Manufacturers bring innovation to the pontoon segment
If anyone has a reason to be optimistic for the future, it’s pontoon manufacturers. From 1999 to 2013, pontoons have grown from making up 12 percent of all boat sales to 25 percent and double-digit sales growth has been consistent in recent years, as other categories have struggled to recover from the recession.
However, it’s important for OEMs to continue creating new products that consistently hold consumers’ attention on the segment, especially as the rest of the industry has started taking notice and new competition is establishing itself in the market.
If ever there was a time for manufacturers to step up their game, the time is now.
Enter the new players
Cobalt Boats recently introduced its new pontoon line, the Marker One Platform Series, and it has already begun to see significant sales. It is being marketed as a separate product from the rest of the Cobalt line, which was a strategic choice from the beginning for the manufacturer.
“We believe that Marker One will stand alone as our offering in the premium pontoon segment. There’s a huge opportunity in the segment for Marker One to develop itself as a choice for the up-scale buyer” said Gavan Hunt, vice president of sales and marketing at Cobalt Boats. “Like Jaguar and Range Rover, the Cobalt brand is our premium sterndrive fiberglass brand and the Marker One name will be exclusive as our pontoon brand.”
Cobalt has made clear to its dealer network and customers that the manufacturer wants to differentiate its Marker One line from the rest of the segment. Therefore, Marker One has been marketed as a “platform series” boat, not a pontoon.
“When you step aboard a Marker One you can feel the difference immediately, it’s not like stepping aboard a pontoon,” said Hunt. “The boat is more stable in the water — not tender when multiple people come aboard. It’s solid and sturdy due to the heavy duty construction techniques — like a platform on the water.”
The platform series is built with a fiberglass deck and structural aluminum grid stringer system, which Hunt says makes the vessel ideal in saltwater or freshwater environments, and Marker One is only available in a tri-tube offering. These tubes, which Hunt refers to as “hulls,” are built with .090-gauge aluminum and .125 gauge bow cones.
From the deck up, the platform series is similar to a Cobalt boat: The Marker One line utilizes the same materials, craftsmanship and many of the same in-house processes and procedures on the design of Cobalt’s sterndrive boats. The Marker One series uses fiberglass sidewalls as opposed to the typical aluminum panels one would find in the segment. Marker One pontoons have a 9’3” beam and are currently offered in 25-foot and 27-foot hull configurations, with more on the drawing board.
“Cobalt has been committed to the boating industry for many years and this new commitment to the pontoon segment is exciting to all of us. We see the growth in the segment and the opportunities, but we are also focused on our distinct and unique ability to take care of customers,” said Hunt, “and develop ourselves as the right brand to be associated with in this segment of the business.”
Marquis Larson Group also introduced a new line of pontoons, the Escape, in 2014. It has attracted a number of dealers to Larson in areas where the brand was not previously represented, particularly in lakes that are conducive for pontoons.
“My expectations were high but I’m very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish so far,” said Rob Parmentier, president and CEO at Marquis Larson Group.
The Escape comes in two different series: The TTT, or triple tapered tube, and the RT, an entry-level boat with round tubes.
The TTT series is constructed with aluminum and the individual pontoons are welded together to create a running surface. Larson wanted to develop a bottom that felt similar for people who used to own a fiberglass boat, that turns and tracks similarly.
“People have flocked toward it. They like that feel and that luxury at a very affordable price,” said Parmentier.
The triple-tube technology allows customers to have a stable platform that floats on the water, added Parmentier.
Pontoons have taken market share from I/Os and will continue to do so in the coming years, according to Parmentier. He believes the technological superiority of outboard engines with their lack of noise, ease of maintenance, performance and fuel economy drive this shift, as well as the ease of mobility.
“There are a lot of people that want that ease of ingress and egress. A pontoon is flat and we sell to a lot of baby boomers that don’t like to get in and out of an I/O,” said Parmentier. “They don’t like the steps in and out. You walk right onto a pontoon … it’s very ergonomic.”
He doesn’t expect to see the double-digit growth pontoons experienced in the first three years after the recession but he believes pontoons will continue to take share from I/Os, albeit at a slower pace.
“People are going to continue making [pontoons] more comfortable, better looking, the boating public will keep getting more used to it,” said Parmentier. “When you look at the last four years, you can see what’s happened. People have changed from I/Os to fishing boats and pontoons. It’s because they offer a little bit more ease than the old I/Os. People don’t want to clean stuff. They want to be able to get on, have a great time and get off quickly.”
The segment is attracting more than just existing OEMs. Island Boats, owned by the owners of Float-On Boat Trailers, began building its pontoons to fill the gaps it saw existing in the segment.
“We recognize that pontoons are a lot of fun for family enjoyment, but are also cumbersome and hard to manage when towing and storing,” said Tim Poppell, president at Island Boats.
The Island Boats pontoons are expandable and retractable. They were developed based on an idea from Poppell’s father, Ralph, who wanted to build a pontoon that was easy to launch and load and easy to store.
Thus began the planning for Island Boats and its patented R & E Slide, which is an electric actuator driven system. The system moves freely as the electric actuators expand and retract the vessel. The front and rear doors are built with a round pipe design to hinge in the center. Customers push a button and the boat retracts or expands on its own.
“We have more aluminum in our structure than your standard pontoon does. There’s no question about the strength and stability of this boat,” said Poppell.
Poppell and his father hired an engineer and developed the pontoons for much of 2013, introducing their line at the 2014 Miami International Boat Show and earning a MIBS Innovation award in the pontoon category as well as the PDB Innovator of the Year award from Pontoon and Deck Boat Magazine. The manufacturer has spent the last year refining the design and adding features.
Island Boats come in two model sizes: an 18-foot pontoon that expands to have a similar square footage of a 22-foot pontoon and a 22-foot pontoon that expands to have a similar square footage of a 26-foot pontoon.
“The boat is trailered and stored at 7.5-feet wide for true convenience and when you arrive at the ramp to launch the Island Boat, at the flip of a switch, it expands from 7.5-feet to 10-feet wide, giving it a 33 percent increase in usable deck space,” said Poppell. “It’s like owning a small boat and converting it to one that is much larger when it is time to have fun.”
Transporting pontoons can be a hassle, which Poppell was very familiar with on the trailering side of the business. With Island Boats’ pontoons, Poppell says customers can use the mirrors of a standard pick-up truck and see behind the pontoon.
“Anybody that’s pulled a regular pontoon boat at 8.5 feet wide, they know how difficult it is to know what’s coming up behind you if you want to change lanes on the highway. It’s dangerous because you can’t see what’s going on. With ours, you can see everything,” said Poppell. “It’s a game changer.”
The time for change was now, according to Poppell, as he wanted to ensure any concerns customers may have with trailering and storage were addressed.
“For years and years, the pontoon design has changed very little: 8.5-foot beam, a boat that sits real high and round pontoons,” said Poppell. “We’ve changed the industry. We saw a need for changes and actively pursued solutions. When you’re dealing with the same thing and issues that nobody has solved, it was time.”
The pontoons are offered as a boat, trailer and motor package with Float-On trailers included. Island Boats hopes to establish its dealer network across the U.S..
The capacity to change
Existing pontoon manufacturers have taken notice of the new OEMs in the segment, though they aren’t surprised by the additions to the market as pontoons’ trajectory of growth continues.
“It’s a very competitive market,” said Lori Melbostad, president of Premier Pontoons. “If you’re not evolving and changing, you’re at risk of losing your market share.”
With a market this competitive, it is more important than ever to keep from becoming stagnated. Luckily, according to Melbostad, pontoons have a significant advantage when it comes to innovation.
“Pontoons, in general, have the capacity to be rapidly changing,” said Melbostad, likening the design of a new pontoon to redesigning the family room in your home. “The development of the pontoon and [the expense and planning] … is not as significant as if you’re in a large glass boat, for example. Some of those projects are three-year projects where they have to plan their tooling far in advance if they’re going to create a new model.”
Removing the stigma that has long existed with pontoons of being a slower, entry-level boat has made the segment more desirable and customers are now more willing to move away from traditional boating methods. Melbostad likened it to the rise of popularity in crossover vehicle in the auto industry.
“If you need to accomplish a specific task, you’re going to purchase something like a pickup truck. Or if you need to accomplish that task and also save on gas mileage and fuel economy, you’re going to purchase a crossover vehicle and get everything you need from it. Pontoons similarly satisfy all the needs of the consumer,” said Melbostad.
Peter Barrett, senior vice president of marketing corporate development at SmokerCraft, says the company expanded its research and development department over the past two years for its SunChaser, Sylvan and StarCraft pontoon brands, with a focus on tube technologies. The company also invested $3 million in a new building, which is currently being constructed, dedicated to increased pontoon production and improved workflow.
“The segment is alive right now and the consumers are paying attention to it. We feel that there’s a real advantage to continue with the innovation and to deliver new and exciting products to that audience that is looking for a better boating experience.,” said Barrett.
With innovation also comes customization. Part of SmokerCraft’s incentive to expand R&D was to better track customization of its products for customers.
“We want the customer’s experience to be a good one down the road, that we can provide parts and service to the boat that was customized in the first place,” Barrett said
One such prominent customization is the new painted tubes for the Sylvan line, which were developed to address the loss of initial showroom luster of tubes when exposed to the water over a period of time. The tubes are painted using the same process as SmokerCraft and Starcraft’s aluminum fishing boats, which Barrett says ensures a long-lasting finish.
“These painted tubes really help preserve the look of the boat,” said Barrett. “The customers who have seen it love it.”
The power of choice
Customers also want choice when selecting the interior of the boat, customizing their entertainment and comfort features.
“They want to come in and choose their particular interior, their flooring, their tube configuration,” said Barrett. “We’re starting to see this trend within boats that people are coming and they’re willing to pay to get what they want.”
To meet this demand, SmokerCraft’s pontoon brands are offering more than seven different flooring options, three vinyl choices and five colors for the railing exterior.
The power of choice is also important when choosing an engine, for customers and dealers. Larson, SmokerCraft and Premier all partner with Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, BRP and Mercury.
“We prefer to have the customer make that decision. People are passionate about their motor brand selections and we don’t feel like we need to sway them one way or the other,” said Melbostad.
Larson says engines have huge loyalties and followings, and it’s important to allow customers to choose what brand is for them.
“Not being able to dictate to people what they have to buy is a huge selling feature for us,” said Parmentier.
As pontoons’ growth period continues, manufacturers are looking to the customers for cues on what products they want to buy. And as consumers continue to enjoy pontoons for their versatility, performance is a key purchasing factor.
“People are putting higher horsepower engines on their boats, looking in the engines for more technology that actually speaks with the dash,” said Barrett.
Manufacturers believe increased performance will be the feature that drives young buyers to purchasing a pontoon and creating performance-specific bottoms has been added to the design of many manufacturers’ new products.
“The pontoon industry has done everything they can to make round pontoons have more lift in the water and go faster, and there’s a dynamic going on that you can only do so much to fight,” said Poppell. “[A performance bottom] jumps on plane immediately — there is no resistance from that round pontoon effect trying to drag in the water. With the performance bottom, it will run faster with less horsepower.”
Poppell also says the performance bottoms cut and lean in the direction the pontoon is turning, much like a monohull boat.
The Marker One series addresses this need for performance with its Power Wedge deck design, which is currently in the application process for a patent. Even with the largest-powered outboard on the stern of the boat, the deck maintains a flat stance.
“The weight of the engine is not pulling the transom underwater like it is on other platform-style boats,” said Hunt.
While many manufacturers would like to say they see young buyers purchasing pontoons, many still note that baby boomers are driving the segment and their wants and needs are what drive new designs. However, many OEMs believe young buyers will be courted by the increased performance.
Universally, customers want technology they are already familiar with — they don’t want to relearn how to use electronics.
“The world that they’re comfortable in is very similar to their vehicle. They can run their stereo systems, their GPS, check the water and air temperature [from the dash]. All the information they need is at their fingertips,” said Melbostad.
Growth in sales and size: The segment’s future
The question on everyone’s minds now is whether this growth momentum will continue in the segment. Manufacturers, for their part, are extremely optimistic.
“The diversity of uses and the simplicity of a platform-style boat make it popular, and I believe this popularity is on the positive curve and going to continue to be on the positive curve,” said Hunt.
“Pontoons are more economical to buy, they’re more economical to insure and they’re more economical to use. It’s the perfect trifecta. It’s all of what a consumer really wants,” said Melbostad, adding that she believes double-digit growth will continue for at least three years.
OEMs expect pontoons to continue growing in size as sales continue to increase. While Premier focuses on pontoons between 8.5- to 10-feet wide and 20- to 31-feet long, Melbostad says she finds consumers are asking more and more for a larger craft.
Parmentier says he believes pontoons will continue to grow, but at a slightly slower pace than in year’s past, and pontoon size will continue to increase as well. He wouldn’t be surprised to see 33- to 35-foot pontoons from manufacturers in the near future.
“I don’t believe [the pontoon segment] has plateaued yet,” said Parmentier. “I think we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg.”
Hunt expects the Marker One series to grow quickly into a full line of products of 21 feet and larger hulls. Cobalt will continue to watch the market closely to see how it changes, but Hunt believes there is room for a Marker One larger than 27 feet.
Barrett notes that while he sees pontoons continuing to grow, it is necessary to attract more young buyers to the segment. He says the best way to do this is to address affordability in boating.
“Millennials, we feel, are driven by price point. We certainly understand between college payments, getting their career in order and the debt load that they possibly have that affordability is really important for that group,” said Barrett. “We have to do a better job to appeal to that generation, because affordability, we feel, is a really big issue.”
While SmokerCraft’s brands build pontoons up to 27 feet, he sees 22- to 24-foot pontoons as the strongest size. Customers get the most out of the boat while keeping the price point affordable, with ample seating and less horsepower required.
“You find the best value right there,” said Barrett. “The customer always seeks out value.”