Three boats of women pulled up to a hot fishing spot in southwest Florida, cast their lines and caught more than a dozen redfish in the first 15 minutes.
This drew some curious glances from the men gathered there. What they didn’t know, however, is that the event was even more unlikely than it appeared. The women were all boating industry executives invited to the Genmar Evinrude Backwater Fishing School to talk about attracting more women to boating.
On the surface, this may appear to be nothing new. Executives in the boating industry have been talking about the potential of the women’s market for years. However, Genmar has taken this talk to the next level. This summer, it launched Women Making Waves, an educational boating program for women that the boat builder is making available to all its dealers.
This is not the first time that a member of the industry has developed a program to draw more women into boating. Specific dealers, manufacturers and women-only groups have been able to help thousands of women become active boaters through their programs.
But some say the industry as a whole hasn’t done the research or made the effort necessary to make a significant difference in the number of women participating in boating, something which many executives believe is possible.
“There needs to be more direction from the top levels of the boating industry – this needs to be a priority,” says Elaine Dickinson, assistant vice president of BoatU.S. “I think it’s been a side issue.”
Are we making progress?
The boating industry has made progress over the last five to ten years in marketing to women; however, little research exists to illustrate how much.
This progress may be most evident in the areas of advertising and product catalogs. In the 1980s, most women in boating advertisements and catalogs leaned on the bow rail or lay on the sun pad in bikinis. Now, however, it’s a different story, says Dickinson, who also is managing editor of BoatU.S. Magazine.
“When I flip through the pages of the boating magazines, I’m not offended to the same extent I was 10 or 15 years ago,” Dickinson explains. However, she says there needs to be more photos of women “doing what we know they do – driving boats.”
Genmar is one company working to change its depiction of women in product catalogs.
“If you have nothing but 22-year-olds in bikinis, then your average woman is not going to say, ‘I can be just like her’ – she can’t,” explains Marcia Kull, senior vice president of operations for Genmar. “That’s one of the things I’ve been working on very hard for the 2004 model year – to not only have women in the catalogs, but have them participating and looking like every woman. Let’s have some older women, middle-aged women, not just reading or sitting on the sun deck. Real life pictures.”
Dickinson seconds that sentiment, stating, “You won’t attract women customers if they see themselves portrayed as eye candy.”
However, with this progress also have come steps backward. In the early 1990s, several women executives formed International Women in Boating (IWB), a group originally intended to represent female executives in the boating industry that turned to a focus on marketing to women.
From 1993 to 1997, IWB provided speakers to industry conventions, presenters to boat show exhibitors and editorial columnists to consumer magazines, as well as spearheading a number of initiatives to “help manufacturers and dealers sell more product by understanding the nature of how women affect the purchasing decision,” says Amy Halsted of The Halsted Agency, a former member of the group.
However, after a few years, the volunteer organization found the amount of work necessary to keep it running overwhelming and the group closed its doors, she explains.
Now Halsted says she believes such an effort would be best handled “as an arm or division of one of the major trade associations.”
During this same period of time, KIII Media launched Boating For Women, a magazine targeted specifically at female boaters. It didn’t last even a dozen issues before it folded.
“They had a good magazine, but the market wasn’t strong enough yet,” explains Kull. “If we strengthen the market, [women boaters] might love a magazine.”
Passive vs. active participation
Despite what seems to be a growing perception of boating as a family activity, the majority of women who go boating aren’t behind the wheel.
While there is only a 3-percent difference between the number of men who say they’ve participated in boating in the last 12 months and the number of women, the majority of women participating in boating are not the primary operator of the boat, according to Responsive Management, a public opinion and attitude survey research firm that has done studies for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Of all boat operators, 88 percent are men and 12 percent are women, the firm reports.
In fact, Marion Goodman, co-owner of Lynnhaven Marine in Virginia Beach, Va., says that while 85–90 percent of boat buyers at her dealership are couples, less than 10 percent of the women in the couples know how to operate the boat.
And a woman’s level of participation does make a difference when it comes to her family’s purchase of boats and boating accessories, suggests Genmar’s Kull.
“You’ll never feel passionate about an activity if you are a passive participant,” she explains. “The boating industry needs passionate consumers to allow it to grow. Passionate consumers instill a boating lifestyle in their children. Passionate consumers share the experience with their non-boating friends. Passionate consumers are excited about moving up into new and, many times, larger boats.”
In addition, she says an active participant is more likely to support a decision to purchase a new boat because there is something in it for her.
“If a man wants a new boat and doesn’t feel strong support for the decision from his wife or partner, either the boat is not purchased or the boat is purchased but then sits in the garage and everyone feels bad,” she says. “A passive participant can resent the money spent on the boat or the time the active boater spends away from the family while boating. Both problems lead directly to people leaving boating because the toll of marital or family stress overrides the joy of boating solo.”
With money comes power
At Genmar, the percent of female boat buyers varies quite dramatically by type of boat, according to Kull. While less than 2 percent of those purchasing bass boats are women, that number rises to about 12 percent for family runabouts, deck boats and small cruisers, she explains.
However, whether or not a boat builder or dealer is targeting female buyers, it still needs to keep women in mind when conducting sales pitches. Despite the relatively small, but growing number of women boat owners, industry executives estimate that women influence the purchase of 80 percent of all boat buying decisions.
Women customers now make up half the workforce and are earning good money. With this money, their involvement in major family purchases is growing.
“We know society-wise that working women are now contributing to the family income, and … money talks,” says Kull. “If you’re part of the household income going toward the purchase of a boat, absolutely you’re going to have something to say about it.”
Not only that, women are often the ones that conduct research into major purchases, many executives say.
“I would think that at least 40 percent of boats purchased are basically chosen by women due to their role as researchers in products that will impact the family,” says Steve Tadd, director of NMMA’s Discover Boating campaign. “I think it’s true for finding a doctor or buying a car. Women ask the questions. Women dig deep.”
Finally, women’s buying power continues to grow, causing some to ask why the industry wouldn’t want to target women.
“It’s like a sleeping giant,” says Dickinson. “I read somewhere that by 2010, women will be controlling 60 percent of the wealth in this country. That’s a lot of buying power.”
One reason why boat builders and dealers may not have reached out to the women’s market in recent years is that the industry has been through two major recessions during that time.
“If you’re going to survive in a bad economy, of course you’re going to go with what has worked in the past,” Dickinson points out, “But that hasn’t been working very well. Industry figures show that sales have been steadily declining. There’s something we’re not doing.”
Targeting women also bucks a long tradition of men and boating – one that’s not quickly abandoned.
“I think you’re bucking a century’s worth of tradition – boating is run by men for men, boats are run by men, companies are all run by men,” she explains. “You can’t change that in 10 years. It’s not realistic to think we can.”
Not enough research
A final and perhaps critical reason why the industry may not have explored the full potential of the women’s market is that it doesn’t know how.
“The interest in reaching women is a relatively new one,” says Mike Walker of The Walker Agency, a marine industry marketing and PR firm. “So, more information is needed. A lack of research or market awareness hinders any significant movement in making changes.”
Right now, little research exists into how to market to women boaters, what women want from the boating experience and the best way to deliver it.
“I think we could take a page from some of the automakers,” says Bruce Matthews of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF). “Know your customer rather than assuming or presuming that your customer will be a guy.”
Matthews says the boating industry doesn’t know what the barriers are to buying a boat from a women’s standpoint.
“Unless we understand that better, we won’t reach the potential that exists,” he explains.
And he believes that the boating industry has only begun to embrace the women’s market. Matthews gave the boating industry a rating of 2 on a scale of 1–10, with 10 being the best possible effort to target women.
While he admits that market research is an area that both RBFF and Michigan State University have the potential to explore, Matthews says funding is a limiting factor.
“If we focused all of our effort on women, it would take 3-4 years to effectively market to them,” he explains. “[We would be] out of our funding by then.”
In addition to the lack of market research, there is a lack of statistics on women’s participation in boating, making it difficult to track the industry’s progress in attracting women boaters.
Michigan State University, however, does have plans to dig deeper into women’s experiences with boating, says Ed Mahoney, a professor at the university.
In conjunction with the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), the university has established the Recreational Marine Research Center, which Mahoney says is putting together a 9,000-boater panel, and plans to try to identify women boaters within that panel during its first survey. In addition, it plans to conduct specialized surveys of women’s boating clubs, he adds.
Though Mahoney estimates that Michigan State does more boater surveys than any other university in the United States, he says gender has not been something it has focused on in the past, “a serious mistake on our part.”
Mahoney says the boating industry can take the lead from other industries. He says he was “amazed” to find out how actively the RV industry has been appealing to the women’s side of the purchasing decision, something he’d like to see the boating industry mimic.
“I think actively incorporating women into the decision can open up markets we’re missing right now,” he suggests.
Pockets of success
Some of the programs currently having success attracting women to boating are “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing” and MarineMax’s “Women on Water.”
More than 2,000 women have been through a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing class over the past five years, says Betty Bauman, founder. These women have an average household income of $75K to $125K, and range from women with children to empty nesters and retirees.
One of the top-10 reasons those who attend the class say more women are not out fishing is because of an “inability to operate or back the boat down the ramp,” highlighting the need for better boating education for women. The Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing classes teach boat trailering and driving skills as well as fishing-related skills.
MarineMax also provides classes for women who want to learn to boat, teaching skills such as how to dock a boat, typing knots and operating the marine radio. Through its 65 dealership locations, the company’s Women On Water program has graduated thousands of students over the 25 years the program has been in place, according to CEO Bill McGill.
In addition, NMMA and BoatU.S. have turned their attention to women. BoatU.S. has its own Web page for women, which offers information on women-specific boating events and seminars, as well as a forum. Dickinson also says BoatU.S. has been at the forefront of the industry’s efforts to target women, sponsoring women’s boating events for the past decade.
Though the boaters’ association isn’t sharing the number of female members it has, Dickinson says BoatU.S. is trying to grow this segment and points out that the majority of male members are part of a couple.
NMMA talks to many women interested in boating at its Discover Boating booth, according to Tadd. It serves as a source of unbiased advice and general information on boating lifestyles, something Tadd says women appreciate.
In addition, NMMA tested the concept of a Ladies’ Day at the New York boat show last year, something it plans to offer again this year in New York and add to its Miami show for the first time.
Lastly, NMMA has launched a Women At The Helm page on its Web site this year with the intention of building “a community filled with information for every woman, whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.” This page includes “Ask The Boating Moms,” where women can ask experienced women boaters for advice on bringing kids aboard.
However, despite its efforts to include women in its marketing programs, it doesn’t appear NMMA has any plans to lead an industry-wide effort to target women boaters in particular. Nor does it appear RBFF has the resources to lead such an initiative.
Perhaps what the industry needs to do first is determine women’s current level of participation in boating and then conduct the market research to find out how to drive more women to become active boaters. With this information, the industry will have all the tools it needs to capture the women’s market.
“To me, that’s one of the major selling points for the marine industry – it’s this market, sitting there, waiting for someone to grab it,” Dickinson states. “Why would you not want to market to half the population?”
An industry of Good Old Boys?
One obstacle standing in the way of the boating industry’s efforts to market to women is the small percentage of women serving as executives.
“I think we’re still in an industry of good old boys,” says Steve Tadd, director of NMMA’s Discover Boating program. He estimates that a much larger percentage of women participate in boating than work in the boating industry.
Bruce Matthews of the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation says until there are more women in leadership roles, the industry “won’t make the decisions we could or should.”
Marcia Kull, senior vice president of operations for Genmar, also shares that concern.
“I would suspect that male marketers know what the hot buttons are for men,” she explains. “Women marketers know what the hot buttons are for women.”
When she began putting together a group of women executives to attend the Genmar Evinrude Backwater Fishing School, the pickings were slim, she says. And while there have been some very successful women in the boating industry, Kull is concerned about whether there will be women to fill their shoes when they retire.
One way that Boating Industry magazine and the Marine Retailers Association of America (MRAA) have been trying to grow the role of women in the industry is to recognize those women who have made a difference through the Darlene Briggs Award. This award is presented each year to an outstanding woman in the marine industry who demonstrates leadership and commitment to the recreational marine industry. The recipients also must demonstrate a willingness to volunteer their time and effort in their communities and social organizations.
This award was established in 1987 in honor of Darlene Briggs, Wayzata Marine, who exemplified these qualities. It is sponsored by Boating Industry magazine, MRAA Spader 20 Group 103 and MRAA.
The 2002 recipient was Kris Carroll, president of Grady-White Boats, Inc. Other past recipients include: Lynn Fiorenzano, who owns and operates Silver Spring Marine; Kimberly Bors, vice president, people & process integration, Brunswick Boat Group and former president of Chris Craft; and Maureen Dickson, president of Cap Sante Marine of Anacortes, Wash.
Recognition is only one part of the formula for growing the number of women executives in the boating industry, however. A major reason for the lack of women executives is a shortage of women with the technical expertise and desire to belong to the boating industry.
Merle Revais, vice president of human resources for Volvo Penta, says that while the engine manufacturer is looking to increase the number of women executives on its team, there is a shortage of qualified applicants, especially in areas that involve engineering.
It’s easier, according to Revais, to attract women to the customer service and human resources divisions of the company.
Kull says the only way she knows to change this is for women in the industry to serve as role models.
— Liz Walz
Designing a Woman’s Boat
Though not everyone in the boating industry agrees, some executives say boat builders need to rethink their designs if they’re going to target women.
“There are women who are not comfortable on boats,” says Elaine Dickinson, assistant vice president of BoatU.S. “If they perceive something in the boat to be dangerous, forget it. You’ll lose them right there.”
The RBFF’s Bruce Matthews agrees. In fact, he says that if the industry is going to market to women as a segment, it must design a boat specifically for them.
“It is pointless to market to women with a bunch of guys’ boats,” he says. “That’s sending a clear message — ‘I want to sell it to you, but I don’t care what you want.’”
Determining exactly what a women’s boat might look like is difficult, however. Matthews says the industry doesn’t necessarily know what women would want because it hasn’t done the research to determine that. Some of the considerations, however, might be safety, comfort and discretion.
“Heads or porta-potties that offer some level of privacy will make one small runabout or deckboat more appealing to women than another,” says Steve Tadd, director of Discover Boating. “Safety is also key. The Sea Key and FirstMate programs hit home as examples of innovations that would appeal to the psyche of women.” — Liz Walz
Genmar Makes Waves
Genmar isn’t the first boat builder to help its dealers market to women, but it may be the largest. This summer, Genmar introduced its dealers to Women Making Waves, an education, marketing and leadership program with the goal of making boating “a leisure activity of choice for more women.”
Marcia Kull, senior vice president of operations for Genmar, is heading up the initiative, and she says that the company has been surprised by the response.
“Dealers went wild,” she explains. “You could tell we were filling a huge void with this thing.”
The program was created after some preliminary market research, according to Kull. She and the brand manager at Larson attended the Women’s Expo in St. Paul this spring to talk to attendees about boating.
What they found after interviewing about 1,000 attendees is that women want boating lessons – but not from their husbands. They want to learn without criticism, she explains.
As a result, the company is offering its dealers free kits that outline and provide the tools for offering a Boating Basics class for women, including lessons in how to trailer, launch and drive a power boat.
The tools include logos, a press release to publicize the event, a postcard to send to prospects, a welcome letter for participants, a sample curriculum, a course evaluation form, a waiver and a press release to distribute to the media after the class.
Genmar doesn’t plan to stop there, however. Kull says the company will extend the program into the 2004 model year and beyond. It already has designed its 2004 product brochures to “feature women actively participating in the boating lifestyle,” and it plans to look at new ways to reach out to women, other than the traditional boating press.
It already has had some success with that objective. A Boating Basics class for women the company conducted in Maine as a test received coverage from an NBC affiliate. The dealer who put it on was thrilled, Kull says, and already has scheduled two more.
In addition, the company is planning to provide its dealers with sales training on how to sell to women and is looking into how to better attract women professionals into the boating industry, according to Kull.
“We believe this push will result in more boat sales, and happier, more active boating families always looking to move up into a new, larger Genmar boat,” she wrote in a recent letter to Genmar dealers. — Liz Walz