Personal Watercraft Industry Association

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A Champion for Safety and Access
An interview with David Dickerson, director of state government relations for the Personal Watercraft Industry Association


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The Personal Watercraft Industry Association was formed in 1987 as a reaction to a large amount of concern among communities and regulators regarding the use of personal watercrafts(PWCs) – regarding noise, emissions, lifejacket use and a perceived lack of training available for riders.

 The association’s early years involved in-depth advocacy to come in and say that the manufacturers of personal watercrafts were aware of the concerns and were actively working to remedy them.

 The evolution has continued to a point where machines on the water today hardly resemble those from even 10 years ago, according to David Dickerson, the PWIA’s director of state government relations.

 “In response to the riders and to the marketplace, today’s PWC is wider and significantly more stable,” he said.“The capacity has gone from one to three, the sophistication of them has increased dramatically and that sophistication includes such things as having a trainer key – which limits the speed of the vessel to about 30 miles per hour. When you’re a new rider, you can get on and don’t have to worry about the speed at all. You’re going to be operating it in a very comfortable way.

 “Some of them have GPS, they have watercraft storage capacity; they have special systems that if it turns upside down, the fuel system is pressurized so it doesn’t release fuel into the water. There’s a tremendous amount of sophistication that’s come to the PWC.”

 Business World chatted recently with Dickerson about the association’s membership – which consists of Yamaha, Kawasaki and BRP – the role the association plays in their member businesses and the factors that will influence the industry’s future.

  BUSINESS WORLD: Are there significantly more manufacturers than those who are members of the association? Or just those three and maybe one or two more?

DICKERSON: Those are the three primary brands. They’re out there – there’s none that are easily found in the marketplace. There’s a couple that I know of that are very unique, in that they’re often used as tenders on super yachts, and they’re European models. I’ve never seen one; I’ve just read about them. So, yes, we now have the very strong three, who are consistently investing in new innovation and outreach to people.

BUSINESS WORLD: A lot of associations will have one particular thing that they consider their strength. Whether they believe they’re an educational organization, or they’re a networking organization, or they impact legislation, a lot of them will plant a flag in the ground and say, “this is what we do, this is what we do well, and that’s how we’re known.” What is that for you guys? What would you say is your main contribution?

DICKERSON: Our primary role is in advocacy and our two missions are advocacy for safety – safety legislation, safety training and the second is for access. Of course, access means that if there are bans being proposed or undue restrictions in the wind, we step up and present our side of the story.

BUSINESS WORLD: What are the top-of-agenda issues these days? Is it typically legislation by communities limiting where they can use them, or noise restrictions, or whatever? Is that the main thing that you’re dealing with these days?

DICKERSON: Our largest issues today, interestingly enough, have changed emphasis. It has been, really over time, we had dealt with state issues or local issues. Today, our top-line concerns are access to national parks. There are processes for each of the parks, where every 10 years, they have a review of their management plan and several parks are in the midst of that right now. Each of the ones that are in the midst of it currently have restrictions in place or bans in place. We have been working as advocates to try to get fresh looks at each of these restrictions and also to prevent further restrictions. Those parks include Gulf Island National Seashore, which straddles the Florida panhandle across into Alabama. There’s the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Biscayne Bay, and finally, the park called Pictured Rocks, which is up in Michigan on the Great Lakes.


BUSINESS WORLD: How effective have you been so far in stating the industry concerns about those managerial changes and the plans that they’re looking at and restrictions? Have they been receptive? Or have they been pretty gung-ho about going hard in one direction?

DICKERSON: Well, the Florida Keys is farthest along in the process and they have been very receptive. One of our issues down there was the large number of rentals that were, really, in conflict with the commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen. And, when I say commercial, I mean the fishing guides. And, going down there and working with the fishing guides, as well as the PWC liveries, they struck a deal among themselves, as to how to solve these user conflicts, took them to NOAA, which overseas is the FKMNS, and they were delighted – “Great! We don’t have to get involved because the two industries have come together.”

In the Gulf Island, that process is still ongoing, as is the Pictured Rocks. So we can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out. We do have a legacy of people remembering the old PWC that was much louder, had quite a bit of emissions, and frankly, were operated by younger people. Today’s buyer and user are in their 40s with families.

BUSINESS WORLD: That’s got to be a fairly difficult perception to overcome, right?

DICKERSON: It’s interesting. As you go over into the Miami Beach area, where you can go through the areas with all of the beautiful homes and all along the waterway, you’ll see a beautiful 45-foot boot and then right beside it, hanging on the docks, will be two PWCs. And, so they are very popular among the middle part of the market. We hope that we can continue to sell to the younger people, which we certainly are. But over time, as it has become a stable watercraft and its capacity has grown, where it’s not just one person on board, it’s now very common where people will hop on a PWC with their children or grandchildren. Their grandchildren themselves will be the ones operating them.

So it’s not always that it’s the 40-year-old operating it, but certainly that’s the age group that’s buying it and people are using it. One of the things we did, as an organization, is created a model law, and worked very hard over the years to have various states put it in place. That law has three key elements – one of which is no longer an issue, which is mandatory lifejacket wear.That is almost universal, there’s one state that has yet to have it. We are also strong advocates for the operator to be at least 16 years old. Sometimes when I’m in talking to legislators, they say, “Really, the industry is asking to limit the age of operators?” And, we absolutely are. We feel that these are boats that should be operated by people who are a little bit older.

BUSINESS WORLD: To what extent do you go about engaging the public, trying to inform them of the dos and don’ts of these things?How successful have those initiatives been?

DICKERSON: We have two main educational efforts and one is targeting the liveries, the rentals. In a number of states, as part of our advocacy, these liveries are required to provide a certain amount of user education prior to hopping aboard. That, in a number of states, includes an instructional video as well as a short test. We have produced a short instructional video for the liveries and it is very popular. We mail them out all year long, and it’s of course also available on our website, and I imagine many people we don’t know of just roll that right straight off of our website. That has been a real benefit and from the industry’s point of view, rentals are the entrée into purchases, and by giving them some beginning education, not only does it start them off on a safe footing, but it also gives them a certain amount of comfort aboard the vessel.

Our second and most recent initiative is Safe Rider. We launched it last year. It is tailor-made for today’s communications. It is an online program, where people read the rules of the road and then they sign on, “Yes, I will commit to being a safe rider.” And, you know what Safe Rider stands for, because you received this information. This year, we’re putting more effort behind it than ever before and we’re doing that by reaching out to the department of natural resources around the country to encourage them to make riders aware of it. Also, through social media, we’re working very hard through Twitter and Facebook, to make sure people are aware of it.

Not only will those that sign the pledge receive a sticker to go on the machine – it’s a real attractive safe rider decal – but also they will be part of drawings for accessories, whether they be key chains or other branded materials that are just fun and part of the whole encouragement to sign up.

BUSINESS WORLD: What sorts of things, if we had this conversation again down the road, do you imagine changing in the next five years? It is just beating the drum for more access and safety and informing legislators? What other things are on your agenda for the next little while?

DICKERSON: Our mission will not change. We’ll continue to be advocates for access and safety. Our next steps, over the next few years, is to better distribute safety materials through partnerships with DNRs and other organizations by having our materials linked to the boating sections of various state agencies. And we will continue to look for other states that are open to having changes in their laws regarding safety training. Those are the two ongoing efforts that the association will be doing.

The outreach to the agencies is a new effort. While we have always been engaged with them to find out what their concerns are and try to respond to them. This will be the first ongoing effort to bring them into our educational efforts. We also will be amending our efforts to make our livery video a consumer video, meaning that it’s no longer going to have references to “your rental provider will do this or that.” It will just be trimmed down and say that the safe rider way of riding has the following elements. So, it’s an expansion of our ongoing mission. I don’t see any dramatic changes.

BUSINESS WORLD: How are the manufacturers? How are sales? Are more people buying these things than five years ago? Is it trending in a particular direction?

DICKERSON: It’s trending up, after a very strong downturn. The recession slammed all discretionary purchases. Certainly, boats and PWCs fit in that category. Also, the difficulty of getting loans over a period of time has been an issue. The recession hit the boating industry overall, and certainly PWCs, very hard. We are still recouping from that, but we’re starting to see an increase in sales every year. And this year has been better than last. But, we have a long ways to go to reach back the sales figures from before the great recession.

It’s been a real challenge for the industry. One of the results of the downturn – it did start a little bit before the recession, but Honda, which used to have a presence in the market, dropped out. So that was the last company to exit the manufacturing of PWC.

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