Luffing At The Starting Line

Two years ago, it was probably worth it for many sailboat builders to throw their marketing budgets at Joe Consumer, a first-time boat buyer intrigued by the idea of cutting through the water in his own vessel under the power of nothing more than the wind.

Now, however, Sally Helme, publisher of Cruising World and Sailing World magazines, says sailboat builders need to focus their energy on hard-core sailors already passionate about the sport. In challenging times like these, says Helme, it’s very difficult to attract new customers that aren’t already believers in the sailing lifestyle. Existing customers, however, may be interested in improving their boats or buying up to the next model, she adds.

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Like the powerboat sector, the sailboat industry is seeing an increased emphasis among consumers on spending time with friends and family close to home following the events of September 11, 2001. For those with a passion for sailing, this means a greater dedication to spending time on their sailboat and likely a larger investment in sailing as an activity.

Mid-Size Sector Hit The Hardest

The sailboat industry saw production fall an average of 15 percent in 2002, according to the 2002 North American Sailing Industry Study, produced by The Sailing Company, which owns Cruising World and Sailing World. This translates to the manufacture of 16,973 sailboats in the United States in 2002, a drop in production of 3,094 boats.

Helme says this decline is something the entire industry, not just the sailboat sector, was facing last year, largely due to economic conditions.

The mid-size sector, consisting of boats 20 to 35 feet in length, took the hardest hit, down 29 percent to 2,329 boats. Helme says her theory is that the mid-size segment is most vulnerable to the slowing of the economy, as buyers in this category tend to consist of young families getting their first or second boat and often require financing.

Sales of boat in the small sector, up to 19 feet in length, often are impulse buys and thus cash purchases, she explains. Production in this category was down 14 percent to 13,475 boats, while the big boat category, 36 feet in length and above, faired pretty well, dropping only 3 percent to 1,169 boats. Most of the growth in the big boats category came from vessels over 46 feet in length, according to the report.

These numbers differ from the data provided by the NMMA in January and reflected in Boating Industry’s 2002 Marine Market Annual Review. The NMMA data was based on forecasts made in December 2001, at which point the economic uncertainty of the past year couldn’t have been foreseen.

Production Down But Demand Building

Despite this drop, however, North American builders are forecasting a 10-percent increase in production in 2003, due in part to predictions of growth in the big boat sector, according to the study. Builders predict a 9-percent improvement from the small boat sector, a 16-percent improvement from the mid-size sector and an 18-percent improvement from the big boat sector, for a total of 18,742 boats.

Helme says that despite low consumer confidence and the threat of war and terrorism, “there are a lot of reasons to be bullish about the sailboat market.”

She points out that as the recession continues, pent-up demand is growing. In addition, hard-core sailors have become even more committed to the sport, she adds. Because they have an investment in it, they will want to protect it and probably expand. Lastly, interest rates continue to be very low, and sailboat builders are offering special deals, both of which make the present moment a great time to buy a boat.

“Everything is in place for the economy to improve when things clear up on the international horizon, which provides reason to believe we could have a nice rebound in 2003,” she says. Helme admits, however, that there is a bit of a stall going on right now. The industry is “luffing at the starting line, waiting for the gun so that it can fill its sails and take off,” she explains.

Association Working To Attract New Sailors

While sailboat builders are focusing on those who already have a passion for sailing, Sail America continues to work to attract new sailors to the industry through its Discover Sailing initiative.

The association has sent out over 12,500 videos to date, says Helme, and surveys have shown that the vast majority of recipients have taken some action to get more involved in sailing

Though many individual companies cannot afford to extend marketing efforts to new sailors during these challenging times, “Sail America can make this investment that hopefully will reap rewards for the industry as a whole” according to Helme.

This is another way that the industry has laid the groundwork for when the industry emerges from the recession, she adds. “When the economy does turn around, we will be able to [attract them to] sailing, not lose them to golf.”

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