Five big names in boating spoke about the state of the industry at the 2013 Marine Dealer Conference and Expo. In all, 2013 was a good year.
Rick Correll of Tigé Boats, Bob Menne from Premier Marine, Mark Schwabero of Mercury Marine, Ron Huibers of Volvo Penta and Bill McGill of MarineMax fielded questions and discussed the boating industry in a panel moderated by Boating Industry Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Sweet.
The panelists all agreed that despite the lagging economy, 2013 turned out to be a great year for boat sales, especially the second half.
The year, however, wasn’t without its changes, with boaters shifting from longer trips and bigger boats to cheap and easy weekends on the water.
Pontoons continue to be a big driver for MarineMax, according to McGill, who said the segment was up 25 percent over its projections. Despite that jump, McGill had a lot to say about the rising price of getting on the water.
“Twenty years ago, if someone told me we’d be selling pontoons for more than $100,000, I’d say they’re smoking weed,” said McGill.
The comment got a lot of laughs and a lot of nods and sparked some debate among the panelists.
Huibers said that while the prices are rising, the new features help create new boaters. “Keep bringing innovation, that’s what brings people to the showroom,” said Huibers.
That means more touch screens and expensive gizmos driving up the price of the boat. But Correll says buyers are ignoring the entry-level boats in favor of those bells and whistles.
“The end customer, the retail customer is driving the content of the boat,” said Correll. “The de-contented boats are down – market share is down. What’s up is the market share of the boats with touch screens – the things they see in their car.”
“The days when I see ski boats going for $25,000 are long gone,” he said. “Our customers demand that our boats have touch screens and top-of-the-line stereo systems.”
Schwabero echoed those sentiments saying that they strive to keep engine costs low for the end user, but “we can’t change the fact that consumers want more horsepower.”
As prices rise in most segments, smarter marketing is taking a center stage for everyone in the industry.
In the panel and on the convention floor, there was a lot of talk about how to look past the price of that new wake boat and focus on the boating lifestyle.
“The things we do with our customers is the most important marketing tool,” said Menne. Pop-up boat shows, test rides and showroom receptions are driving sales, but also growing the boating community via word of mouth.
“I think the whole industry has to rethink how we market,” said Menne, who focuses on selling the lifestyle, not the price.
He said that events for women and children have been big drivers. McGill agreed, saying that often that family atmosphere resonates with the typical boat buyer.
“If you can show the lady of the household that this is the way to connect with the kids, you’re halfway there,” said McGill.
Building on that lifestyle by cultivating a family atmosphere was key for Tigé Boats as well – which focuses heavily on wakeboarding and other watersports.
“The younger buyers don’t write checks, but they influence the purchase,” said Correll.
Cultivating a boating culture among minorities who didn’t grow up boating was another marketing quandary the panelists tackled. Schwabero said that just getting people on the water is incredibly important.
“It’s not about financial,” said Schwabero. “It’s literally that you have to get them exposed to it.”
Huibers said that getting them on the water was key, but showing them that it’s not as complicated as many people believe was also imperative.
“If we can make boating easy and get them into it, we’ll have customers,” said Huibers.