Those involved in the outdoor recreation industry have long known that the industry offers many benefits. Mental and physical health, increased environmental awareness, and a boost to the country’s economy can be achieved by more people hiking, biking, fishing, and boating. The benefits were evident during the pandemic, as people fled the outdoors in record numbers. But now, as life slowly returns to what it once was, will the outdoor recreation industry continue to assert its place as the leading economic driver and the perfect solution for a population forced to leave the home?
Leisure industry joins forces
Chris Edmonston, vice president of government affairs at BoatUS, and Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America, both work hard to keep outdoor activities popular both in their day-to-day work and in their roles as board members of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable ( ORR). Both have been involved in the organization from the start and see the benefits of working side-by-side with those rooted in other leisure industries such as camping, off-roading and skiing. “The big effort we’re putting in is presenting a collective voice that can get us in the door to have real conversations with congressmen. We can share our needs and what options there are,” Gruhn said.
Edmonston agreed, citing the Bureau of Economic Analysis report showing that outdoor recreation had an economic impact on the nation on par with agriculture or mining. “With these financials and our collective voices, we have a powerful message to deliver to lawmakers. Best of all, the message is non-partisan. Everyone is seeing the positive results for supporting outdoor recreation,” he said.
Boating plays a key role as the mainstay of the outdoor recreation economy, but the industry still struggles with a lack of infrastructure and regulatory barriers. These problems are not unique to boating, they are common to all ORR participants. Just as boaters are challenged to find adequate water access via boat ramps and marinas, campers need better roads and free space in existing campgrounds and RV sites. Edmonston cited Dade County Florida as an example of the struggles over access. “Ramps in Dade County are often closed early in the morning because the parking lot has already filled. Today’s demographic with people moving, particularly to Florida, has created challenges that communities did not anticipate. We need some regulatory reforms to reduce the time it takes for a private company to build a new access point and to issue permits,” he said. It will be beneficial to have ORR’s collective voice to address these issues.
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In addition to similar obstacles, the various groups in the ORR also see their customers as basically the same, since many areas of leisure activities overlap. In addition, it gives the ORR a unified voice when working on behalf of similar, if not the same, communities. And with participants participating across industries, all pastimes face the question of whether the popularity of outdoor recreation will continue after the normalization of vacations, youth activities and work hours, and if so, how can the industries stop it from growing so big that overcrowding is becoming the new problem. “We (new boaters) will return to other things, but boating has grown quite a bit. It will be higher in one place than it was before the pandemic. But things can’t go on like this. I’m pretty confident about that,” said Gruhn.
Selling the boat lifestyle
To sustain active participation and interest in outdoor recreation, industry leaders are relying on consumers’ passion for the lifestyle, not just a means of escaping during a pandemic. “Many people who have been boating during the pandemic were not looking for a new lifestyle, they were looking for a way out. These people will be harder to keep. We need to clear them up and eliminate the trouble factor. They need easy access to water and service, they need to know how to operate their vessels and how to find qualified shipyards who can provide them with smooth service,” Edmonston said.
Green agreed. “The basis of why recreational enthusiasts choose their quest is based on passion, and they will go to great lengths to continue that quest. They’re choosing to be passionate about the lifestyle around activity, which is huge, and that’s why they’re not going to turn away anytime soon,” he said.
One benefit to the boating industry is that organizations like Discover Boating and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation were working to get people into boating long before the pandemic hit. That made turning to boating much easier for those looking for an outlet during the pandemic. Gruhn said information from manufacturers and retailers continues to show that boating has not yet lost popularity. He cited dealers who previously stocked 50 boats at a time are now struggling to keep three on property and the lead time for new boats is still unusually long.
Both Gruhn and Edmonston agreed that longtime boaters will not turn to any other pastime, so the focus must be on retaining new boaters and ensuring they see the cost-benefit of a boat. Both BoatUS and MRAA are taking steps to ensure boaters continue to boat.
BoatUS works through education and legislation. Edmonston said a key to retaining boaters is making sure they know how to boat well, which brings more enjoyment to the activity. Boating courses, both online and in person, need to be continued and possibly expanded. On the legislative front, he said the industry must continue to fight supply chain issues and tariffs to reduce the cost of buying a boat, and also work to improve access. “A study conducted by BoatUS found that people either don’t boat or stopped boating because they didn’t have access nearby,” Edmonston said.
Gruhn said that MRAA’s top priority right now is retaining boaters, and he sees dealers as a big part of that responsibility. “We help retailers understand how to better take care of their customers, both those who lead them to a sale and those they work with after the sale. We teach them the principles of customer experience and how to run a better service department. We’ve revised the dealer certification program to require dealers to complete four courses each year to maintain their certification, and we’re working with manufacturers to encourage their dealers to do so,” he said.
The marine industry believes that a quality experience will keep people on the water, and this is what the entire outdoor industry is banking on to maintain its position as a major driver of the US economy for decades to come.