How can the boating industry better attract the Millennial generation?

By Kathleen Ferraro

My great-grandfather took his pontoon around the Spider Chain of Lakes in Wisconsin. My father spends his summers sailing Lake Superior. I took my first cruise as an infant, and have been on the water ever since. Like the generations before me, I am and will continue to be an avid boater. Unlike my predecessors, I don’t plan on owning a boat to sustain my boating habits.

I’m a millennial, and millions like me are approaching boating differently than prior generations. If the boating industry wants to keep us as boaters and prosper amongst this rising generation, it needs to approach us differently. These changes may not be earth-shattering, but they are game-changers for the recreational boating and sportfishing industry.

123rf.com/Jean-Marie Guyon

123rf.com/Jean-Marie Guyon

Major Changes

The future of recreational boating is changing. The days of traditional boat ownership are fast receding, making way for new boating preferences and habits dictated by the millennial generation (people ages 18-35 in 2016).

Millennials as a whole do not want to own boats, but they want to enjoy the boating lifestyle nonetheless. Financial barriers seem to be the most common cause prohibiting millennials from purchasing a boat. Rising student debt, unemployment, and lower levels of personal wealth and income are strapping millennials for cash even more than prior generations, according to Pew Research Center data.

“I’m sure I would want to buy a boat, but it wouldn’t be for a while because I don’t have money and I’d need to be more stable,” said Meghan Hickey, 22, a recreational boater and Chicago resident who grew up in Minnesota.

Millennials are also strapped for time. Between school, work, raising families, and any number of extracurricular or hobby pastimes, there are few days in the week⎯let alone hours in the day⎯to set aside for time-consuming boating activities.

“Beyond finances, I would say I don’t know how much I would really use a boat now,” said Emily Allen, 23, who grew up boating on Lake Ontario. “A boat to me sounds like something I would use one or two weekends in the summer, but I don’t think I would get enough use out of it at this point in time.”

And time translates to priorities. The way millennials allocate their time spent outside of necessary responsibilities⎯school, work, family⎯indicates the activities they prioritize, and unfortunately, it’s clear that boating is not one of those. Accordingly, the boating industry needs to make itself attractive in the highly competitive space that is a millennial’s schedule.

Additionally, millennials are more connected than generations prior. Most were raised with digital literacy, and surpass virtually all older generations in their internet usage. In fact, 75 percent of all millennials have a social networking profile, according to Pew research. Unfortunately, the boating industry is not targeting millennials through social media, bypassing the most effective avenue through which to access a significant chunk of potential boaters.

The boating industry should be more forward thinking in the way it approaches millennials, and integrate the generation’s social habits into its marketing strategies and recreational boating opportunities.

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123rf.com/kzenon

Other options

So why should the boating industry focus so much time and effort on millennials? The numbers speak for themselves.

Millennials now number 75.4 million, representing the nation’s largest living generation in comparison to 74.9 million baby boomers, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. So while the number of potential boaters is on the rise, their preferences differ from older generations.

Given millennials’ financial burdens, socially oriented lifestyles, and penchant for ridesharing systems; boat rentals, leases, and boatsharing may be more suitable options for engaging millennials in recreational boating. Renting allows millennials to avoid long-term and likely burdensome financial investments, while providing the sociability they seek.

“Renting should be an option, because I still want that boating experience without having a boat,” said Hickey. “I know so many young people, like on the Fourth of July, want to be on the lake. There’s probably a way that that could be more accessible.”

Allen agreed, noting that a ridesharing system, wherein boat owners rented out their unused vessels to more economical, time-crunched twenty-somethings, could democratize recreational boating and make the pastime more accessible to those who are not able to make boat ownership a priority.

These programs already exist: San Francisco-based Boatbound operates as the AirBnB of boats, and Cruzin and GetMyBoat offer online rental marketplaces, to name a few. The problem is, the people who want to use them do not know they are there. So while the ridesharing systems many millennials desire actually exist, they are not accessing a key population of potential users. They must start to actively seek millennials through the right channels: online and with social media.

Still, millennials that come from boating families might not even find renting necessary.

“I definitely think a model of boat owners renting their boats out for a day or a weekend would be something that I’d be super interested in doing,” Allen said. “But, obviously, the people that I do know who have boat, including my parents, I’m able to use theirs.”

Perspective

Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history and boast a growing immigrant cohort, according to Pew Research Center. As such, the industry needs to expand its market to minority groups to build a more inclusive boating landscape better suited to millennial demographics. Hickey agreed.

“[Owning a boat] has always seemed kind of manly. There’s not many young girls with a boat by themselves—it’s like, ‘when I’m married I’ll have a boat.’ But they need to capitalize on us. They should show us that this isn’t something you have to wait for, you don’t have to have a family, you can do it now. They should make owning a boat less of a huge deal.”

Changing demographic tides don’t signal the end of recreational boating, just a change. The goal is not to encourage millennials to become boat buyers, but to capitalize on the myriad ways millennials can and will enjoy boating.

Boat ownership patterns will change as the rising generation experiences financial burdens that overpower their ability or desire to purchase a boat. Harbors might be populated with more rentals and shareable vessels. Smaller vessels⎯kayaks, canoes, paddleboats⎯may become more popular as they are a cheaper, more non-committal alternative.

“Canoeing would be something that, if I can afford it in the next few years and am in the right location, I would buy one,” Allen said. “It seems more realistic and possible than purchasing a powerboat.”

Preference for smaller, more affordable watercrafts⎯jetskis, canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards⎯could mean a broader assortment of these vehicles.

All these changes must be met with a change in promotions and marketing so that millennials can more easily access the boating world. Inclusive marketing strategies reflecting a more diverse millennial population could convince potential boaters that recreational boating is, in fact, accessible. The recreational boating and sportfishing industry should also take advantage of social media and the broad audience it reaches to plug into millennials’ digital presence and habits.

For many millennials, including myself, interest in boating is still there⎯after all, I could never give up boating after decades of sailing the Great Lakes. I’m just going to go about it in a different way.