A Definite Maybe?

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Happy New Year. It’s Dec. 8 as I’m writing this, and the holidays have me somewhere between feeling grateful that my daughter made it home for Thanksgiving and the excitement (and dread) of buying gifts — Christmas, Hanukkah, even Festivus (the crazy cousin).

I’ve also been thinking about the new year as we wrap up our Outlook 2020 issue, where 24 experts weigh in on how they believe the industry will do during the next 12 months. If the forecasts are close, we’re looking at another decent year. The economy experts think unit sales will be either flat with 2019 or up (2 to 4 percent). The dealers we polled for our Pulse Report expect a similar stocking year in 2020, in terms of the same sizes of boats with high-margin options. If that happens, we can expect unit sales to be similar to 2017, but with higher dollar values than last year.

Despite more non-current inventory than most boatbuilders and dealers want, the industry is in good shape — in some ways, the best shape ever. An unprecedented blitzkrieg of new products during the last two years has altered the industry. It’s made boating easier (assisted docking, joystick control), more integrated (everyone is moving to boats that function like smart cars), and more comfortable (from smaller stabilizers to Lay-Z-Boy-style deck recliners). We’ve seen big innovation from engine manufacturers, boatbuilders and equipment makers alike.

Best Indicator of Industry Health

In November, I attended Metstrade in Amsterdam, where 118 new products from 26 countries competed in the Dame innovation awards. The technology behind the products was solid, but what struck me most was the variety and creativity. You have the two electronics giants, Garmin and Navico, introducing sophisticated trolling motors (and winning joint awards) so they can integrate their electronics and deliver an improved experience. At the other end is Lignia Yacht, a small company that turns sustainable softwood into a substitute for teak, thereby disrupting the market.

The overall Dame winner was the USafe, a high-tech lifesaving ring with two small waterjets that can be controlled with a joystick on a boat or from shore. It’s a niche within a niche, but it demonstrates how widespread innovation has become. To me, that’s the best indicator of the industry’s health.

Despite the political rancor dividing our country, the last shows I attended in 2019 were almost defiantly upbeat. IBEX, FLIBS and Metstrade were busy, positive and forward-looking — three indicators that the industry remains on solid ground. Of course, that could get shaken up in this election year. Given the boat-buying spree we saw at the end of the season, however, it seems as if the fundamentals of a strong economy remain in place, no matter the daily headlines.

At Soundings Trade Only, our New Year’s resolutions include adding new voices and columns to the magazine and looking to the future. We did a good job of looking back at the last four decades during our 40th anniversary year, but now it’s time to look at changes taking place in our industry — from boats and equipment to services and the sharing economy — as well as seeing how other industries are adapting to a changing market.

One of the big takeaways from Metstrade was how sustainability has become more than a politically correct idea to Europe’s boating industry; it’s a young but serious movement. There were displays on hybrid propulsion and panel discussions on end-of-life boats, but the real difference this year was the number of exhibitors that displayed sustainable products and processes, and the attendees who asked for sustainability in those products. That’s a trend that will grow this year. We’re going to be covering that trend, partly because the U.S. industry is far behind when it comes to even discussing sustainability.

The other pet topic will be affordability — something most boatbuilders have given up on, in the race to the connected boat. Tracker and Smoker Craft are committed to the entry-level segment, and BRP’s trying to find its way there with a new pontoon design. Structural Composites is taking a new approach with innovative materials that could disrupt boatbuilding and lead to more affordable models. Scott Lewit and his team are working with two major builders to bring low-cost, lightweight boats to market (see his essay in the Outlook 2020 feature), without compromising strength, build quality or other components that typically impact pricing.

None of us has that magic eight ball, but as we enter 2020, it feels as if we’re poised for another good year — weather, politics and macroeconomic surprises notwithstanding. Signs point to yes, or at least a definite maybe. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.


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