Boat builders are adapting their boat designs to the changing needs of today’s customer.
The power of “new” is no longer enough to push boats out the door.
No one needs a new boat, especially today when many consumers’ pocketbooks are light and their confidence, while improving, leaves much to be desired.
What sells a new boat is the allure of a look, a feel, a feature that the consumer can’t find anywhere else, that makes his boat unique, that makes her boating experience easier and more enjoyable … and that their family can afford.
Indeed, to survive in this market, boat builders and their products must evolve. But the direction of this evolution is different for each segment.
So, in order to identify the latest trends in boat design, Boating Industry dug deep into four of the most popular segments today – ski and wakeboard, runabout, pontoon and fishing – interviewing major players in each category. Our editors then surveyed more than 160 dealers on changes in consumer demand.
The result is an in-depth look at today’s designs as well as insight into the market forces driving future boat designs.
Ski and Wakeboard Boats
The ski and wakeboard segment, with its ties to the youth demographic and its open embrace of new technology, is widely recognized as one of the most innovative boat categories.
Due to their bold colors and graphics and their dramatic profiles, ski and wakeboard boats stand out on the water regardless of who is on the end of the towrope.
But it is the goal of perfecting the experience behind the boat that has driven the biggest changes in this segment in recent years. Specifically, the titans of this segment have devoted an increasing amount of their efforts to building a hull that accommodates both the skier and wakeboarder in one crossover model.
Introduced for the 2011 model year, the Sport Nautique 200 is one such example. To build this boat, the company utilized its 2010 Ski Nautique hull design, then added a V-drive package and a ballast system to accommodate wakeboarders.
This model was different from previous crossovers in that Nautique started with the optimal ski boat and adapted it for wakeboarding, which has wake demands similar to Nautique’s slalom skiers.
“You are starting with the best from the ski side and adding to it to make a wakeboard wake,” explains Greg Meloon, vice president of marketing and product development. “The Sport 200 that we have now is more directly a ski boat converted to the crossover family, consequently it is a better all-around boat than our previous attempts.”
Nautique is one of several manufacturers that have steadily improved their crossover models, creating boats that better accommodate both skiers and wakeboarders by learning from the technologies on both ends of the spectrum.
Supra’s best selling model is its crossover. Matt Brown, product manager for Supra, says the popularity of the model is mainly due to its customers transitioning to a boat that accommodates the whole family.
“Fathers would take their best friend out and slalom ski, then pull the ski boat back and get in the other boat. Now, that same family has kids and some of them are into wakeboarding while others are into skiing,” Brown says. “You have to have that crossover boat for the masses.”
Recently, the world of water sports has welcomed yet another activity: wake surfing. Boat builders are now taking the activity into account in their hull designs, as well as the technology they integrate into the boat.
“Four or five years ago, you would never talk to a family about wake surfing,” Brown says. “Now, you can’t find one that doesn’t wake surf.”
A major reason for the sport’s fast rise is, again, the appeal for the entire family due to the lesser physical demand, compared to other water sports.
At Supra, hulls are now tested for their wake surf effectiveness — something that was never considered six years ago. The boat builder also now accommodates wake surfboards and rear bags that can be taken in and out, which along with an advanced ballest system allow the user to customize the weight added, Brown says.
MasterCraft, which started to consider wake surfing in 2004, has tweaked its hull design by starting with a wakeboarding footprint and adjusting the bottom to ensure their models are creating the best wake, says Scott Crutchfield, chief sales and marketing officer for MasterCraft.
To better accommodate wake surfing, MasterCraft also installed “surf tabs” allowing the driver to enhance the wake’s ability to rollover and elongate up to 20 feet behind the boat.
Surf tabs are one example of how MasterCraft has created a more flexible, all-purpose boat through technology, which Crutchfield says will play an even more important role in serving the evolving water sports athlete.
“The second go around, your customers’ needs are going to be different – different watersports, different experience levels – so your product demand will be determined by how flexible you can be,” Crutchfield says.
When it comes to technology, it is tough to deny the leadership role played by the wake and ski segment. Their digital, integrated helm stations, for example, allow drivers to customize the information they see, and more importantly, make the whole ride experience automatic with wake plates, speed and the ballast system flawlessly working together. It’s no surprise then that such helms were one of the design features dealers participating in our survey chose as most innovative (13.4 percent).
Moving forward, the wake and ski segment is expected to build on its already industry-leading technological advancements. One example will be the integration of safety-oriented features, like proximity sensors and detectors that will shut the transmission off if the driver is no longer at the helm, according to Brown of Supra. Many of the features being added are already widely seen in the automobile industry.
The economic downturn and rising gas prices have not only affected the sales of boats, but also what boaters do with them. Boat builders have listened, designing boats that offer comfort and convenience, while delivering acceptable performance in an efficient manner.
Unlike the ski and wake segment, runabouts are often utilized at rest, and today the hottest design trends take this newly accepted fact into consideration.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the back of the boat, which now garners more attention. With the boat anchored, beached or docked, why gather around the helm?
Rec Boat Holdings, builder of both Four Winns and Glastron, has responded to this development by moving the swim platform closer to the water, creating larger sun pads than ever before, and installing rear speakers, says Christophe Lavigne, vice president of engineering and design for Rec Boat Holdings.
The design focus on the back of the boat did not exist four years ago, but today the boat’s stern is accepted as another place to socialize and entertain, says Pat Wiesner, Regal Boats’ vice president of engineering and new product development. In response, Regal developed its aft sun pad, which can transition to an aft-facing lounge seat, along with a swim platform that is closer to that water.
Wiesner sees the future of swim platforms, which are already widely regarded as innovative by dealers, as an evolving one. For example, the capability to lower the platforms into the water, allowing for older boaters to get out of the water easily, will become a more widespread trend, he predicts.
With more boats at rest than cruising, Lavigne says Rec Boat Holdings has also begun implementing windlass anchor systems in runabout models as short as 21 feet.
“These are things we would never think about five years ago, and now we are busy designing these anchoring systems in more of our products,” Lavigne says.
Runabout customers are placing more emphasis on efficiency than speed with an increasing just-get-me-there mindset, a trend that hasn’t been lost on dealers. In fact, in our survey, more dealers (54.5 percent) cited fuel economy as an important performance characteristic in future boat sales than anything else. As a result of this change in consumer preference, smaller outboard engines are becoming more prominent than their sterndrive propulsion counterparts.
Larson has started to increase its outboard models, due to the difference in engine price, while maintaining many of its original hull designs. Larson’s Ron Sahr says the company’s customers are less concerned with speed and pay more attention to value and style, which were chosen by 21.2 percent and 15.9 percent of dealers, respectively, as qualities customers will most value in the future.
“For instance, we bring our boats all the way down to a single engine application,” Sahr says. “Years ago, that may not have been something we would do, but the speeds are acceptable, and the point is they just want to move the boat. It is not bigger is better.”
At the helm, however, the mindset has been full speed ahead.
CD players are extinct, while iPads, iPhones, and the Bluetooth to connect them are becoming the standard, along with high-quality sound systems to enhance the experience.
To accommodate their new “techy” customers, Regal Boats integrates Murphy displays and Regal View into their sport boats.
“There is a big tech boom these days, and we need to make sure these customers can seamlessly use their gadgets on our boats in the best possible way,” Wiesner says.
With the increase in displays, Regal is developing an on-boat, electronic owners manual, creating an interface that will enable the boater to have complete knowledge of the boat while in the water.
“We want any engine codes to come up on the screen, and if your depth finder is going off, you can pull it up on your screen and know what to do,” Wiesner says.
This feature and much of what will develop in the boat’s helm will have an automobile influence, predicts Wiesner.
“The guy who bought the sport boat in his mid-40s and is in a certain demographic has a lot of features in his car that we think are going to move into boats,” he says. “We are just trying to stay ahead of it.”
At Rec Boat Holdings, runabout models now have a three-dimensional windshield that is glued, not screwed, into the frame, which is identical to the car world. It also is integrating more digital displays into the company’s boat brands. Lavigne says he hopes to grow the technological transfer between his industry and the automobile industry, which has more resources, but also many similarities.
“The quality of engineering and investing in cars is quantitatively disproportionate to what we are doing with boats,” Lavigne says.
Even down to the fabric used in the helm, the car has a huge influence. Larson has adapted glove boxes and dashboards to create more of an automobile feel and incorporated more of the warm, hand-stitched vinyl seen on high-end vehicles, for example.
Another cue boat builders have taken from the automobile world is nostalgia.
With its most recent lineup, Glastron has modernized a style from the past, primarily the 1970s. The brand’s core customers are baby boomers, who tend to be nostalgic for the decade, says Lavigne.
Meanwhile, Larson is taking cues from the 1950s in its spring models with edgy lines, a style Sahr expects to continue for the foreseeable future.
“There was a wonderful styling years ago, and people still have a certain pride for it,” he says.
That emphasis on styling is highly valued by the consumer, according to dealers. Ranking only behind affordability of the boat, appearance was chosen by 29 percent of dealers as the most important characteristic to today’s boat buyers. It is also an area where dealers feel even more attention should be paid, with 79 percent of dealers reporting room for improvement.
With upgraded performance, features and style, pontoons are no longer just wood decks on top of aluminum tubes. This evolution has caused more people, both young and old, to flock to pontoons – now rated by dealers as one of the most innovative segments in boat building.
The pontoon has welcomed water sports enthusiasts, the most important performance characteristic going forward for 10 percent of dealers. Today’s tri-tube hulls not only offer speed, but also handling similar to their runabout counterparts.
“It used to be fishing and cruising around, but the customer now wants these boats to go as fast as 50 mph, which has become very attainable,” says Bob Wachs, brand manager for Godfrey Pontoons.
Manitou Pontoons has enhanced boat performance by dropping its center tube, a patented design that along with the introduction of power steering allows the boater to turn the boat at top speeds with one finger.
“Baby boomers were no longer willing to settle for that big lug of a vehicle,” says Manitou President Scott VanWagenen. “They wanted the comfort of the Cadillac, but also needed to have that performance.”
The speed of the boat has influenced the interior design at Manitou. In its SES series, Manitou incorporated a convertible sun lounger, while valuing safety with fully enclosed railings.
“You can turn at full speed and the people in the back seats are as safe as they can be,” VanWagenen says.
Like its runabout and ski/wake peers, rear-facing seating has become mandatory, utilized both while in motion, as well as at the dock or sandbar. And rear seating, along with the interior layout as a whole, is an area of boat design where changes have the most impact on consumers, according to 28.3 percent of dealers surveyed.
“It is a floating chaise lounge at the end of their dock. People will just go out and sun, read the paper and watch the lake,” Wachs says.
Once that boat leaves the dock, however, pontoon owners still expect an extension of their lake home on the water, including many of the same amenities.
Premier’s Grand Entertainer, equipped with a bar, lounge area, galley and wine racks, epitomizes this mindset. Premier also has a partnership with a company that furnishes homes and RVs. There is no limit to the number of these kinds of accommodations, according to John Deurr, head of engineering at Premier.
“The more of these types of features that we can put into the model, the better. Those features that are at the home, you want them on the boat,” Deurr says.
This will continue to be reflected in Premier’s 2013 models, he adds.
One of the major trends in this department is the incorporation of bars, which 6.7 percent of dealers called the most innovative feature. Initially only offering them on higher-end models, Godfrey has begun installing bars on their price-point models, Wachs says.
Manitou, however, is going in a different direction, viewing the bar trend as short-term. Instead, the boat builder is focused on incorporating even more lake cabin features into its boat designs while keeping in mind the high speeds at which these boats will be operating, says Jon Miller, product engineer for Manitou.
Like other segments, pontoons are also accommodating the demand for technology at the helm, with large screen GPS and multifaceted sound systems becoming the norm.
The future of the segment is expected to shift toward helms equipped with touch screen interfaces. However, price and durability concerns have prevented some boat builders from fully embracing the feature — at least for now.
“We are a touch screen, iPad culture, so the world will eventually want a flat screen panel,” Wachs say. “And the electronic panels are becoming more durable, so the day will come when it costs more to have a gauge than a digital analog screen.”
Builders are also modernizing the styling of pontoons, replacing the traditional carpet with alternative floorings that give the pontoon more of a lake home feel. The use of synthetic-wicker-type floorings will increase as a result, predicts Wachs.
Alternatively, Manitou has installed a 1/8-inch fiberglass flooring with various foam-type coverings in the aft section of the boat, giving its models a clean look that stresses marine, not just carpet.
“You don’t just have this old wood deck and these aluminum tubes,” says Miller. “The sexier we make it when you walk on the boat, the more that goes away.”
There also has been a shift in color pallets, with the once popular hunter green and bright whites fading away. Instead, the bread-and-butter colors are khaki, grey, tan or a silver-based shade, according to Wachs.
Freshwater Fishing Boats
Today’s freshwater fishing boat owners no longer go to the lake with a rod and a bucket of bait. Rather, they crave any gadget that gives them an advantage and expect nothing less than supreme performance and functionality from their boat.
Therefore, fishing boat builders focus on creating a vessel with an optimal holeshot, allowing the angler to get on plane quicker to search for the next fishing hole. Once on plane, performance comes in a comfortable ride, which dealers deemed the most important (22.7 percent) characteristic to future consumers across all segments.
“The older boats would lug in the water when they came out of the hole; we are looking at boats today that plane in four to six seconds,” says Gary Zittrower, vice president of research and development at Triton. “In the last four years, they have started to get them up quick.”
With more equipment on board, this is no easy feat. Add-ons include power poles and trolling motors, as well as their associated batteries, all of which add more weight to the boat.
“Today, people are carrying 250 to 300 pounds of gear, and they are sticking it in the nose of the boat, or different places, and we have to design to carry those loads,” says Adam Adkisson, vice president of marketing at Triton.
Electronics have also created the need for the evolution of the helm. The size of depth finders and other gadgets are growing with some as large as 12 inches across. Builders are countering the trend with large consoles, creating platforms for docking the electronics.
Crestliner aims to make this process as simple as possible by designing a pad on top of the console specifically for mounting multiple devices, says Steve Magers, engineer at Crestliner.
Anglers also spare no cost when it comes to their rods, so storage systems have and will continue to become more advanced, not only accommodating larger poles, but also protecting the wraps and reels from hitting each other, Adkisson says.
One of the largest areas of growth for the fishing segment has them targeting a whole new group of boaters. The fish and ski crossover has increased in popularity as a boat for the whole family.
“You are creating a real fishing boat where there is no compromising for that function, but the family is able to feel comfortable in the boat, where you give them the sun pad and the creature comforts,” says Ron Sahr of Larson Boats.
Sahr and other boat builders agree that fishability is the top priority in the development of these models, but the addition of wakeboard towers and ski poles have welcomed the water sports enthusiast as well.
Common in these models are removable rear bench seats, conversion bows and separate storage that accommodates fishing (think livewells) as well as wake boards and skis, forcing boat builders to become creative in fitting it all in.
A relatively new model, the crossover will continue evolving to become better at both worlds, but already the boats have found success and are embraced by even the most diehard fishing brands.
“Much like Miller Light, we want it to taste great, as well as be less filling,” says JD Sienicki, chief platform engineer for Lund. “Our brand is for people who love to fish, but just because you love to fish doesn’t exclude you from wanting to pursue water sports.”