Jonathan Banks joined Sail America six years ago as executive director, bringing a wealth of executive level sales and marketing management to his post, along with proven experience in building organizations and brands. Besides his impressive resume, he also brought his love and passion for sailing and the sailing lifestyle, including experience in racing high-performance dinghies and blue water cruisers. From 1991 to 1994, he was the skipper of a Swan 57 for a four-year circumnavigation of the world. More recently, he has enjoyed several charter vacations, participated in one-design and ocean racing, and regularly cruises and races on the waters of New England with his family aboard his Lippincott 30.
During his six year stint at the helm of Sail America, Banks has worked closely with four association presidents, plus a bevy of board members, Sail America staff and a slew of industry associates, colleagues, vendors and volunteers. He's helped chart the course to keep Sail America afloat and tracking steadfastly forward. He's been an integral leader and has helped navigate the association through some very challenging economic swells. During his tenure, Banks was instrumental in restructuring the association and creating a sustainable business model. He helped bring financial stability to the organization; was part of the team that grew membership revenues by more than 30 percent; negotiated new partnerships and affiliations; completed a successful merger of the Strictly Sail St. Pete show; plus was instrumental in revitalizing the Strictly Sail Pacific show. One of his notable achievements was launching the Sailing Industry Conference and Industry Regatta.
As Banks concludes the transition of the management of Sail America to the new association management company, he took a few moments to discuss his journey, the state of the industry and future of sailing, and his personal plans moving forward.
Waypoints: As you look back over the past six years, what do you believe have been your most significant achievements as executive director at Sail America?
One of the most significant achievements is that Sail America survived and strengthened during what was an extremely challenging time in the history of the sailing industry. Working closely with the board of directors, we created a sustainable business model with less dependency on running boat shows and with a greater emphasis on forming smart partnerships and affiliations. As a result, we stemmed the losses, expanded membership services, promoted sailing in new markets, and were able to put money back into the association for the past three years.
I am also very proud of the improvements we made to the Strictly Sail Pacific show. Working with the boat show team of Mitch Perkins, Jorgen Bateman, Patty Lawrence, Gary Edelman and Geoff Saffron, and our marketing partners Kenton Smith Marketing, Ad Strategies and Spin PR, we successfully transformed the show, creating an exciting and successful event for vendors and a wonderful experience for attendees.
Producing three Sailing Industry Conferences is, without doubt, one of my biggest achievements at Sail America. The Sailing Industry Conference helped bring the industry together during challenging times and provided companies with the tools to adjust to the new market realities.
Waypoints: Besides the economy, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. sailing industry?
It's very difficult to answer this question without referencing the enormous impact the economy has had on the health of the sailing industry. Besides the economy, some of the biggest challenges include:
- Aging Demographic: The average age of sailors continues to grow and more effort is needed to attract and retain younger sailors. While this may not be a major issue in the short term, it will become a bigger concern over time. To address this issue, the industry needs to look into new boat ownership models and provide younger sailors with greater access to boats and sailing facilities. The entire sailing community needs to open its doors and do a better job at attracting younger sailors.
- Overcoming the perception that sailing is difficult, expensive and exclusive: This is a tough one because it's not easy to change attitudes, especially when the mainstream media has a tendency to portray sailing as a rich man's sport and gives far more coverage to sailing accidents than sailing achievements. The growth in community sailing, boat clubs and fractional ownership has helped address this perception, but a great deal more needs to be done to communicate that sailing can be easy, affordable and available to everyone.
- Spreading the word about the sailing lifestyle: This is the key to the future health of the sailing market. Discover Boating and Discover Sailing have done a fantastic job promoting the sailing lifestyle and introducing new people to sailing, but both programs are underfunded and not sufficiently supported by the sailing industry. This is an area where the sailing industry really needs to come together to create a funding model to promote the sailing lifestyle.
- Retention of sailors: We should never forget that it's easier to retain a customer than gain a customer. With boats sales close to historic lows, the industry is largely dependent on servicing the existing population of sailors, which is why it is critical to develop programs and initiatives that keep people sailing more often and for longer.
Waypoints: What do you perceive as the greatest opportunities ahead for the sailing industry?
Despite the many challenges facing the sailing industry, there are a number of great opportunities ahead:
- Youth Participation: Youth sailing programs around the country have experienced a steady increase in participation over the past several years. While many of these young sailors drop out of sailing, research has shown that people are more likely to sail and buy boats in their adult life if they sailed as a kid. To do a better job at retaining youth sailors, the sailing industry and various sailing authorities around the country need to come up with different programs, more exciting boats, and easier access to boats.
- Exporting: Although the traditional export markets (e.g. Europe) have seen a big slowdown in recent years, many of the emerging markets represent great opportunities for US-based companies looking to do more business overseas. Sail America members have access to many of the excellent export resources that the NMMA has developed.
- Innovation: There is no question that companies that continued to develop and launch new products and services during the recession are faring better than companies that stuck to their old tried and tested products. Innovation sparks interest and gives people reasons to buy new. Innovation is not just limited to new products; it also applies to business practices, customer relations, marketing, etc.
Other opportunities for the sailing industry include expanding access to boats through rental centers, local charters, sailing clubs and fractional ownership; diversifying into other industry segments; and appealing to a more diverse market.
Waypoints: What have you learned from those with whom you've worked in the sailing industry, both here and abroad?
My job gave me the opportunity to work with and get to know hundreds of individuals and businesses from around the world. Every discussion and meeting has been a learning opportunity, and I feel very fortunate to have worked with so many high-quality people. In particular, I'm honored to have worked with the Sail America board of directors, all of whom have devoted countless hours to supporting Sail America's vision to grow the sailing market.
One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is the importance of collaboration. During my time, we created many new partnerships, which ultimately strengthened our association and expanded the services we offer members.
On an international level, I've met with a number of international sailing organizations and had in-depth discussions with the British Marine Federation. Most of the countries face the same basic issues but each has adopted a different approach to tackling the challenges facing sailing. I've learned we can all learn from one another, and we have.
Waypoints: What do you believe are the benefits of the new association management model adopted by Sail America?
I've worked closely with the Lighthouse team over the past six months and am confident in its ability to manage Sail America and fulfill the board of directors' vision to expand membership services and grow the association. As an example, they did a great job helping with the Sailing Industry Conference, which was held in Newport earlier this summer. Lighthouse has a proven track record of managing other marine associations and has a fantastic team in place that has extensive association management experience.
Sail America will now have access to a team of association professionals as well as Lighthouse's resources and capabilities. Sail America will also will benefit from Lighthouse's experience running other marine trade associations, which may open the door for collaboration and new partnerships. Finally, by eliminating the dedicated office and staff, Sail America anticipates that more resources will be available to support new initiatives.
I've spent the last month working closely with Lighthouse during the transition, and have been impressed with how quickly they have gotten up to speed on the many details of running Sail America. I'm sure members will be equally impressed once they have a chance to meet the Lighthouse team in person.
Waypoints: How do you feel about the state of the sailing industry and our future?
The state of the industry is somewhat precarious right now. I'm concerned there may be further fallout in the months to come. There's no question that the economy isn't recovering at the speed we would like, and I believe there are many companies that are barely keeping their heads above water.
Having said this, the sailing industry has proven itself to be incredibly resilient and resourceful, so I can only hope the market situation improves in the not too distant future. Ultimately, I feel confident about the future and believe there are several positive indicators that will help the sailing industry grow. Sailing isn't going away and interest in the sport continues to stay strong.
Waypoints: What are your plans after you leave Sail America?
My primary goal is to find a leadership position in the marine industry with a company that has the potential to grow and will benefit from my extensive business management and marine industry experience. I'm also working with a small group of investors to identify companies in which to invest or acquire. Recognizing that both of these plans may take time to come to fruition, I also plan to work with a handful of clients on consulting projects.
Waypoints: Any other comments you'd like to add?
I would just like to say that it has been an honor and a pleasure to serve the Sail America membership over the past six years. It has certainly been one of the most rewarding times of my career and I truly value the many excellent relationships I've made.
Waypoints: Your term concluded August 31. If Sail America members are interested in connecting with you after that time, what is the best way to reach you?
I would love to stay connected and hear from friends and colleagues. After August 31, I can be reached at (401) 855-0416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wanda Kenton Smith is editor of Waypoints and Sail America News, president of Marine Marketers of America, national marketing columnist for Soundings Trade Only, and president of Kenton Smith Marketing. She also speaks on marketing topics at industry events and conferences around the country. For information, visit www.kentonsmithmarketing.com