The Challenges AheadPublished on November 9, 2023
I am not clairvoyant, but in my travels over the years I have a pretty good idea of where the recreational boating industry has been, what is currently happening, and what challenges look to be lying ahead.
Pre-COVID, many were concerned about the future of the industry, and, now, post-COVID, we have and continue to experience an unprecedented boom. In some parts of the world things are slowing down a bit, but overall, the future is still looking bright – marina occupancy is up, the bottom line continues to increase, and the demand for boating continues.
At the same time, the industry is facing both new and continued changes and challenges.
Bill Yeargan, Correct Craft’s CEO and president, while delivering the keynote address at this October’s ICOMIA World Marinas Conference in Vilamoura, Portugal, noted that in the next 10 years the industry will experience more changes than the changes the industry has experienced over the last 100 years. Just think about how much has changed in the last 100 years to fully appreciate the drama of that statement. We went from snail mail to fax to email and now texts and all sorts of instantaneous social media. Phones went from rotary to push button to cell phones to smartphones to smartwatches and voice-activated. We went from wooden boats to fiberglass to carbon fiber.
Life vests now have electronic devices that will send out a single to a satellite orbiting the earth to aid in rescue operations. Recreational outboard engines went from relatively low horsepower to medium to today’s 600 horsepower beasts, at times with multiple engines on one boat. Sail materials have gone from more traditional natural fibers such as flax, hemp, or cotton to synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, aramids, and even carbon fiber. Recreational boats went from 30 to 40 feet in length to 60 to 80 feet, with options over 400 feet. Things have certainly been changing.
Change is Inevitable
At the core of Yeargan’s inspirational message was the need “to move outside our comfort zones, to be open to new ideas,” and as managers and leaders to “develop a culture that encourages creativity and innovation throughout our organizations, truly listening to and valuing ideas, suggestions and thoughts – in short building the company as much from the bottom up as the top down.”
Change is inevitable, but it is coming at an incredibly increasing pace. The electronic age of technology, information gathering and usage, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, will result in dramatic change – though all the ways it may manifest itself are not entirely clear. So, at the moment we need to do what we can to prepare while dealing with the present and keeping an eye on the horizon to embrace the changes as they come and seek opportunities to position ourselves and our facilities to benefit from them.
I am the first to admit that I am electronically challenged, and I regret that I do not have an eight-year-old to program my tv, walk me through the ever-changing phone upgrades, new apps, and the onslaught of new technology. But I am trying hard, and that is all one can do. We can either try or get left behind. The latter is not a desirable road to go down. Even I understand that and am diligently working to embrace the electronic world.
For marinas and marina design, global warming and sea level rise are major considerations. Marinas are being faced with more frequent and stronger storms, and, when you factor in sea level rise and the fact that marinas are at the water’s edge, mostly at low elevations, this is already a major factor. One of the takeaways from the more recent storms around the world is that one of the largest causes of failure of the docking facilities has been the anchoring systems, with them not being firmly secured into the bottom sediments and/or not being high enough to maintain the stresses and needed stabilities in the major wave and flooding conditions. In terms of design, there is always one weak link – but it should be a designed weak link, not a design failure weak link. Yet, when rebuilding, many facilities continue to repeat the same mistakes.
Other challenges center around reducing carbon footprints. At the WMC there were many meaningful discussions on the topic. While in many parts of the world this remains a laudable goal and something we should be doing, in many other parts of the world it is something that is or soon will be required. It’s appreciated that this can seem like a somewhat daunting task, particularly when looking at the bigger picture, but there are also any number of relatively low-cost approaches one can do, including:
- Seeking to use long life and recyclable materials for the facility;
- Reviewing products that are purchased for their sustainability and reduced carbon footprint compared to other similar products;
- Reducing energy usage, such as putting lights on timers for hallways, bathrooms, conference rooms and other areas with limited occupancy, switching to more efficient bulbs, and reducing the intensity and number of lights at night without sacrificing safety;
- Developing recycling programs and educating your customers to do the same;
- Even planting trees, whether on your property or through some charitable organization.
Items that run into a bit more expense might include better building insulation, heat pumps and/or geothermal heating/cooling, or installing solar panels. In most of these cases, while there are upfront costs, there also are long-term savings.
Things get a bit trickier when we start to look at what types of energy will be powering boats of the future, and how marinas prepare for them. This is one of the more significant challenges and was a major theme and topic of discussions at the WMC.
Unfortunately, it appears that political and regulatory determinations are often driving the decision-making process without understanding the full science and cause-and-effect scenarios. We laud NMMA’s and ICOMIA’s diligent efforts to seek governments to make decisions based on science, not political expediency. Their ongoing work is vital to seeking meaningful solutions.
Of course, the automobile industry is blazing its way toward a transition to predominantly battery electric vehicles (BEVs). At this point, it would take a monumental breakthrough in some alternate technology to change this trajectory, and as battery and charging technologies continue to improve, and production capacities continue to increase, the prospects for a growing electric boat market also keep gaining momentum. That said, the tremendous variety in the size and function of recreational boats will not likely mean a plug-in electric boat will be in the future for everyone. The fundamentals for the car, SUV, and light truck market ultimately do not vary that much. It becomes a different story when you start looking at trucking, buses, and related big vehicles. While there are a fair number of electric buses and tractor trailers coming to market, there also continues to be much effort on other alternatives, particularly hydrogen fuel cell development, to provide greater power, range, and refueling capabilities.
It’s not too surprising then that as boats get bigger there is also continued research into hydrogen fuel cells for powering larger yachts. And as boats get even bigger and we start talking about ships, there continues to be work on the use of ammonia as a viable alternative, or at least as a means of reducing fossil fuel use.
Retrofitting a marina for all electric boats is a major financial issue, both in terms of the amount of power coming to the facility as well as installing charging stations/pedestals and the like. Today there are choices for electric charging – overnight, which equates to eight hours or longer hours, one to two hours and four hours. The shorter the charging time, the greater the cost to the marinas for implementation. Depending on the location and current electrical service to the facility, costs can easily start at the low six figures and escalate to the high six figures and even the low seven figures.
Another related challenge for marinas in moving to all electric energy is insurance. Lithium batteries have been the cause of many spontaneous fires, particularly where cheaper products are used and/or those with fewer safety mechanisms built in. Marina operators would be wise to have discussions with insurance carriers as some are no longer covering fires caused by such batteries.
All that said, Yeargan’s Correct Craft has very much been at the forefront of the transition to an electric boat world, and he would likely be the first one to tell you there really will be no turning back.
Slight Shift in Demographics
In terms of who is boating these days, the demographics continue to show an overall aging boating population, but with a beginning to see the trend of a younger population coming in. At the same time, the cost of entering and trading up in boating has and continues to increase. That and the ease of entry explain why kayaking and paddle boarding are the fast-growing segments of the recreational boating market. This market is attracting ages across the board but with a strong boost in the 20s to 50s. The power and sail market appears to be more for the financially successful 35 to 55 age range.
But with this lightly growing successful financial earners segment comes a much different type of boater: much more demanding, very little tolerance for things not working, and quick to decide to get out of boating when things break down or they are not catered to. The good news is that in this financially successful market, with a few notable exceptions, they are willing to pay higher costs if they believe they are getting value. Also of interest is that more women are entering the boating market.
For the future, the recreational boating industry needs to think about offering more economically priced, functional, entry-level boats, and increased quality, longevity, and better warrantees for fixing things that go wrong. The Asian car manufacturers have proved that increased quality controls and more entry-level priced vehicles are the way to capture a large portion of the car market, and a pretty loyal public following that continues purchasing their vehicles – entry-level through high-end models.
We are fortunate that the trend for boating continues to be strong. But as I have said, the industry is typically cyclical and, on the upswing, marinas would be wise to undertake various events and happenings to bring customers and the public into the facility so as to keep up the interest.
These are just a few of the challenges coming down the pike at accelerating speeds. If you are not already involved, I urge you to become more active with your local and national as well as international associations and participate in constructive approaches and solutions as opposed to being frustrated with what is being suggested or regulated. It’s also a great way to keep up with what’s on the horizon, thereby helping you be able to see the opportunities that often come with these changes!
Dan Natchez, CMP, is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES Inc. He can be contacted by phone at 914/698-5678, by WhatsApp at 914/381-1234, by email at email@example.com or online at www.dsnainc.com.