Sea Change: Things Keep Flowing In The Boating Market

A few months ago, I got a phone call from my friend Carolyn Crouch. She told me about a new boating magazine that was coming into being, and asked me if I’d like to write an article for the debut issue about my former boss, Ira Black. It would be the cover story, I was told, and the magazine would be unveiled during the U.S. Powerboat Show in Annapolis in October. I readily agreed, wrote the piece and recently received my copies of the first issue in the mail. As soon as I saw the cover, I had flashbacks. The list of names there was a veritable who’s who of people I’d worked with earlier with The Mariner, Nor’easter Magazine or both. There was the cover photo of Ira as he looks today (like he just stepped out of a ZZ Top video), Gary Diamond, Dick Greenwood, Whitey Schmidt, Bob and Pam Appleton, Paul Esterle and Carolyn herself. It was odd, to be honest, but somewhat gratifying to see that some of the things I helped set in motion a decade or so ago were still chugging along, albeit in a different way and under a new banner.

Mid-Atlantic Boating is the name of this new entrant into the boating market. As most people know at this point, the free-distribution portion of the boating publication market has fallen on hard times of late. Page counts, and the ad dollars that go along with it, have plummeted. Some publications, notably Nor’easter itself, have fallen to the wayside, finding Davey Jones’ locker earlier this season. For a new magazine to start up in this environment could be called crazy (honestly, that was my first thought). Or it could be perfect timing. Only time will tell on that score.

The new publication is a tab size, something in the neighborhood of 10 ” x 12″, and it sports a nice glossy cover. The interior is newsprint, but a little heavier and brighter than the standard variety, giving the publication a nice look, and a not-too-flimsy feel. The debut issue came out to 36 pages, with a reasonable array of advertisers. Not bad at all given that this is the first effort of a brand new magazine, opening at the end of a season in an historically down market. It will be available through bulk deliveries, as all publications in this region of that type are. My understanding is that, provided things go well, Mid Atlantic Boating will be a monthly magazine beginning in 2011. There is a reference to the January issue in the masthead of issue number one, so I take that as a good sign of continued publication.

Which brings me to a point about the wisdom of taking a chance in this market at this particular time. There are generally two ways to look at it. The first is that, because of the current fiscal problems, and significantly slower economic recovery than many people need or expect, it could be better to sit back and let things improve before taking the risk of jumping in. There may be merit to that point. Playing it safe in this day and age has become the mantra of many companies, understandably so. However, as Ira himself used to say, a down market is the perfect time to advertise and build your business because everyone else is sitting on their hands waiting for things to get better. I can attest to the “hurry up and wait” mentality in some of my recent experiences. And being that I’ve never really been one to sit by and not take a chance when the opportunity presents, it is pretty frustrating.

The second way to look at this is just that; this market, depressed as it currently is at this time, provides the perfect opportunity to make a splash and grow from the ground up as things improve, positioning yourself in a stronger place than the Johnny-come-lately guys who are afraid to take the risks today but try to snatch up the rewards when things are a bit safer. So let’s take a quick look at how things stack up competitively.

As I’ve mentioned before, Nor’easter Magazine is no more, ceasing publication in early July of this year. The Mariner is still in the field (I think–more on that later) but it’s in a severely weakened condition. And Prop Talk, the power boating sister publication to the long running sailing journal Spin Sheet, seems to be doing just fine. That leaves a potential opening for someone to step in, given an actual recovery in the boating market sooner than later. As for The Mariner, their case is a perplexing one. (Full disclosure: I was let go as the Editor of The Mariner in march of this year.) Since my involvement with them ended after the March issue, their publication schedule has been a bit erratic. The October issue, which is the final one of 2010, came out to 32 pages. Not exactly gang busters, but that’s not the really confusing part. For some reason, the U.S. Powerboat Show wasn’t exploited.

To me, having been through about a dozen seasons in the boating market market through the years, the October issue has generally been the most important issue of the year, not to mention traditionally the largest page count wise, and the biggest money maker, all because of its association with the Annapolis powerboat show. In fact, the decision to even print an October issue without using the show as a platform, both for coverage and ad sales, is a bit lost on me. The coverage of the show in the October Mariner amounted to a vague mention on the cover, one paragraph at the end of the editor’s column and a short listing in the upcoming events section. That’s it. In contrast, Prop Talk gets it, sporting their corresponding issue as the U.S. Powerboat Show Issue, and cranking out a nice 108-page effort. Mid Atlantic Boating gets it, as well, using the show as the springboard for launching their entire enterprise. And according to various reports, The Mariner didn’t even have a presence at the show. How does that bode for the future of the publication? I’m not sure.

To be fair, there is a starburst on the cover that touts the next issue being January 6. But not taking advantage of the most obvious sales tactic of the season, and not going to the show at all, makes me wonder. There are currently no salespeople listed in the Mariner staff, and a good friend of mine who was handling all of the ad design for the publication was given the, “we don’t need you anymore,” speech immediately following the October issue’s completion, much as I was given after wrapping up the March issue. There may, in fact, be a January Mariner, but if I’m looking at this from a competitive standpoint, I’m encouraged. With Nor’easter already gone, The Mariner possibly following suit, or at least needing a significant  change in effort to become a player again, someone like Mid Atlantic Boating could sneak in and give Prop Talk a run for its money. After all, they’ve only produced one issue and they are already in a better position than The Mariner heading into 2011.  Maybe the idea isn’t so crazy, after all.

As it stands now, no one really knows what kind of market the boating industry will see next year.  There are a lot of hopes, and the only thing that is certain is that all of those won’t be fulfilled.  But it is nice to see someone taking a chance on something for a change.  If nothing else, that alone may be a harbinger of positive things to come for all of us.  If one company is willing to take a risk and put its money where its mouth is, can others possibly be far behind?  That’s how recoveries get started.

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