These Numbers Don’t Lie

If you want to please a crowd, you have to know the audience. If you want to grow the sport of sailing, you have to know who’s getting in the boats. This was the thinking behind a recent survey conducted by the American Sailing Association (ASA). “We wanted to learn more about our students,” executive director Charlie Nobles said. “We hope people will take what we found, apply it to their corner of the industry and allow the sport to grow.”

The survey revealed facts about today’s sailing school students—some surprising, others logical, but all useful for better serving the sailing community. With over 2,000 responses from students in every corner of the country, Nobles believes these are results to act on. Here’s what they found.

Sailing students are experienced boat owners, too.

Logic may hold that a student enrolling in a sailing school would be a newcomer to the sport. Before the survey, Nobles would have predicted less than 10 percent of students were boat owners. However, ASA’s survey found that 37 percent of students already own boats—41 percent in the 21-29 foot range and 74 percent keelboats. “In many cases, students are seeking certification because they have some experience, but they want to make sure they are doing everything right,” said Nobles.

The profile of a sailor hasn’t changed much, but it can.

The survey found that the majority of students were middle- to upper-class white males who were primarily empty nesters and either in or near retirement. That’s conventional wisdom, said Nobles, but it helps the ASA define its efforts. “We need to better serve the members we already have, and do something to reach out to women and young people.” With that in mind, Nobles said ASA will be jumping on the bandwagon many companies are now using to beef up business—the internet. According Nobles, “We will create a position for social networking, someone whose main purpose is to reach out to existing members and appeal to the younger generation through the social media realm.”

People don’t just want to sail; they want to embrace the sailing lifestyle.

Within the next 12 months, the majority of respondents said they plan on chartering. “People’s dream is to skipper their own boat in the BVI,” said Nobles, so it makes sense that the most popular classes are those that prepare students to charter (Basic Keelboat, Basic Coastal Cruising and Basic Chartering). In addition, nearly 60 percent say they want to sail in flotillas, a group sailing concept that has grown throughout the past decade. “In order to become a better sailor, you have to learn from those that enjoy it. Flotillas provide people with the ability to practice in a fun setting.”

Even in tough times, it appears, people will put aside money for a smaller commitment, like a sailing vacation, rather than an investment. While many companies were hurting in 2009, ASA’s business was only down 4 percent, perhaps because sailing schools are a more affordable way to discover sailing. “Maybe our members can’t afford a trip to Europe right now, but they can take sailing lessons, so when things are in better shape, they can go charter a boat.”

Knowing that students enrolled as a means of entering the sailing lifestyle is both exciting and immensely important for ASA. “We have to tangibly show people the joys of the sailing lifestyle, because we now know that’s what they want,” Nobles noted. “But that’s a mission we all need to embrace. ASA can’t do that by itself.”

Power boaters are still power boaters, and they want a school, too.

The survey coincides with an upcoming ASA endeavor: power boating schools. Over the next several years, ASA hopes to open power boating schools around the nation. The survey revealed that interest in these classes exists, but the interested parties overlap very little with sailing students. ASA hopes to work with consultants, boat builders and consumers to better understand this demographic and grow it.

Nobles hopes ASA can learn from these findings and better serve its existing members and members to come. “As a sailing industry, we need to identify a certain segment of people and hone in on them,” Nobles said. “There’s a broad spectrum of people seeking the lifestyle of sailing, and we need to rally around them, creating opportunities to allow them to thrive.”

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