Still riding high

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes
Pontoon boat manufacturers found that buyers wanted more innovation and power and companies such as Premier have delivered.

Pontoon boat manufacturers found that buyers wanted more innovation and power and companies such as Premier have delivered.

At a Northeastern boat show last year, a couple towing a baby and a toddler climbed around on a Berkshire pontoon. As his parents inspected the boat, the toddler tore across it before bouncing off a plush seat and landing on his diaper-padded bottom.

“Can you tube or wakeboard behind it?” the young mom asked a representative working the booth for New Hampshire-based Irwin Marine. As the salesman excused himself from a conversation with a reporter to explain the advances in pontoon performance (“Yes, you certainly can use the boat to tow”) the toddler continued his exploration — essentially contained but seemingly content with what must have felt to him like free range.

The snapshot illustrates what many in pontoon sales say is a growing trend. As pontoons evolve and shed their geriatric stigma, more families seem to be turning to them in their quest to find one affordable boat that will seat everyone and do everything.

“Generally, our buyers are a little bit older on the tri-toons — in the 45-and-up range,” says Barb Niedergerke, sales manager at Lake Ozark, Mo.-based Glencove Marina, which sells South Bay pontoons. “However, just this year we’ve seen an increase in people in their 30s and up. Buyers who have children see how easy it can be to use a tri-toon in terms of low annual maintenance, the smooth ride and ease of use with children — it’s sort of like a big playpen with a gate all the way around; it’s very safe.”

The average new pontoon boat buyer was slightly younger in 2013 than in 2012 as powerboat buyers aged, giving weight to anecdotal evidence that more families are seeking out pontoon boats and indicating that the upward sales momentum the segment has enjoyed won’t slow anytime soon.

Larson re-entered the pontoon market last year with its sleek Escape line.

Larson re-entered the pontoon market last year with its sleek Escape line.

Buyers getting younger

“Over the past five years, the average age of new pontoon boat buyers has remained relatively steady,” says Jack Ellis of Info-Link Technologies, the Miami-based firm that tracks boat sales trends. “Meanwhile, the average powerboat buyer in all segments has increased by two years. I don’t know if this is indicative of a trend.”

Jake Vogel, president of segment leader Bennington Pontoons, says most sales continue to be to baby boomers.

“Pontoons are still ideal for them because they have kids and grandkids who come and use the boats,” Vogel says. “I don’t know if there’s been a huge shift. It’s just that younger people and families who have been raised in them live with a more open mind toward pontoons. So I think we are appealing to younger buyers who might not have considered them before.”

The advances the segment has achieved have shown younger families that pontoons have the power to support water sports, they often have galleys for entertainment and they can seat more people than a comparable runabout, Vogel says.

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“I think that has made it more appealing to a younger generation,” he says. “Pontoons are good for older people because they’re easy to climb in and out of. My children are 6 and 8, and they like it for the same reason. We’ve got both fiberglass and pontoon, but when we take them out, we take the Bennington. They like it because they can move around.”

Bob Menne, owner of Premier Pontoons, says children naturally gravitate to the layout of pontoons. “When I was first starting Premier and some of my kids were still at home, they would argue over who was going to take the pontoon and who was going to take the runabout. Pontoons are easy for all ages because you’re dealing with a flat floor. Grandparents can get around, and the kids aren’t confined to one spot.”

Riding the pontoon boom

The age distribution of new pontoon boat buyers versus cruiser buyers is similar, Ellis says. There is a slightly higher incidence of people in the 45-to-55 age range who own cruisers, compared with pontoons, and slightly fewer cruiser buyers after age 67.

“However, pontoons outsell cruisers at a rate of more than 10-to-1, so the differences in age may not matter,” Ellis says. “Boaters are getting older and have gotten older, and pontoon owners tend to be older than average. But my expectation is the pontoon boater will not continue to get older at the same rate because the pontoon boats are more appealing to a younger generation now, due in large part to performance enhancements and, to some extent, due to a loss of what used to be a stigma.”

People watching the pontoon category grow by leaps and bounds are wondering when it will run its course, Ellis says. “But we don’t see it slowing down.”

Today's pontoon boats have more amenities than their predecessors, making them more attractive to younger families.

Today’s pontoon boats have more amenities than their predecessors, making them more attractive to younger families.

Bennington has taken advantage of the rise in pontoon sales, growing its share from 11 percent five years ago to more than 20 percent today. “The mix has actually been shifting more to entry-level, but that’s largely because with that much growth, more of it is actually coming from the entry level,” Vogel says. “So there’s been a shift toward more and more value. That’s what we’ve done — focused on providing more value for consumers, both at the high end and at the entry level. We’re trying to provide a lot of options.”

Jimmy Baker, an analyst with B. Riley, says the industry is several years into what he calls “the pontoon bull market.” That growth has inspired compelling innovation and attracted new players to the segment. One new competitor that debuted last year is the aluminum/fiberglass Escape from Larson Boats, which is meant to pull market share away from traditional pontoons with its patent-pending technology.

The rise in pontoon sales is also reflected in the monthly Pulse Report that the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas compiled to give dealers an idea of what’s happening in the overall market, MRAA president Matt Gruhn says. The survey asks several open-ended and specific questions of 200 dealers.

“We got results from our March survey, and of the retail trends going up, pontoons were up the furthest of any other type of boat,” Gruhn says. “Some of the people I’ve been hearing from who have been selling pontoons for a long time say they were skyrocketing, but now they feel like things are leveling off. Has the market slowed down? No, but I think for dealers who were in the game earlier, they saw a big escalation and increase in sales. But as more enter the market, it might be more saturated. But I think the market is still really hot.”

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Menne agrees that the pontoon segment has yet to flatten. “I recently looked at National Marine Manufacturers Association shipment statistics for calendar year 2013, and I don’t have exact numbers, but approximately a third of all boats shipped to dealers in 2013 were pontoons.”

A broad range of models

Several pontoon builders offer a lineup that runs from a very basic entry-level model all the way up to a luxury version with plush amenities. Some speculate that helps buyers stay loyal not only to a brand, but also to the segment.

“We can offer a pretty base-level boat in terms of what’s in it — frills, options, features and all that — but we can really pack a lot onto it,” Bennington’s Vogel says. “We offer such a broad range that we can get an entry-level buyer looking for a great layout and pricing. And as they grow, depending on what they’re looking for or their budget, they can go bigger and add more features for a long time. We get a lot of repeat customers. If we treat them well, build a great product and provide great service, they’ll just kind of trade up and keep going.”

Pontoon builders might have more flexibility to offer all ranges because the platform lends itself to versatility, Vogel speculates. And although the entry-level portion of the segment has grown the most — perhaps a response to lingering economic challenges — Bennington has seen the high end grow, too.

“We’re still offering a lot more options to the high-end buyer because they’re accustomed to more choices,” Vogel says.

Entry-level buyers at Glencove tend to be more budget-conscious, but also tend to come back within a couple of years looking for more amenities or horsepower, Niedergerke says.

“South Bay as a manufacturer offers several different trim levels, from basic to super-premium — and by that I’m talking upwards of $100,000, and if you want to go twin-engine, even more. You can make it as basic and affordable as you want, and can option all the things available on that boat to make it top of line,” she says. “They do a really good job of covering all different segments.”

Eager for amenities

The segment has used innovation to shed its crusty image, says Jim Antolik, of Premier. “When we’re at boat shows, a common comment made by sales guys is, ‘It’s not your grandpa’s pontoon anymore.’ In the old days, it was pretty basic.”

Today’s boater wants more, which could explain the pontoon’s appeal to some younger buyers. “The younger people seem to want more of the amenities, like USB ports, and depth finders and underwater lights and speakers,” Menne says. “A lot of that stuff is optional, but it’s amazing how many are selecting it. Even if it’s a 20-foot boat with a 60-horsepower motor, they want it decked out. And another trend is: The entertainment factor has gotten to be a really big thing in the last few years — nice sound systems, galleys, bars — those type of amenities. A few years back, we didn’t sell a lot of it. It seems like 10 years ago everyone was counting the number of cup holders.”

Menne and Antolik give credit to engine manufacturers and the lighter outboards that have enabled the segment’s performance to improve. The most popular power on Premiers is the 115-hp engine, followed closely by the 150, Menne says. And the open platform avails itself of innovation and features, Niedergerke says.

Flooring has been a big, more recent trend, Vogel and Menne agree. In the past, everything was carpeting, Antolik says. “Today we have the new seagrass by Syntec Industries. They’re the ones who really brought this type of product to the market a few years back. We were the only ones who had it for a few years, and today every builder’s got some type of it.”

Bennington also has been using more woven alternatives with the advent of more watersports, Vogel says. There is also a full teak luxury option.

The overall look of pontoons also has evolved, Menne says, and the features are just part of that. “When the downturn hit us a few years back, we sat down with staff and felt we needed to make some changes,” he says.

That effort resulted in curved rails to give the pontoon a more modern look. “You’ve got to keep thinking ahead, and it’s harder and harder. There are a lot of nice-looking boats on the market and companies doing some pretty nice things.”

Modernizing the look has influenced the segment’s success, Antolik says. “People still buy boats because they look good. It’s about emotions, and you want to look good.”

Opportunities for suppliers

The boom has made it compelling for suppliers to move into the pontoon space. BRP announced a line of engines designed specifically for the vessels. Volvo Penta of the Americas is also looking to add to its list of pontoon clients. Bennington is one of the few that offers a sterndrive option.

“We are excited about the growth in the pontoon market,” says Tony Kelleher, director of marine leisure sales for Volvo Penta. “We already have one customer — Bennington — that’s started to put sterndrives into pontoons.”

The sterndrive option makes up less than 2 percent of Bennington’s offerings, but Vogel says sales of the high-end vessels with sterndrives are growing, even as the overall sterndrive market shrinks. “The sterndrive market has had its challenges, and pontoons are certainly picking up in that space,” Kelleher says.

The company is in discussions with several other pontoon manufacturers to increase the use of sterndrives. “Absolutely it’s part of a longer process because if you were to envisage a pontoon in your mind, it’s got an outboard on the back of it. It’s a process to educate people on the benefits of sterndrives.”

Kelleher says the benefits include lighter loads, cleaner boating and improvement in watersports. “We’re continually innovating and designing features to make boating more enjoyable,” he says. “Anything that brings more families to boating is a good thing for the industry, which by extension is a good thing for us.”

Taylor Made and Ameritex have expanded their Indiana presence to cater to and respond to the growing demand in the pontoon realm. “We have great opportunities as a result of that move,” says Mike Oathout, vice president of sales and marketing for Taylor Made. “You’re going to see more of our product in the upcoming model year on some new customers for us.”

Ameritex, which became a part of the Taylor Made group in 2009, has seen between 15 and 20 percent overall growth since expanding its Rome City, Ind., facility, says Ameritex co-founder Don Zirkelbach. “The whole key is flexibility and being regional to these customers,” he says. “Fabric is very much a hands-on product, and our engineers are trained to deal with a pattern at a moment’s notice, so we do need to be regional for many of these builders.”

Those relationships could translate to more windshield and glass business for Taylor Made, Oathout says. “This year, we’re starting to see more full glass windshields. Our fabrics division has opened doors for us on the glass side of our business with customers we might not have gotten a chance with because of the location of the Indiana facility,” Oathout says.

All interviewed agree that even if boaters are inherently changing the way they boat, the fact that people are being drawn to the water is a good thing, regardless of circumstances.

“Pontoon growth isn’t new. It’s been going on for 15 years,” Ellis points out. “It’s just growing more rapidly now. Today’s pontoon market is twice the size it was 15 years ago. They’ve got a double whammy in their favor. They’ve got a demographic that the boat appeals to, and it’s the biggest one — the boomers. And then I think that because manufacturers have done such a good job with improving the performance and amenities, it’s no longer just the pontoon — a piece of plywood with a boat on top — so it’s lost its stigma with the younger generation as well.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.

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