to boating long before the pandemic hit. That made a turn to boating that much easier for those looking for an outlet during the pandemic. Gruhn said information from manufacturers and dealers continues to show that boating has not lost popularity yet. He cited dealers that previously would stock 50 boats at a time are now struggling to keep three on the lot and the lead time for new boats is still unusually long.

Bringing it Home
Both Gruhn and Edmonston agreed that long-time boaters will not turn to any other recreational pursuit so the focus needs to be on keeping new boaters and ensuring they see the cost-benefit of having a boat. Both BoatUS and MRAA are taking steps to help ensure boaters continue to boat.

BoatUS is working through education and legislation. Edmonston said a key to retaining boaters is to make sure they know how to boat well, which brings more enjoyment to the activity. Boater classes, both online and in-person, are important to continue and possibly expand. On the legislative front, he said the industry needs to continue to fight supply chain issues and tariffs to bring down the costs of buying a boat, and also needs to work on increasing access. “A study that BoatUS did found that people either didn’t go boating or stopped boating because they didn’t have nearby access,” Edmonston said.

Gruhn said the number one priority of MRAA right now is retaining boaters and he sees dealers as having a big part of that responsibility. “We are helping dealers to understand how to better care for their customers, both those they are nurturing towards a sale and those they work with post-sale. We are teaching them the principles of the customer experience, and how to run a better service department. We’ve revised the Dealer Certification program to where dealers have to take four courses each year to maintain their certification and we’re working with manufacturers to incentivize their dealers to do this,” he said.

A quality experience is what the marine industry believes will keep people on the water, and what the overall outdoor industry is banking on to retain its standing as a major economic driver of the U.S. economy for decades to come.