Evolving Discover Boating, Part 1: Laying a Foundation for the Future

NMMA’s long-term strategic vision is that recreational boating is the #1 leisure activity in North America.

To achieve this, as our President Frank Hugelmeyer has shared, our core pillars are focused on industry advocacy, market expansion and social responsibility. This means we must have an effective voice that 1) is at the decision-making table to create a favorable business environment and healthy industry (advocacy), 2) attracts, engages, and supports boaters and future boaters at every turn (market expansion) and 3) ensures we’re driving a sustainable industry by taking care of our community and environment.

It’s clear the strength of our industry voice—and how we use it—will impact all three of these. But before we dive into how we build that voice and how we use it, it’s helpful to look back at history as we map out our future. Between the early 1980s and 2019, following recessionary periods, sales of new boats declined and didn’t recover to pre-recession levels. Thankfully, Discover Boating was born in 2005 and was able to keep boating from seeing even greater declines. The campaign has been a pillar of our industry’s consumer outreach efforts for nearly two decades, attracting millions of people to boating and helping them get on the water and become boaters.

At the same time, when we look comparatively at the RV industry, RV shipments rose 105% between 2010 and 2017 from 242,000 to 504,000 while sales of new boats rose 53% during this same period (from 176,000 to 270,000, according to NMMA data). We also know the RV industry increased its investment in its consumer campaign, GoRVing, during the Great Recession and for years after. Whereas recreational boating all but turned Discover Boating off between 2008-2010 and the industry has struggled to maintain a consistent and competitive level of funding ever since.

It’s natural to ask what other forces could have driven post-recessionary declines for recreational boating. If there’s one thing COVID has taught us, it’s that our competition isn’t other outdoor activities since we saw increases across the board, but it’s competition for time, especially leisure time. Interestingly, as a recent study from the Brookings Institute on the ‘middle-class time squeeze’ points out, the average middle-class married couple with children (who happens to be a core sector of our target audience) now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 15 additional weeks of full-time work—since 1975. Further, pre-COVID, Americans’ commute times were increasing at the same time the vacation days they were taking were decreasing—resulting in a steep decrease in leisure time.

It’s no wonder we saw increased demand post-COVID as Americans’ commutes disappeared and their focus on safe, fun family and relaxation time became front-and-center. While we can hope this trend continues, we must assume it will not. As COVID dissipates, we know competition for Americans’ leisure time will dramatically increase. Cruise lines, travel, concerts, sporting events and more will be back with a vengeance to grab their market share and boating must be ready with a loud, relevant voice.

When the NMMA Board of Directors, the NMMA Canada Board of Directors and the outgoing Grow Boating, Inc. Board of Directors unanimously agreed during the summer of 2020 to merge Grow Boating, Inc. into NMMA, they set in motion a strategy to create that louder, more relevant voice. In short, these boards laid the groundwork to expand Discover Boating and unite the industry like never before.

A fundamental shift is now underway. To expand Discover Boating and better unite the industry, the NMMA’s board-driven strategic plan calls for the industry’s consumer marketing campaign and NMMA Boat & Sport Shows to align under one brand— Discover Boating. This initiative will begin to take shape in early 2022, creating a more consistent impactful voice with greater reach and ability to connect with consumers.

At the same time, with the merger of Grow Boating, Inc. into NMMA, NMMA and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas (MRAA) have created a new strategic partnership. As a result, both associations are powering Discover Boating, working more collaboratively to ensure the brand is working hard for the industry.

Uniting boat shows under the Discover Boating brand not only amplifies our voice but it creates a more connected full-funnel marketing strategy—something that’s critical as we address post-COVID shifts in consumer behavior. Doing so is not only good business, as a recent McKinsey article points out, but for recreational boating specifically, it’s a way to be more data-driven and thoughtful in our marketing.

This article is the first in a two-part series on the evolution of Discover Boating. The second part, Evolving Discover Boating: Q&A with NMMA's Ellen Bradley, Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications, will run in tomorrow’s edition of Currents. For questions about Discover Boating, please contact Ellen Bradley at [email protected]