By Adam Quandt
A conversation with the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s president Dave Chanda and senior vice president of marketing and communications Stephanie West Vatalaro.
During this year’s Discover Boating Miami International Boat Show, Boating Industry had the opportunity to sit down with president Dave Chanda and senior vice president, marketing and communications Stephanie West Vatalaro from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, and chat about the last year for the industry organization and what their plans are for the future as they help grow participation in boating and fishing.
Boating Industry (BI): Dave, let’s start with you coming into the new role as president at the RBFF, how has it been so far?
Dave: It’s been great coming into this role. I mean I’m not new to RBFF, I was on the board for nine years and Frank assembled a great team here, so right now it’s been seamless. So far, it’s all off to a great start. We’re coming up on a really busy season with a new marketing campaign along with show and conference season, so we have a busy schedule in front of us, but it’s all fun.
BI: Run us through the last year for the RBFF – we know things have been crazy around the industry as a whole, so what has it been like for your organization?
Dave: Stephanie definitely had the hardest challenge when covid hit and had to totally shift gears on our whole marketing campaign which has led us to where we’re at right now. One thing we thankfully hasn’t suffered from was a shifting budget, because we’re grant funded. So at least we had our budget set and we could keep moving forward with all of our consumer engagement, our meetings, our state support, etc. From that perspective, we’ve fared better than most and we’ve tried to step our support where we could to help the industry as a whole.
Stephanie: I think what we’re seeing is not different from what other industry folks are seeing. Obviously demand for boats is still really high, with two to three years of pent-up demand. To our surprise – you know we didn’t know what was going to happen the year after a pandemic – our digital numbers, which we use to really track what’s going on, are higher in nine months than they were all of last year. So clearly there is still a huge interest out there in fishing and boating and it will be interesting to see how that translates into participation.
BI: What about in terms of the types of messaging you’re sending out, how did that change, if at all, when the pandemic hit?
Stephanie: The channels didn’t change all that much, because we are going after that active social family, that’s more diverse, more urban and has young children in the family, so we do a lot of advertising through Disney. But something that opened up for us was the opportunity to work with Hulu. We’ve started doing some interactive ads on Hulu that have performed really well, so we’ve turned the dial up on those even more this year. Overall, it’s not the channels that you necessarily see the enthusiasts in. We’re going after Buzzfeed and Complex and trying to bring in audiences who don’t already have fishing and boating in their consideration.
BI: We’re seeing more and more collaboration across the industry lately, what do partnerships mean to RBFF and what do you hope to accomplish with them?
Dave: I think it’s all about partnerships. People look at us and think we have a huge budget. We don’t. We look to always looking to partner with organizations around the industry – like we did with the Get On Board campaign last year with NMMA and MRAA -- and outside of the industry. We do a lot of partnering with the American Sportfishing Association, we’ve grown our partnerships with state fish and wildlife agencies in a large way and we’re even getting the federal government more engaged in urban fishing initiatives. Partnerships are the only way we can build a bigger umbrella to bring all of these folks in. I think the challenge for us in the future is to grow these partnerships, but we have to be very strategic about it, because we’re not a large organization. It needs to be a partnership where both sides benefit and it’s also something aimed at our very targeted audience of trying to bring in those new boaters and anglers and bring a more diverse audience into the activities.
BI: You mentioned the federal government and agencies, what is RBFF doing on the advocacy front?
Dave: Because we are federally funded, we’re not necessarily an advocacy-type organization, but we are very much involved in the conservation messaging area. In almost everything we put out we’re trying to build in that conservation message. Stephanie is currently working on upping those efforts and messages even more, as it really resonates with the audience we’ve targeted. It’s a part of the experience for them. Not only do they want to go out and have fun, they also want to know they’re doing something good for the resource or contributing to the conservation of the resource.
BI: In terms of hitting a new generation and more diverse boaters and anglers, are you seeing more on the fishing side particularly or just boating in general?
Stephanie: We did a research study about a year ago on the crop of new folks who came into the activities and I think we’re seeing across the board there’s more diversity, but I would say it’s more on the fishing side than the boating side.
Dave: Don’t forget we’ve heavily invested in the Vamos A Pescar program and more than half of the states have participated in the program. It’s a one-to-one match, where we give them a grant. What we’re trying to also do, we’re not only trying to just reach out to the Hispanic community, but we’re trying to get these state agencies to build partnerships at the local level and be known in the community. And it’s working. It’s a small program, but it’s moved the needle quite well over the years. The organization, even well before I came on, has always been cognizant of the need to round out and be a more diverse audience and draw the entire community, whether it’s more women, the Hispanic community, etc., our mantra is the water is open to everyone.
BI: RBFF is on the front line in terms of promoting these activities to a new and more diverse generation, but also on the front line are boat dealers. How is RBFF able to work with dealers to team up and work together on this front?
Stephanie: My mind immediately goes to MRAA, and we’ve started to really develop a partnership with them this year that could be really beneficial to both of us. We recently collaborated with them on a study diving into boat owners and their experience going into boating, and how we can make it better. I think the more we can collaborate on things like that study, the better we’ll be able to reach those dealers and extend our messages, and the important things that people need to do to get these new folks through the door and out on the water. Research is really the number one thing RBFF can offer to help, but we also have a variety of different marketing tools that dealers can use to engage their audience as well.
BI: Anything to add on that, Dave?
Dave: The research is going to help identify where we can make a difference and where we can’t. When we’re talking about this industry, it’s enormous – dealers, manufacturers, all of the different players. I also think there’s an opportunity for us to connect state partners with dealers. We’re looking at some of those dealers and retailers that offer experiences and we’re trying to position state agencies with mobile equipment so they can go in and partner. We have 16 states operational right now and by the end of the summer we’re shooting for 20-22. All of our research through these projects are what can really benefit the industry as a whole. We’re working hard to make sure we’re checking in with the industry to see what questions they want answered and really taking into account what we’re hearing from them, because if we’re not answering questions that are top of mind for them, we can’t be as helpful.
BI: We’ve talked a lot about the next generation of boaters and anglers, but what is the RBFF doing to bring back lapsed boaters/anglers and get them back into the activities?
Stephanie: We have our lapsed boat registration program, which has been in the market since 2012. We work with the states to put out direct mail, reminding people of all of the fun they have on their boats. Since its inception, it’s re-registered 451,000 boats and generated $16.6 million in registration fees for the states.
Dave: Looking at lapsed boaters and retention is something really important to us. We’ve worked with our partners to develop many different tool kits to include email campaigns and marketing materials to remind lapsed boaters and anglers of the great time they’ve had out on the water. We’ve been talking about need for RBFF to find more opportunities to take a bigger role in retention. Where the challenge is going to come is when a dealer sells a boat, that dealer knows who the boat is sold to, but we don’t. Once a fishing license is sold, the state knows who they sold it to, but we don’t. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a role for us though and we’re exploring where those opportunities might be.
BI: We’ve gone over the last year and your plans to help get more people out on the water, but to wrap up, what else should the industry know about the RBFF?
Stephanie: I think it’s just important to remind the industry of who we are and what we do, because we do a lot for the industry. I think a lot of people don’t fully know all of the different things we do here at the RBFF. So many people are like “oh you run that fishing campaign to help get kids out fishing.” Well, yes, that’s part of it, but we have so much more. We want to connect with as many industry stakeholders as we can, as we have resources for all those involved across every segment. We are always looking for new partners and new ways we can help the industry grow and succeed, all in the mission to help everyone enjoy the water.