The pontoon boat has come a long way since Bob Wachs first experienced it.
Wachs grew up with a pontoon in his family. And he laughs now as he recalls how he had to walk through the boat’s stern gate, remove a cover on the outboard and pull a rope just to get that old 20-horse engine pumping.
The director of Godfrey Marine’s pontoon product development is not alone. Age-old stories of pontoon boats likened to barges and passed off as your grandfather’s choice of boat are not uncommon. And the amenities of the pontoons of old pale in comparison to the standard features found on today’s.
The juxtaposition of stories like this against the reality of today’s pontoon market is not lost on Wachs. At the company’s dealer meeting this past summer, Godfrey and its parent company Nautic Global Group displayed pontoon boats that will retail for as much as $50,000 and offer engines that reach 300 hp.
It is products like these that have given the pontoon segment new life. Consumers around the nation are realizing that the pontoon has become a versatile option for family boating, providing much more boat for the buck than competing boat types. And dealers and manufacturers alike are recognizing the opportunity and clamoring to fulfill rising demand.
Recent results tell the story. From 2001 to 2005, pontoon sales grew 20.7 percent, according to Statistical Surveys, Inc., while the overall boating market continued a downward trend. Even after a slight decline in sales in 2006, the pontoon market is still up some 17 percent since 2001.
Dave Commander, VP of marketing and general manager of Russell Marine, speaks with great authority on the topic. Despite a much-publicized drought and an ensuing 10-foot drop in the local lake levels, Russell Marine captured the No. 1 spot for Godfrey pontoon sales in 2006. More impressively, however, the 50-year veteran of pontoon sales has doubled its pontoon volume in just the past three years.
“There are so many applications you can use pontoon boats for,” says Commander. “We have seen growth in the pontoon boat market because of the changes the manufacturers have made. They’re a lot more versatile.”
Spreading the wealth
Historically, Russell’s home state of Alabama — and the entire East South Central for that matter — has not been a hotbed for pontoon sales. But Statistical Surveys documents growth in pontoon sales in non-traditional regions such as the East and West South Central, Pacific and Mountain (see map, below).
Sales of the pontoon platform have traditionally been dominated by states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, the “East North Central,” as Statistical Surveys categorizes it. Recently, however, increased demand for the boat type has increased in some wildly unexpected regions, such as the Chesapeake Bay area, where Wachs says another of his top dealers sells 80 to 90 units a year. Others report the increased popularity of using pontoons to fish the saltwater bays around Tampa, Fla. It’s becoming clear that, with the growth of the sector in recent years, the market’s geographic range is diversifying.
Take Saratoga Boatworks, for example. The 7-year-old dealer is growing quickly and has big plans for the future. Based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., President and GM Jeffrey Olson’s one-store operation recently was recognized for having Godfrey’s largest increase in unit volume in the Northeast region. He accomplished this by recognizing a growing desire for pontoons in his market, buying up the inventory of other dealers and taking early 2008 deliveries to meet demand.
Around the country, dealers are searching out pontoon lines in an effort to bolster their traditional line-up of fiberglass-dominated product offerings. In some cases, dealers are looking to replace a poor-performing line; in others, they’re merely looking to expand their customer base.
Out West, for example, Hagadone Marine Group has been sizing up the potential for some time. The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based dealership recently added pontoons from Premier Marine to a line-up that formerly had offered only fiberglass boats. General Manager Craig Brosenne says that, after noticing more and more pontoons on the local lake, he searched to find a pontoon line that fit with the quality of its other high-end products like Carver, Cobalt and Malibu.
Dealers seeing an influx of pontoon sales have their own theories on why the segment has seen so much growth. But all of them typically boil down to one common theme: the value of the platform’s versatility.
“The pontoon boat has just gone through a lot of transition over the last three to four years,” explains Commander, “and that’s made it a lot more consumer friendly.”
The new pontoon
Bob Menne makes it easy to understand that consumer friendliness. The president of Premier Marine, Inc., Wyoming, Minn., pulls a lever and reclines the plush Flexsteel helm chair he’s sitting in as he outlines all the amenities on display at the company’s dealer meeting in mid-August.
He motions in a number of directions around the pontoon, noting the dual console and windshield, the raised helm platforms, the in-floor storage compartments, the rotocast furniture, a retractable paper towel dispenser, a sink, a changing room, triple “toons,” and, yes, even a ski tow eye.
“The thing that has changed in the pontoon industry,” he explains, “is that they have got a lot more luxury.”
Indeed. The extravagant features have been one of the strongest drivers of the growth in this sector. In fact, Statistical Surveys shows that the larger, more amenity-packed products of 20- to 25-feet in length have grown at a rate of 22.5 percent since 2000. In addition, Premier says that the median price for its boats eclipses the $25,000 mark, about $7,000 higher than the segment’s median price.
Even with the higher average price tag Premier, which is considered a premium line, continues to grow. The brand increased its sales by 18, 30, and 6 percent, respectively from 2004 through 2006. Despite the fact that production was set back when a major fire destroyed one of the company’s buildings and $800,000 in raw materials, Premier Marine was up 8 percent in units and 17 percent in dollar sales for the 2007 model year.
Of all the new features Menne highlighted, however, one seems to have stood out to all of the industry insiders Boating Industry spoke with: the triple-tube concept.
Years ago, pontoons were built with two aluminum tubes underneath either side of the topdeck. In 1980, JC Pontoons, North Webster, Ind., built and trademarked the first TriToon, a three-pontoon platform that in addition to wider platforms and more stability, introduced the word performance to the world of pontoons.
The advent of the triple-tube platform is the main reason Aarn Rosen at Statistical Surveys says that the pontoon market is the only segment of the boat building community that is truly innovating.
“The pontoon market is responsible, I think, for dramatically changing the industry,” he says. “They’re literally creating a whole new segment of boat, with the triple tube, that hasn’t existed before.”
While the triple tube concept is entering its 29th year of production in the 2008 model year, it continues to fuel great growth in the market. The third tube requires wider top decks, which provide more room for more people — a “living room on the water,” as one dealer puts it. Additionally, the triple tube simultaneously makes the pontoon edgier by providing the running surface more lift and a cornering ability never before seen from this boat type.
The lift, of course, also provides the opportunity for higher-horsepower engines to move the pontoons at speeds that match the average runabout. South Bay, for example, recently introduced a high-performance, center console, triple-tube pontoon with twin 135-hp outboards on the back. Top-end speed was measured at 54 mph, and industry journalists were impressed with a feature rarely discussed on pontoons of old: 0-30 mph times. In this case, it took only 6 seconds.
“I think the triple toon is one of the reasons why the pontoon market is increasing,” Menne explains. “It has been an evolution in the pontoon industry that’s going to continue to grow.”
Continuing the growth
Dealers across the country are recognizing that evolution and are jumping at the chance to capitalize on it. Until last year, for example, Jerry Brouwer of Action Water Sports, Hudsonville, Mich., was a MasterCraft-only dealer. Having witnessed an uptick in the pontoon sales in his area, he picked up JC Pontoons in 2006, noting that a premium, performance pontoon complements his MasterCraft offerings very well, in addition to expanding his potential customer base.
“If people bought a boat purely on its merit and not on the cool factor or not on the looks, I think even more people would be buying pontoon boats,” Brouwer says. “If you look at what deck boats have done in the last 10 years, they have become really popular. But I think if you were to drive a comparably sized deck boat, it wouldn’t compare to a triple tube pontoon. If you took a 21-foot pontoon and a 21-foot deck boat, and you just did everything the same — let’s say you had one boat for a week and then the other boat for a week — I think when you came back at the end of the week, if you wrote down the positives and negatives of each boat, I think you would end up with a pontoon.”
Mike Hoffman, president of Marine Center of Indiana, agrees. Historically, the Indianapolis-based dealership has focused its business on the fiberglass market. But the young company saw incredible potential in the pontoon market and plunged in headfirst.
Hoffman not only signed on to carry Princecraft and Misty Harbor Pontoons, but he felt so strongly about the market that he added an entire showroom called Pontoon Boat City to showcase the lines. The new area displays 38 pontoons, and through the first six months of 2007, the dealer’s aluminum boat sales have doubled — in the midst of a down market.
Now he’s adding Southwind Fiberglass pontoons, and he anticipates that Pontoon Boat City will grow by “at least another 20 percent” for the 2008 season.
“I think for a lot of families,” Hoffman explains, “the pontoon gives them another option. When you look at the fact that if you buy a nice 24-foot fiberglass boat, you’re going to spend $50,000. And you can get a really nice 22-foot pontoon boat that has twice the room on it for half the price.”
While the older demographic oftentimes associated with the pontoon image is still buying up its share of pontoons, much of the segment’s growth is from young families. The majority of Russell Marine’s pontoon buyers, for example, are still 50 years old or older, but sales manager Jimmy Hamilton says that “the younger generation of boaters that are in their late 20s and early 30s,” are turning to pontoons.
“They realize that when they were in their younger years and their mother and father had a pontoon that had an old 50 or 60 or 75 [hp engine] on the back, and it putt-putted around and didn’t go very fast, they didn’t like to ride on it because the thrill wasn’t there,” he says. “Now, when that same couple comes in and they think they want to buy a fiberglass boat, if they ever compare the two and they ever take the ride, they can see the difference real quick. And when they start putting one and one together and realize they can have a boat that fits several different applications and fits all their needs, all of a sudden you’ve got that person buying that boat.”
Even while the triple-tube platform can be more performance oriented, the added stability also caters to the traditional pontoon demographic. The aging baby boomers want enough room for the kids and grandkids when spending time on the lake, and the pontoon is about the only boating platform that provides that opportunity. So the beauty of this market is that the traditional consumer is still buying the product, and the younger demographic represents a huge growth opportunity.
“We’re seeing 30-something families getting into pontooning,” says Wachs of Godfrey. “The boat fits the way the family wants to use a boat on the water. Now that it’s not just a putt-around craft, I think people are looking at pontoon boats and saying ‘Hey, I can pull my kids tubing and skiing with something like that.’ And that has helped move the age structure down.”
Scratching the surface
As the age structure of the consumer diversifies, the performance, versatility and consumer appeal of the pontoon market still have plenty of room for growth, offering both dealers and manufacturers additional opportunities.
For starters, many people believe that the triple tube concept has just scratched the surface of its true potential. Godfrey, for example, says that only about 15 percent of its sales are performance-oriented. And Premier says that its triple tube platforms have increased to now account for 33 percent of the company’s sales. And there’s more in store.
“If somebody would have told me 10 years ago that we would have been building this many triple toons and this many expensive boats, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Menne. “I think you’ll see pontoons continue to be innovative and increase in quality and I think you’ll see that market continue to grow.”
Some of that quality may focus more on the usability of the product in addition to increasing the creature comforts. For example, Godfrey recognized an opportunity to improve storage options for pontoons and recently introduced a 7-foot-wide “garageable” pontoon, expanding the options and overcoming a perceived storage obstacle for customers who have become drawn to the platform.
Knowing that the increasingly popular third tube means wider platforms, however, manufacturers and dealers will need to balance the tradeoff between the versatility that larger pontoons provide and the need to supply a boat that can be stored without creating secondary needs such as storage.
Similarly, pontoon trailering has taken on a greater focus, as well. What seems to be holding the pontoon market back from a consumer perspective, explains Jim Hendricks, associate publisher of Boating Industry’s sister publications Trailer Boats and Purely Pontoons, is the perception that they are not trailerable, which is incorrect. Pontoons, are indeed trailerable, but they require some special techniques and trailers, and Hendricks believes that “once we can overcome this, the growth potential of the market will be even greater.” Manufacturers are focusing on trailerable packages, such as the 20-foot version Manitou just introduced to target the mid-size tow vehicle-owning consumer.
Hoffman at Marine Center agrees that while pontoons are trailerable, there is opportunity for improvement.
“The only thing that the pontoon manufacturers need to figure out are the trailers,” he says. “Because when you have a really nice SUV tow vehicle and you put a pontoon boat behind it that’s 20, 22, 24 feet, it looks silly. I mean it looks like you’re pulling your house to the lake. I think that when somebody figures out a new pontoon boat trailer that has the classiness that zips off the boat like a fiberglass trailer does, it will bring a younger class of boaters to the pontoon market.”
But as the market is towed westward and into other new markets, the biggest key to growth may be as simple as educating consumers of the affordability and versatility of the platform. Hagadone Marine says that its new line of pontoons has been well received in the limited time the dealer has carried them and that they expect great results as the dealer’s marketing campaign launches and word spreads. The opportunities could be much greater than once believed.
“As fiberglass boats continue to increase in price and the pontoon boats do as well, as they start dressing the pontoon boats more,” says Hoffman, “there’s just a lot more boat for the buck there.”