The Marine Dealer Conference & Expo's annual Industry Leaders Panel of five company presidents responded to wide-ranging questions that touched on market trends, product cost, technology, marketing, government regulations and growing boating.
The discussion at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., on Monday featured Rick Correll of Tige Boats, Ron Huibers of Volvo Penta Americas, Bill McGill of MarineMax, Bob Menne of Premier Marine and Mark Schwabero of Mercury Marine.
All agreed that sluggish spring sales have given way to solid second-half numbers and they remain optimistic about the trajectory of the industry's recovery.
"It's not a steep curve by any means," McGill said. "It's a slow recovery, but the good news is that it’s a steady climb."
Correll said his ski boat sales were "up close to 25 percent over what our projections were."
The issue of rising costs has proved a double-edged sword for the panel with the majority saying their customers have demonstrated that they want plenty of bells and whistles on their boats.
McGill sees "getting some of the cost out of the product" with smaller engines and simplified accessories as one of the industry's biggest challenges.
"To get into boating is not $10,000 to $15,000, it’s now $30,000 to $40,000,” he said. “The higher the price, the less customers you've got."
Correll, however, said sales of his "de-contented, price-point" ski boats are down, but sales of higher-end models are up.
"The days when I see ski boats going for $25,000 are long gone," he said. “Our customers demand that our boats have touch screens and top-line stereo systems."
At the opposite end of the market, Menne said growth at pontoon builder Premier also is coming at the middle and upper range of the line, driven largely by demand for more horsepower and accessories.
"If someone told me four years ago we'd be selling pontoon boats for over $100,000, I'd think they were smoking weed, but we’re there," Menne said, drawing laughter from the audience.
"We can't change the fact that consumers want more horsepower," Schwabero said, but he suggested that savings can be found in more intuitive design, easier maintenance and, of course, fuel economy.
Beyond horsepower, the issue of a preferred propulsion system — outboard vs. sterndrive — drew a lively debate.
Huibers said the rapid rise in 4-stroke technology, initially in emissions and efficiency and more recently in reduced weight, has outpaced sterndrive technology.
"Emissions have to catch up," he said of sterndrive technology. "But from everything we see, I/O technology is going to be around for years to come.”
The other engine manufacturer on the panel agreed.
"Let's face it. The outboards of today are a lot different from those in the past," Schwabero said, noting the rise of 4-stroke technology and, more recently, the emergence of joystick control for outboards. "But we don't think there's a wholesale shift going on."