Boating Industry readers share their thoughts on the past and future of the industry
While the editorial staff was scouring the Boating Industry back issues to put together this 85th anniversary edition issue, we also wanted to see what you thought were some of the most important innovations in the industry.
At the same time, we want to be looking to the future as well, to see how you think the industry will change over the next decade and what challenges post the most significant barriers to growth.
We received hundreds of responses to the survey and also followed up with many of you by phone and email. Some respondents chose to remain anonymous, but many agreed to let us quote them by name.
Most important innovation of the past 25 years
We chose to focus on the past 25 years, figuring that there weren’t going to be too many readers who could take us back to 1929. Perhaps that was a miscalculation. While we might not have needed to go back 85 years, it appears we shouldn’t discount a nearly 50-year-old invention.
While there were a number of different answers to this question, easily the most common was the four-stroke outboard engine. It’s worth noting that the first mass-produced four-stroke engine was actually introduced in the 1960s, even if it did take longer for it to become a fixture in the marketplace.
Other common mentions were the introduction of the Duoprop, joystick controls, integrated electronics, GPS and other navigational tools. Many readers also called out the improved design and utility of pontoon boats, growth of the towboat market and better, stronger hull materials.
Tom G. Whowell, director, Gordy’s Marine, Fontana, Wis.
“Technology in general has really driven boating forward in a lot of ways. Joystick operation is one example. Take the operation of a large boat that can be intimidating for the customer and you simplify that down to a simple joystick operation that is intuitive and easy.”
David McIntyre, sales manager, Slalom Shop Boats & Yachts, Lewisville, Texas
“Duoprop is a pretty good one. You have to think about what Duoprop spawned: the advent of the IPS drive … and all the things that we can do with better acceleration as a whole. It did a lot for larger boats and water sports.”
Ed Lofgren, owner, 3A Marine Services, Hingham, Mass.
“The transition of the business end of things from ‘Mom and Pop’ to professionally managed businesses. For the most part, the consuming public has demanded the professionalism and our industry has rallied to the cause. That’s absolutely necessary to sustain yourself today.”
Jerry Brouwer, general manager, Action Water Sports, Hudsonville, Mich.
“Between easier starts and the boat just running better the majority of the time, fuel injection was one of the key items that has made boating easier. You just turn the key and it starts right up.”
Mike Keller, president, Keller Marine & RV
“The creation of purpose-driven boats. When I got out of school in 1986, general boating was already dying. If you figured it out quick enough, you could stake your claim in one of these new niches – you could be one of the few people in pontoons, one of the few people in bass boats. That’s what gave us some growth … we all did well if we knew how to carve those niches out. Those that didn’t, they were gone.”
Travis Hayes, owner, Hayes Marine, Appling, Ga.
“Technology like GPS, four-stroke and EFI engine systems and joystick steering systems. All of those have made boating easier or less involved. That has definitely made boats more usable for the novice or person who only boats a few times a year.”
And some other views:
“Water sports towers … Right now it seems like every recreational boat line sells them.” – Connecticut dealer
“A move from small boat manufacturers toward volume manufacturers.” – North Carolina dealer
“Creative financing for boats.” – Virginia marina
“Better hull designs with greater strength-to-weight ratios.” – Minnesota-based service provider
“The advent of more sophisticated marine propulsion technology (i.e. fuel injection).” – Ontario dealer
“Four-stroke outboard technology. Clean, quiet and without significant weight gains.” – Montana dealer
“EPA-regulated fuel systems stopped fuel spills into the waterways.” – Florida-based supplier
“Improvements in composite materials.” – Virginia-based service provider
“Four-stroke outboard motors with a full range of horsepower along with joystick controls.”
– Massachusetts-based distributor
“The Internet and social media.” – Georgia-based manufacturer
“Joystick operation that makes even the least talented operator look like a rock star.” – Florida-based supplier
“Innovations in making boating easier to use: electronics (chart plotters, engine controls); IPS controls (joysticks); furling sail systems.” – Florida boatyard
“Direct injection two-stroke and four-stroke engines. Battery quality and knowledge of consumers.”
– Arkansas-based manufacturer
The next decade
We also asked readers how they expected the industry to change over the next decade.
Many respondents were pessimistic, predicting a shrinking market due to rising costs, changing demographics and a sluggish economy. Some, though, expressed faith that the industry can solve those problems.
Others focused on technology, expecting new innovations from lighter materials to improved fuel efficiency to increased integration of electronics.
Larry Russo, president & CEO, Russo Marine, Medford, Mass.
“Electric propulsion – the combination of internal combustion and electric motor. … It’s going to take us 5 to 10 years to educate the marketplace, but hybrid technology really has a place in the marine industry.”
Thom Dammrich, president, National Marine Manufacturers Association
“We’re seeing so many advances in materials that … I think in the next 10 years there will be some revolutionary materials introduced into the boat-building process that will dramatically change the equation.”
“Entertainment systems … are going to continue to integrate into our boats. I think they’re going to get less expensive and become more foolproof. Those technological advances in boats are going to continue to make boating more fun for people.”
Douglyss Giuliana, president, Advantage Yacht Sales, Newburyport, Mass., and SailTime Boston
The boat club and boat sharing “market is pretty fragmented right now, but I think it will mature. I see that becoming much more commonplace and more accepted. The question will be if that is a complete substitute for owning a boat for some people or whether it grows the industry … We’ve had quite a number of people who joined SailTime and went on to buy a boat.”
Erik Nordin, COO, Stingray Boats
“We’re at the forefront of what Volvo and Mercury are providing for helm technology. When you look at the technology that is in place on the engines and the amount of sensors on that technology and how much of that can be electronically transmitted to the dash and the amount of integration, I think what you’ll find is the boating industry will lag behind the automobile industry but will bring in a lot of that dashboard technology.”
Here’s what others in the industry had to say:
“Stronger get stronger through consolidation to streamline processes, increase buying power, and integrate data to increase sales via cross-sell to existing customers.” – South Carolina dealer
“Major manufacturers will try to increase production efficiencies in order to reduce retail prices, especially at the smaller boat end.” – Ontario dealer
“Increased technological development.” – Ohio-based service provider
“Greater emphasis on more efficient and alternative power sources.” – Wisconsin-based supplier
“Big will get bigger and the small will disappear.” – Rhode Island dealer
“A return to the time when boating was a wealthy person’s hobby. Fewer middle class boaters.”
– Massachusetts marina
“Higher system integration giving ease of use. At the same time stripped down basic boats will expand for reduced cost of boating. ‘From owning to using’ trend will favor charter.” – Virginia-based manufacturer
“I think the industry will continue to decline if the price of the product does not come down.” – Utah-based service provider
“Smaller, lighter power production with higher output.” – Connecticut boatyard
“A more limited customer base because of the cost increases in purchasing and owning a boat.” – New Jersey dealer
“Continue to move away from sterndrive engines.” – Wisconsin-based service provider
Biggest challenges to growth
Finally, we asked what those in the industry saw as the biggest challenge to the future growth of our industry.
The responses for the most part represented the usual suspects: lack of affordable entry-level boats, the shrinking middle class and increasing government regulations.
“We are not playing to what’s coming down the road. It’s a less affluent population. We have to reengineer boating to fit into their budget … I don’t know yet whether we have the skillset to figure out how to produce a boat at 50 percent of the cost. It’s the only way we’re going to recover in this industry.”
“How rapidly our industry embraces the fastest-growing demographics in our country, which today are a very small part of boating. If we don’t change and embrace outreach to Hispanics and African-Americans and Asians, that is a very significant long-term threat to our industry.”
Tom G. Whowell
“It comes back to time on the water. One of the concerns that we’re seeing is a lack of time to go boating as much they might like and enjoy it.”
“Water supply is a big problem for us. I know it’s a big challenge all across the West. We just don’t have enough water to supply the growing population in these areas. I see that problem spreading.”
“What we have to realize as an industry is that our competition is not other dealers. Our competition is soccer and vacation homes and any other activity that pulls attention away from sailing. Efforts like Grow Boating are key to bring attention to this activity.”
“Right now the biggest problem we have on our plate is ethanol. I would say 90 percent of the repairs and maintenance work that we’re doing is ethanol-related and the government doesn’t seem to care about our industry in that respect. Higher ethanol levels in our gasoline will devastate our industry.”
“The aging of the boomers, a relatively small generation X (my generation) and the millennials saddled with record student load debt. These are very real and unfortunately strong head winds to our business and industry. I think we need to embrace those who can afford boating, then look at time-shares, partial ownership, boating clubs and rentals for the balance of us wanting to boat.”