Gray-haired baby boomers at the helm of boats on local waterways are the norm in South Florida and throughout the country. This makes sense since they often have the time and money to afford to spend their days luxuriating aboard sleek vessels.
But what about younger generations who might have a similar desire but not the means?
Some vendors at the upcoming Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show are aiming to address this demographic, which includes people from their 20s to 40s. The show runs from Thursday, Oct. 30 to Monday, Nov. 3.
Andy Sturner, for one, is messianic about getting younger people – the children and grandchildren of baby boomers – involved in the marine industry. As the co-founder and CEO of www.boatsetter.com, he believes he’s making luxury boating affordable in a way that charter boat companies do not.
“In 1997, did you know that the average age of boat owners was 45?” he says, quoting statistics from a Soundings Trade Only July, 2013 report. “In 2012, it was 53. As baby boomers age through the system, they get out of boating.”
He continues with numbers he says were supplied by studies from National Marine Manufacturers Association and U.S. Coast Guard: “Power boat sales peaked in 1988 with 520,000 sold. Then a luxury tax was instituted in 1990 and sales dropped to about 300,000 for the next 20 years. In 2008, when the last recession hit, sales dropped to approximately 120,000 and it hasn’t really yet rebounded to pre-2008 levels. Part of the reason is that boating has gotten incredibly expensive.”
Sturner says the numbers show the importance of luring the under-50 crowd to boating.
“There are twice as many boat owners over age 60 as under age 40,” he says. “There are 16 million registered boats in the U.S. with an average age of 23 years.
It’s an aging fleet. The average rate of utility of those boats was down from 37 days when I got in the business in 2002 to 20 days last year.
“The industry has a problem. We thought we could come up with a solution.”
Boatsetter.com lists about 200 boats available for rental ranging from 28 to 60 feet. “By leveraging technology, we have access to millennials and Generation Xers and can get them to have a luxury experience on a boat with a captain,” Sturner said. “Once they have a great day on the water, they’re hooked and may someday buy a boat that they can perhaps put in our system for rental.”
At the boat show, Sturner plans to speak on subjects that include listing boats for charter, potential renters, and people who are considering buying but want to experience different craft on the water.
Catching the attention of even younger people is also the goal of Don Dingman of Jacksonville, who will also be at the show. He is the founder of Hook the Future, which aims to foster the fishing experience among children and teens and their families. He plans to provide free fishing clinics at the show.
“I talk about lure selection, different fishing mounts, tips to catch fish, and how to be a good steward of the environment,” he says. “We offer giveaways from our sponsors.”
Those future fishermen and women may someday require a boat to have the optimal fishing experience on fresh or saltwater. “I want families to enjoy the company of being with their kids and making memories on the water,” he says. “From boats to piers, South Florida is a fishy place.”
Mike Fruchter, social media manager of the boat show, said there will be a photo contest on Facebook and Instagram with a prize for the best photo taken during the show. Fruchter is also organizing an on-site scavenger hunt, with clues provided via Twitter and Facebook. The grand prize is a $1,000 membership in the Freedom Boat Club. The best photo or video taken at the show and put on Vine will win an iPad or another cool prize.
“The younger generation is the future of boating,” Fruchter says. “A lot of manufacturers are on social media, which is a really good tool and a global platform.”
There’s even an app for the event called myboatshowapp. “It’s really interactive,” says Fruchter. “It’s another way to reach millennials. You can use it to find an exhibitor or learn about parking and restaurants.”
According to John Jarvie, president of Young Professionals in Yachting: “I don’t think the industry is doing enough to attract young professionals. Manufacturers operate under the principle, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ They expect the yachts to sell themselves.”
Focused on land-based industries in the field of yachting, Young Professionals in Yachting is open to people under age 40. They hold monthly meetings in Fort Lauderdale’s Bistro Mezzaluna restaurant.
“We have speakers talk about how they overcame obstacles of age and knowledge, as well as speakers discussing professional development,” says Jarvie, who adds that the industry doesn’t take kindly to what is new, or to young people. “We had someone from the Toastmasters talk about how to improve public speaking skills.”
Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the boat show, says he’s reaching out to the younger generations in a variety of ways.
“A lot of it is through social media, but it’s also by elevating the dining experience at Hugh’s Café and scheduling a film festival.”
All boating businesses, Purcell says, are incorporating wireless, wi-fi and satellite reception as standard features.
“This is geared to a generation that has grown up on touchscreens,” he says. “We are seeing more young faces at the boat show all the time.”
Purcell, who takes his grandchild out on the water, believes that boating connects the generations.
“Grandpa buys a boat to reconnect with his grandkids.”