Question For Boating Clubs:
How Do We Draw Younger Members?
An important event for the Charlotte-area boating clubs, struggling for ways to attract new and younger members, happened in late April at Myers Park Methodist Church.
Two 20-something members of the America’s Boating Club-Charlotte were married, proving that the three units of the Charlotte-area United States Power Squadrons can attract members younger than the current average of 60-plus years of age to the squadrons.
Actually, both Whitney and Will Maness were members of the Charlotte Power Squadron — a.k.a. America’s Boating Club-Charlotte — before they tied the knot, but the wedding at least gave hope to the squadron commanders that millennials, Gen Xers or Gen Zers aren’t totally repulsed by the idea of joining clubs dedicated to boating safety, civic service and fraternity.
Pat Hakanson, a member of America’s Boating Club-Charlotte and North Carolina district executive officer for the USPS, believes bringing younger members into the international boating club may be a hard sell, though. The squadrons are known for their monthly meetings and boating safety classes and seminars.
“Boomers like meetings and classes and millennials don’t,” she says.
Bill Beers, commander of the Catawba Sail & Power Squadron, says very young families aren’t interested in joining a boating club. They may be interested in paddle boarding or jet skiing but usually don’t have boats.
“We haven’t cracked that nut yet,” Beers says.
Same says Lou Schwartz, commander of the Lake Norman Sail & Power Squadron.
“At this point in time, it’s a very, very difficult task to generate the interest of that group (millennials),” he says.
Millennials and young families are consumed with the day-to-day activities of entertainment themselves and raising families.
“Young parents are so active in ballet, PTA and other activities,” Schwartz says. They don’t have time for boating training, socializing about a boat club or civic activities.
Beers uses his son as an example.
“He and his wife both are involved in establishing their careers and caring for their families,” he says. “They are not invested in such activities” as boating.
Says Hakanson, speaking of millennials, “They like spur of the moment things and families are No. 1.” She says that’s quite a change from the boomer and older generations.
“My father had his bowling league and Kiwanis, and the kids had their own stuff,” Hakanson says. Those are the generations who have joined local squadrons and have grown the USPS into the largest U.S. boating club.
Photo By Discover Love Studios
Now, 40 years later, those members are aging out, selling their boats and retiring. Beers believes that the average age of the 76-member Catawba squadron is the early 60s.
Someone approaching the status of senior citizen isn’t likely to be active in building at the squadron’s lake property, driving hundreds of miles on trailer-boating trips or serving as a USPS national officer.
For years, the Charlotte-area squadrons used booths at the Mid-Atlantic Boat Show each winter to attract boat shoppers to their ranks. In 2018, the show didn’t bring a single interested person to the Charlotte or Catawba squadrons. Lake Norman had a good year at the boat show, though.
Schwartz of the Lake Norman squadron believes that young boaters are missing out on some vital boating training and just plain fun by passing up on squadron membership. He cites a U.S. Coast Guard survey that says 77% of deaths on the water were people who never had a single hour of boating training.
“We all have this passion for safety boating and sharing it with people,” Schwartz says.
The USPS list of boating-safety seminars starts with a basic America’s Boating Course, which satisfies North Carolina’s requirement for a safety course for those born in 1988 or later. And they range up to navigation courses that are based on the use of a sextant.
The Lake Norman squadron is working to convince Charlotte-area boat dealers to pay for the basic USPS ABC instruction for the new owners.
Now, the USPS and the three Charlotte-area squadrons have launched additional efforts to bring younger members into their ranks, or at least more new members to their squadrons. USPS added a marketing name, America’s Boating Club. It also has a new logo that emphasizes other types of boating: kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing as well as its founding form of locomotion, power boating.
“What’s happening is a great amount of boating that isn’t by sail or power,” Schwartz says. And a 20-something family is more likely to have a paddle board or a kayak than it is to have a 30-foot Sea Ray.
Both the Catawba and Charlotte squadrons added the name of America’s Boating Club as efforts to draw new members. The Lake Norman squadron uses the new USPS logo on promotional material.
USPS also has a new website and video series designed to draw more and younger boaters to the squadrons.
Hakanson still hasn’t given up on attracting millennials to the boating club. She wants to find a way to list events of the Charlotte Power Squadron on Meetup online to take advantage of millennials’ spur-of-the-moment inclination.
“People who sign on say what subject they’re interested in and they get emails on the meetings,” she explains. “They physically show up for the meetings.
“That’s the kind of events millennials like,” she says.
Instead of aiming his pitch at the very young, Beers believes a good target market are those families with already established careers and kids who could be entertained on the water.
“These are not young, young people — couples probably in their 40s and they have families and they’re getting active in boating,” Beers says. And, in best of all possible worlds, those families “are interested in taking our courses.”
The Lake Norman squadron has initiated a USPS program called Jump Start, designed to give new boat owners a few hours of one-on-one instruction, usually aboard their new boats. The sessions cover a range of subjects including docking and anchoring, says Schwartz.
“You buy a new boat and there’s a learning curve,” he says. And of course, instructing new boat owners “generates interest” in joining a squadron, he says.
Schwartz also says the squadron’s Vessel Safety Check program, a free, USPS-sponsored waterside check off of safety and navigation items required to be in boats, has brought some new members to the Lake Norman squadron.
Sometimes new squadron members happen by accident. Shelly Stewart and Bailey Kennington were cruising in their boat on Lake Wylie in 2017, sporting a new red, white and blue flag that they had just purchased.
The two were perplexed when a Charlotte Power Squadron member approached them to ask what USPS squadron they were members of. Turns out that attractive flag, with vertical, blue and white stripes and anchor surrounded by a circle of stars, was the USPS banner.
Stewart and Kennington were invited to the next general membership meeting of the Charlotte Power Squadron. They’re now member.
Ken Elkins is secretary of Charlotte Power Squadron and a senior writer at
Charlotte Business Journal.
Photo By Mellisa Key