Next Generation Boaters: Understanding Barriers and Opportunities

To best position recreational boating for growth as we adjust to a ‘new normal’ post the pandemic peak, Discover Boating, powered by the NMMA and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas (MRAA), recently conducted research to better understand the next generation as we work to welcome them as future customers.

Who are the next generation of boaters? Three key audience segments emerged from our research, which we refer to as Core, Growth and Emerging segments. The latest research dives into the socio-demographics, psychographics, finances among our target audiences, their boating attitudes and interests, as well as the barriers and motivations to boat buying. The three audiences are made up of an estimated 91 million people in the U.S. alone. These 91 million potential boaters are not homogenous. They are younger, more educated and more ethnically and racially diverse.

Below is a snapshot about these three important groups:

  • Core segment: They look most like today’s boat owners and have the highest penetration of boat ownership and participation in boating activities. They are also older, family-oriented and more suburban/ex-urban than other segments.
  • Growth segment: Represents the best opportunity to bring in younger boaters and grow boating. They are pursuing boating-adjacent activities at high rates, including powersports, biking and hiking. They are younger than current first-time boat buyers, more ethnically and racially diverse, and are more likely to live in denser areas. They are adventurous, social and tech-savvy. This segment also feels most overwhelmed by the boat buying process.
  • Emerging segment: Large, dynamic, and affluent group who is not pursuing outdoor activities that are predictive of future boating in their daily lives, but they are doing those activities on vacation with a potential “pull” via rental activity. They are the most concerned with the emotional return on investment (e-ROI) and have the least familiarity with the basics of boat ownership.

There are key challenges and opportunities that must be considered. Addressing the following opportunities will help the boating industry improve how it engages this promising group of new potential customers and set us up for a bright future.

These challenges present opportunities:

  • Inclusion → Authentic Representation
  • Economic Uncertainty → Emotional ROI/Financing
  • Outreach → Bring Boating to NexGen
  • Education → Demystify Boat Ownership
  • Community Building → Showcase Like-Minded Community

A key takeaway from Discover Boating’s latest study is the importance of representation. Even though many people—including females and people of color—have expressed interest in owning a boat, they do not feel represented in marketing. To engage the next generation of boaters, authentic representation is critical. While there are many ways to go about this, seeing someone like yourself on a boat, in a dealership or anywhere across the business world of boating makes a significant impact on whether you feel welcome. However, representation is not simply about featuring more diverse people in advertising. It is much deeper than that, requiring building connections that feel personal and making audiences feel heard and understood by relating in a genuine way to their culture, attitudes and interests.

Economic uncertainty also remains top of mind for next generation boaters. Survey respondents expressed hesitancy in making a major purchase, whether they can afford it or not. The Emerging segment, in particular, is concerned about the emotional return on investment (‘e-ROI’) with purchasing a boat and needs to better understand the emotional and experiential benefits of boating.

This is especially important for both the Growth and Emerging segments who didn’t necessarily grow up boating as much as the Core segment did. Compared to the Growth and Emerging segments, a larger percentage of the Core segment is able to recall the memories of being on the water and what that meant to their lives which means we have to work harder to demonstrate the e-ROI to the Growth and Emerging segments. The great news is a majority of the Emerging segment (83%) prioritize experiences over things so there’s an exciting opportunity that comes with ensuring they see the e-ROI of being on the water. Breaking down cost barriers, educating consumers on financing and affordability and selling the experience versus the object is key to helping the next generation see the value in becoming a boat owner.

There is a tremendous opportunity to engage and nudge consumers deeper into boating consideration—that outreach is crucial. We are seeing at least half of those in the Growth and Emerging segments actively researching the boating lifestyle and looking into boats online. But, there is a drop-off point before they reach the purchase phase. Why? The Growth segment is overwhelmed by the buying process, and the Emerging Segment sees boating as a vacation activity, not an everyday activity.

By targeting individual motivations and barriers, we can help the next generation of boaters move closer to boat ownership. For example, to stay relevant with today’s consumer shopping habits and their desire for ease of purchase, as an industry, how can we offer ways to make the buying process less overwhelming? One way to accomplish this is getting them to, and a deeper engagement at, boat shows. For those potential customers who are not ready to buy a boat but who still enjoy boating, rental options offer a great solution. Boat rental is a gateway into boat ownership.

Together as an industry we have to demystify boat ownership. Unlike the Core segment, who looks a lot like many of today’s boat owners, who grew up boating and are very familiar with the lifestyle, our nexgen audiences do not have a solid foundation in the basics of boat ownership. They do not realize how attainable buying a boat can be so raising awareness of financing options can prompt purchase consideration. For example, many non-boaters in the Growth and Emerging segments need financing if they are going to purchase a boat, but 60% do not even know that financing options exist. After learning about 15-year financing, one-third of survey respondents reported seeing boat ownership as more attainable. Educating potential boat buyers on financing options and doing so in a way that’s easy to digest can turn this barrier into a massive opportunity.

Finally, the power of community in boating cannot be underestimated. Unlike existing boaters, the next generation is not aware of the social benefits of owning a boat, and may not see themselves fitting into the community. Showcasing the joys of being part of a community that shares the same passion for time on the water and a community that’s inviting and not intimidating, can help more people feel included in boating and ultimately drive interest in boat ownership. A lot of feeling part of the community comes from the industry collectively representing future customers not only in marketing but in board rooms, dealerships, and manufacturing facilities.

Discover Boating remains focused on engaging this crucial next generation, retaining new boaters and maintaining a strong connection with existing boat owners. New insights gleaned from this latest research can help marine businesses determine their own strategic marketing approach to engaging new, younger and more diverse potential boat owners.

As an industry, being aware of the challenges and opportunities identified in this research can help drive participation in boating for generations to come.

To view the recording of Discover Boating's webinar about Reaching Next Generation Boaters from March 30, click the link below or visit the industry resource center here.