With a recovering market, boat manufacturers are placing a greater emphasis on design, innovation, brand differentiation and standardized components
Design is the great motivator — that all-important intangible that stirs the soul, persistently sticks in the mind and motivates a customer to buy that one particular boat. If a potential customer doesn’t connect emotionally with a product, all bets are likely off.
After a ruinous period of layoffs, reduced R&D investment and fewer new product introductions, healthier times in the marine industry have brought a renewed energy to developing all-new models, refreshing existing units and reinvigorating once-tired brands.
Boating Industry spoke with two industry leaders, Dan Robinson at Starcraft Marine and Christophe Lavigne at Rec Boat Holdings, about the development process, current trends, designers’ sources of inspiration and the importance of design in building eye-catching, must-have products.
Dan Robinson is the director of fiberglass at Starcraft Marine, working out of the privately owned company’s campus in New Paris, Ind. While he doesn’t have an artistic or design background, his job encompasses everything from marketing efforts to dealer support, as well as helping conceive and oversee the design and production of new fiberglass projects.
Robinson said his company’s recent SCX crossover line, developed during the height of the recession, is emblematic of recent changes in customer priorities and design trends. Conceived in 2009, the SCX was designed to combine the aspects of a deck boat, pontoon, ski boat and wakeboard boat — all segments that were showing resilience during the downturn. As the company’s research showed boaters reacting to high fuel prices by spending more time rafted off or at sand bars, the design team also added a tailgate-style fold-down rear seat to the SCX.
“It’s developed three areas of entertaining: you’ve got the back area with the family fun seat, the cockpit with a nice wraparound area — kids can be in there playing on their electronics — and you have the bow area which is nice and deep,” Robinson said. “Our deck boats seemed to be retaining their sales, and we realized that pontoons were increasing, so the fact that people wanted a lot of room and a lot of versatility to the cockpit of the boat, we were trying to glean from our pontoon end of it how we can put more people on this boat.”
After moving on to the next project — Starcraft’s design staff can produce approximately three new fiberglass projects in a year — the success of the SCX spurred the company to build a second set of tooling to double its production.
“Once you get that second set [of tooling], this proves that the boat was a raging success,” Robinson said. “It’s expensive at first, but it really improves your efficiency.”
When it comes to design inspiration, Starcraft, like much of the industry, looks to the automotive and motorsports fields, sends staff to attend trade shows and seeks feedback from both dealers and retail customers. At press time, the company had more than 20 members of its sales, marketing and engineering team at boat shows across the United States, with another contingent hunting for design trends at the influential Detroit Auto Show.
“There’s nobody that spends as much time getting the pulse of design and [spends] as much time investing in concepts as the auto industry,” he said. “Back when we first started the SCX project, everything was very aligned, sharp corners.”
Since the SCX 220’s introduction in 2011, Robinson said trends have shifted again to more round corners, which will become evident in the upcoming 19-foot SCX, as well as revisions of the original SCX models.
“[The design] was very popular and we carried that through our 22 and 24, and then on our 20 we saw trends starting to change a little bit [with] cars, boats, inboards pulling the windshield back,” he said.
Starcraft has doubled the size of its R&D and engineering staff in the last three years, which has led to a significant new-product offensive in the last two years.
“We’re changing faster now than we’ve ever changed before,” he said. “One of the driving motivators is that we need to stay ahead of times, and another is trying to get a foot up on the guys who are tapering back or not investing in that particular area.”
Creating brand DNA
Christophe Lavigne is the vice president of engineering at Cadillac, Mich.-based Rec Boat Holdings, overseeing the Four Winns, Wellcraft and Glastron brands. Lavigne, who was born and raised in France, has a long history in the marine industry, starting his career at Jeanneau. Beyond overseeing the creation and production of new models, Lavigne has spent considerable effort creating strong differentiation between the Four Winns and Glastron brands.
“We have set up clear DNA to separate the brands from the very beginning,” he said. “Four Winns is what we [call] smart elegance, so it’s a boat that’s elegant and stylish and smart in the cost and the ownership of that boat, and function and features it can deliver to the customers,” he said. “On Glastron, we have focused on the rebirth of an American icon, so we have focused on the design and the influence of the DNA of the boats of the 1970s, so we clearly define two different segments of people — Glastron is less expensive and Four Winns is more expensive.”
Aside from price, separating the brands is done with unique colors, features and materials that the customer can touch — all while trying to standardize more components than ever between brands and models to lower unit costs.
“I think the customer expects a boat that will be tailor made for them more and more,” he said. “You can design your own shoes on [the Internet], but at the same time to be production efficient you have to have standard components — so it’s two different things that go against each other.”
Fresh off a visit to Germany’s Dusseldorf Boat Show, the world’s largest indoor boat expo, Lavigne said the difference is still night and day between the American and European boat industries.
“Everything there is more expensive and more elegant,” he said, adding that American companies were much quicker to slash R&D spending, widening the gap between American and European products. He also cited other differences between the markets, with Europe’s higher proportion of saltwater boating, stricter fishing regulations, stronger government support of the industry and focus on style, which has largely kept pontoons — on the uptick in the U.S. — out of the European market.
“I think the pontoon boats are too ugly for the average European, and I say that because I am French,” he said. “The style of these boats are not meeting the aesthetic expectations, and it’s essentially a freshwater boat when 80 percent, at least, of the European market is saltwater.”
Since Rec Boat Holdings took over the Four Winns and Glastron brands, Lavigne set out to create a new design culture by dramatically remodeling the design staff’s offices to foster an environment of collaboration and creativity.
“When I came back here, I changed the entire department. It was gray and boring and set up to design, I don’t know, toilet systems — it was very bad,” he said. “We broke all the walls and opened the place.”
With his team responsible for more brands and models than ever — 90 models, up from 25 a few years back — and the same number of employees, Lavigne’s department has become dramatically more productive.
Four Winns models are designed in Michigan, while Glastron design is subcontracted to well-known Swedish designer Bo Zolland of Vizualtech. Lavigne said relying on one remote individual is an unusual arrangement that has worked out well for the team.
Like Robinson, Lavigne’s team seeks design inspiration in motorsports, industrial design, fashion, interior design, aeronautics and, most of all, the automotive market. He and the company’s upper leadership also attended the bellwether Detroit Auto Show.
Speaking of the Detroit Auto Show, which Lavigne attended with Rec Boat leadership, he said, “It is just disarming how fantastic it is. You have got interesting shapes and design, the booths themselves are absolutely gorgeous — it’s one of the best, [most] influential markets for boat designers.”