Making cash with flash

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Dealers and builders find burgeoning market in younger demographic that likes to purchase accessories

Pimped out with bling.

It is not an MTV video brainstorming session — terms increasingly batted around by marine industry executives and dealers.

Boat dealers and builders are not just trying to appeal to boating baby boomers anymore; they’re focusing on luring young blood into the industry.

“Those people will be wage-earners before long,” said Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America. “Those kids are making more out of college than people back in the ’70s were making. If we don’t get them now, they’ll go rock climbing or bicycling or something else.”

Tempe Marine — which carries brands such as Crestliner, Hurricane, Champion and Skeeter — not only sponsors bass tournaments for kids under 18 in a program called Young Guns; it is phasing out some of the fishing gear it has long carried in favor of wakeboard towers, racks and big stereo speakers in its effort to reach a new consumer.

“We’ve been trying to market to a younger household by adding a wakeboard tower, kind of pimping out the ride like that show on TV,” McGraw said. The MTV show “Pimp My Ride” takes an old vehicle and completely restores and customizes it, typically adding flashy features and large stereo systems.

Hurricane has introduced a SunDeck 2200 I/O deck boat with an “Xtreme package” featuring wakeboard towers and fancy graphics and the big stereo speakers, and it’s generated a lot of interest at Tempe, McGraw said.

“They’re taking the same deck boat and adding the flashy graphics and the towers and speakers,” McGraw said. “They’re pimping it out to appeal to a younger crowd. So we’re definitely seeing a shift to attract that younger buyer even through the manufacturers themselves.”

And it’s working.

Just the night before being interviewed, McGraw had delivered a Hurricane deck boat to a young couple who had a 3-year-old sitting on their laps. They said they wanted to pass their childhood boating memories onto their kids.

“That’s the direction we’re trying to go in,” McGraw said. “Where it’s been maybe a 50- to 60-year-old head of household (we were targeting), we’re now looking at the 30- to 40-year-old head of household, too.”

Hagadone Marine Group’s Yacht Club Sales and Service in Idaho brought in the Malibu line three years ago in an effort to reach the younger, more extreme sport boater, according to parts manager Dugan Bailey.

Since then, boat sales have jumped by about a third.

To generate interest in the high performance line, the Yacht Club hosts Wet and Wild Wednesday, offering a free wakeboarding class to anyone who wants to attend, Bailey said. Sometimes Malibu-sponsored pros show up, a big draw for younger crowds.

The events, which take place at various local lakes, are advertised and sponsored by Rock 94.5, the local modern “teen extreme radio station,” and each week the station comes out to do a live on-air segment, Bailey said.

Skier’s Choice targets a similar audience by advertising in magazines such as Alliance Wakeboard, said spokesman Michael Littman.

The company is always expanding its professional wakeboard crew and has created a junior team “that connects with these kids on a one-on-one level,” Littman wrote in an e-mail.

Skier’s Choice also tries to target youth by sponsoring grass roots events and WWA World Wakeboard and Wakeskate Championships, where youth divisions are captured on DVDs that are distributed to the participants’ families.

Brands like Skier’s Choice and Malibu are typically associated with high-performance sports and the younger jet set. But Hurricane, just by “pimping it out,” is drawing a segment it had failed to reach in the past.

A bigger platform

Hurricane has not changed its platform of who it appeals to; it has expanded it, according to Nautic Global Group CEO Bob Moran.

Hurricane is a Godfrey Marine brand; Nautic Global Group is the corporate holding name for Godfrey Marine and Rinker Boats.

“MasterCraft, Correct Craft, all those guys have been coming out with boats for wakeboarders and we truly didn’t have a boat that appealed to that segment,” Moran said.

Hurricane’s Xtreme package includes more chrome, new bright colors including vapor blue, a wakeboard tower, a big rearview mirror and rearranged seating so the wakeboarder can be observed by the driver and passengers, and an upgraded stereo with huge speakers.

Even the lines of the traditional deck boat are sleeker and more appealing, Moran said.

Buyers can add wakeboard towers to other models, but the Sundeck 2200 I/O is the only model to offer the Xtreme package. That could change as popularity grows, said Roxanne Lutz, spokeswoman for Godfrey Marine.

The changes make deck boats more versatile than ever, but are still more affordable than traditional wakeboard boats — an important point during a downturn, Moran said.

Manufacturers have to work harder to draw attention to their products in a soft economy, Moran said, and only a fresh approach will get them noticed. Once people come, dealers can direct customers to a boat that suits their needs.

“There is a more concentrated effort on marketing to a wider consumer base because of the economy,” Keeter said.

The Grow Boating campaign has also reinforced the need to appeal to families and youth, Keeter said. The 3-year-old ad campaign often targets areas that will be seen by young people.

“Every boat we sell, a little bit goes to the Grow Boating initiative, which is focusing in on younger buyers,” McGraw said.

Attracting people while they’re young has worked in several industries, “and I think it will work for this one,” Moran said.

Youth appeal is crucial in the affluent Phoenix area, McGraw said.

Last year, the No. 1 sales market in that area was high-performance, inboard ski boats, with 650 units sold, according to McGraw. Pontoons, a much more affordable boat, ranked second with 620 units. That shows the typical buyer in that area is affluent and leans toward extreme sports, McGraw said.

But companies aren’t just targeting those old enough to have disposable income. They are also keeping even younger “consumers” in mind.

Looking cool with bling

Some companies have long realized a child’s influence on parents’ spending, but decades ago those marketers often were limited to children’s cereal and toys.

As families become more and more centered on kids, companies see an opportunity to capture their attention, hoping they will wield their influence on bigger purchases, too.

“Those kids have a huge impact on their parents as far as getting them to buy, wanting them to buy, and telling them what to buy,” Keeter said. “I don’t think when I was growing up that I had that much input on my parents, but I know my kids had a large influence on me.”

BRP, owner of Sea-Doo personal watercraft, knows that the entire family is involved in recreation spending, said Sea-Doo spokesman Tim McKercher.

BRP markets to families in general, but is more youth-focused in wake models such as the WAKE watercraft and 230 WAKE sport boat. They are attractive to both the kids and the dad, McKercher said.

Even though Sea-Doo has always offered products in vivid colors and graphics, the company still primarily focuses on older buyers, McKercher said.

“A younger dad is not being targeted,” McKercher said. “The true buyer is 40-plus with money, but the influences on the buying decision is very much driven by the family, specifically the kids. We help build the demand by being attractive to the kids and younger adults.”

Parents want children to look forward to spending family time on the boat, Bailey said. “If the kids are happy, everyone’s happy.”

That concept is directly linked to the trend of shiny colors and splashy graphics.

“We have historically recognized that kids don’t make the purchase, but they oftentimes influence it,” Littman said. “So we are always on alert to keep a ‘cool’ factor for our boats so that when dad goes to buy the family boat, his kids steer him in our direction, best case, or affirm the purchase of one of our brands, worst case.”

Hurricane has focus groups that work with dealers to inform Godfrey Marine what the consumer is really looking for.

“It’s a lot about colors, to a lot about bling, if you will; speaker covers, chrome, stainless steel — the shiny look is big,” Moran said. “Having a cool steering wheel is big and a great stereo is a No. 1 feature.”

Dealers will be increasingly pressed to carry boats that appeal to younger buyers, Bailey said.

“If they don’t, their best bet is to load their standard boats with racks and speakers and lights and try to promote their boat as an extreme sport boat,” Bailey said.

At Sea-Doo, the wake-specific features are aimed at the dad, but the fact that Sea-Doo products are fun when not boarding is pointed out, too, McKercher said. In other words: Being cool is key.

“Dad is cool because he buys the cool wake boat for the kids, but Dad is cool when he goes out by himself and cuts it up on either the Wake watercraft or the wake sportboat,” McKercher said.

On other models, it’s crucial to show kids enjoying the products, McKercher said.

“Better to be with you on the boat than in the mall with Who-Knows-Who, so it is important to be ‘cool’ as a brand and product to keep the kids interested and the parents ‘cool’ parents,” McKercher said. “Eventually the kids will become passionate about their experiences associated with boating and hopefully be lifelong Sea-Doo owners when they have the money to do so.”

More return than fishing lures

There’s another potential boon with the young boaters that rivals sequenced iPod carriers: Accessories.

Tempe Marine has seen a big surge in business since the store expanded its accessories department to include wakeboards, towers and racks, McGraw said.

“We were mainly a bass boat store up until a couple years ago,” McGraw said. “Now it’s everything for water sports and not as much for fishing. There seems to be a real big demand there.”

Not only that, but McGraw doesn’t have to compete with Wal-Mart and Bass Pro Shops on that merchandise in the same way he has to compete with the “big box” stores for the sales of fishing accessories. 
 
In the showroom at Yacht Club Sales and Service, there are always several fully loaded, tricked-out Malibus with racks, lights and speakers, Bailey said. “At boat shows, those are the ones that sell first.”

Before taking on Malibu, the Yacht Club did not carry many racks and most of the whimsical accessory buys were on tubes, Bailey said.

“Our accessories sales have grown as well. Now we sell a number of racks, lights and towers, which is a pretty good revenue,” Bailey said.

Their lower-end tower runs around $2,500 before installation. “So we’re getting service money as well for installation of towers.” Speakers can run up to $800, Bailey said.

The wakeboard accessories appeal to kids as young as 13 or 14, Bailey said, and typically more sport-oriented people like skateboarders.

“As far as under teen years, the inflatable tubes would really be that kind of gear set because they are really more safe and sane for the parents,” Bailey said.

In the summertime, there are fewer boats and more toys taking up showroom space.

“The kids jump around in them, inflated and play with them, and that really convinces mom and dad to buy one,” Bailey said.

Tempe Marine keeps some inflatables outside hanging on the fence to attract customers.

“Kids will see them and say, ‘Let’s stop there!’ ” McGraw said.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue.

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