At the helm: Our future at stake

When the Grow Boating Initiative first began to take shape in late 2003, I felt the sense of awe you experience when you score a front-row seat to history in the making.
While it was impossible to know whether this new path would truly be able to grow boating participation, the fact that the various factions of the industry had overcome their differences to come together and build a better future gave me chills.

Today, 2003 seems like ages ago. And over the past eight years, the shine has worn off of Grow Boating. When you add together the devastating impact of the downturn, the resulting change in attitude about spending, and the controversy over the redirection of Grow Boating assessments, you’re left with a lot of marine executives with mixed feelings about the initiative’s future, myself included.

In the past month, I’ve heard from a dealer with concerns about the current funding model, which remains unchanged after efforts to improve it failed to receive the necessary support; a manufacturer who suggested now is not the time to be spending money on marketing boating to nonboaters; and a Marine Industry Certified Dealer questioning whether to recertify.

All of them had valid concerns about the Grow Boating Initiative, and I considered whether to write about them. Grow Boating was designed to be a solution to the challenges our industry faced in 2003. If anything, our challenges have grown since then. The last thing I want to do is contribute to a decline in support for a program that may help our industry rise above those challenges, but as journalists, we have a responsibility to expose the truth.

And the truth is that we don’t know how successful Grow Boating was in the past. For example, Grow Boating leaders suggest the initiative resulted in higher participation levels in 2006, 2007 and 2008. I hope it did, but it’s hard to prove a correlation. They report that 19,267 boats have been purchased by consumers that ordered the Discover Boating DVD before purchasing a boat, but we don’t know if those consumers would have bought a boat anyway.

We also don’t know how successful Grow Boating will be in the future. The new Discover Boating campaign, “Welcome to the water,” will use various Internet technologies to turn current boaters into ambassadors of the boating lifestyle, thus drawing in new participants. The plan is exciting, but it also left me wondering whether an online campaign would be enough to move the needle. Social media, mobile marketing and website content development are all important. But they shouldn’t operate in isolation.

After all of this questioning, I looked in the mirror. The Grow Boating Initiative belongs to the industry: that’s you and me. Its success – or lack thereof – is our responsibility. The initiative wasn’t perfect before the downturn, and the road it’s traveling now is even rockier. But are any of us perfect?

We need to stop playing the blame game and start fixing what’s broken. Grow Boating is our industry’s chance at long-term growth. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the downturn, it’s that we need to be disciplined in protecting the long-term health of our businesses, regardless of the market’s ups and downs.

After all, it’s our future at stake.

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