The latest edition of FLIBS was a record-breaker for some builders, including Sea Ray, which saw an 80 percent increase in show sales over last year. Regal CEO Duane Kuck also told me that his company had a record show. Marquis-Carver CEO Rob Parmentier, clearly excited by the launches of the Lexus LY 650 and Marquis M42, says it was his best FLIBS in three years. New-model launches continue to drive sales, and with competition between builders as fierce as ever, design has become the differentiator.
In this issue, we look at design trends across the industry. The most obvious one is how content has become king, and how builders are using connectivity, luxuries and multiple options to outdo each other.
Kuck says the upscaling of his boats has been going on for some time. “Partly because there’s a lot more content available — soft-good upgrades and gelcoat scheme options, not to mention electronics, audio stabilization and telematics,” he says. “Look at the technology in an entry-level car — that’s where the demand is coming from. Builders respond to what customers want.”
What about entry-level boaters? At FLIBS, the largest builders didn’t say it outright, but they implied these buyers are no longer on their radar.
Design may throw a lifeline to those buyers, too. BRP’s marine division recently laid out plans for a “value-priced” pontoon boat — code-named Project M — similar to what BRP did with the Sea-Doo Spark in 2013. Priced less than $5,000, the Spark disrupted the personal watercraft segment, forcing competitors to offer their own low-priced models or risk losing potential buyers who might trade up the line. Project M might do the same for pontoons.
The concept of smart design applies to boats, marine equipment and engines, but it’s just as important at boat and trade shows where buying decisions are made. I recently had the chance to look behind the curtains at Mercury Marine’s exhibits department in Fond du Lac, Wis. The 20,000-square-foot warehouse, filled with hundreds of displays, outboards and equipment, as well as metal and carpentry shops, was like being backstage at a reality show on marine propulsion.
Exhibits manager Dylan Kiszlowski, previously a set designer for the entertainment industry, oversees more than 200 displays that range from Mercury’s big booths at Miami and IBEX, to smaller displays that feature 20 other Brunswick brands, as well as simulated helms.
“At the season’s peak, we handle 12 major shows per month, so we have many duplicate displays,” Kiszlowski says. The Fond du Lac warehouse is a revolving door in show season. Mercury often has to transport and set up seven booths at different shows around the country at the same time. It’s a logistical feat.
In terms of props, the warehouse has 165 engines — from Motorguide trolling motors to the 450-hp Mercury Racing outboard — along with two mechanics to service them. Kiszlowski says the engines are operational and get “babied pretty well” by the mechanics.
They also do the full-sized cutaways of outboards that go into the shows. “They’re all hand-made, taking two people about four weeks to complete,” he says. “They include 160 hours of disassembly, precision machining and hand tooling, and reassembly. Starting over isn’t an option. If a mistake occurs, it’s incorporated into the final design.”
Kiszlowski’s department works with sales, marketing and other Mercury executives on the booth designs as far as a year out before its carpenters and metal workers make the actual displays. The idea is to ensure booths match each show’s audience — bass fishermen as opposed to offshore racers — and create a “buzz” around new products. Old equipment is “retired” for the newest machinery or components.
“The booths are in a constant state of evolution,” Kiszlowski says. “You’re not going to go to a show one year and see a completely different booth the next. You will see an evolution of color and style. It’s more of an intelligently thought out campaign than us just trying new things.”
Bad News for the Industry
The most disturbing news at FLIBS this year came at the Viking press conference, when CEO Pat Healey spoke about how upcoming International Marine Organization emissions rules, scheduled to take place Jan. 1, 2021, will torpedo U.S. builders such as Viking, Hatteras and others building boats larger than 75 feet. We’ll take an in-depth look at the issue online and in next month’s magazine, but Healey says the NOx rules could cause thousands of job losses — possibly 300 at Viking alone — because builders will be forced to stop building larger yachts.
The jobs scare, along with comments by IMI committee members about how wealthy people can “afford” selective catalytic reduction systems (never mind that SCR systems are unworkable for yachts in the 70- to 110-foot range), has an eerie resemblance to the luxury tax years.
Back then, politicians also said the wealthy could afford the tax on boats, and we know how that turned out. If you want to get involved — the more voices, the better chance of protecting the industry — Viking is looking for support for an ICOMIA-sponsored initiative that would provide extra time as SCR technology is developed for recreational vessels.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.