It feels at long last as if we’ve turned a corner, as if we’re on a train that has left the station and is not going to come off the tracks or be towed back to the maintenance yard for lengthy repairs.
Continued improvement in employment and housing, low interest rates and the so-called “wealth effect” should lead to greater consumer confidence, the tide that lifts all of our businesses, whether we sell accessories, slip space, aluminum fishing boats or fiberglass cruisers.
If the general economy continues to mend without significant setbacks, we should see single-digit growth north of 5 percent in 2014. And given the aging of the fleet, there’s still plenty of pent-up demand in our future.
Other positives include increased boat show attendance, improving RV sales (long considered a leading indicator for recreational marine) and more lenders entering the marine space. We’d all like to see greater bipartisan cooperation and leadership coming out of Washington, but at this point I’d be happy if lawmakers, bureaucrats and the White House simply followed the medical profession’s maxim of “first, do no harm.”
Across price points and product categories, those builders and dealers offering new models with new features will do better than those selling stale bread. Having said that, used boats will continue to capture market share, especially given the upward trajectory of new-boat prices, which have roughly doubled in the last decade. Most newcomers shopping for their first boat will buy used until we offer a greater variety of entry-level boats that are more competitive in price, size, styling and other factors.
Price, value and utility also should keep the three fastest-growing market segments of the last several years chugging along: aluminum pontoons, aluminum fishboats and fiberglass outboard boats up to 40 feet.
Smart companies will continue to focus on products and services for the core market of well-off baby boomers as they move toward and eventually into retirement. The benefits of maintaining existing boaters in the sport for as long as possible are obvious.
At the same time, we need to pay attention to the millennial generation (birth range roughly 1981-2000) — the children of the boomers, who are the hope of tomorrow. The oldest members of this large demographic are in their early 30s, an age when they certainly could contemplate purchasing a boat. However, they face socioeconomic challenges common to many young families: home mortgages, car loans, student debt, young children and the time constraints of two working parents. Given that, is it any surprise that the price of a new boat can appear daunting, even to those who want to get their feet wet?
For many young people, kayaks and paddleboards represent their first foray onto the water. My guess is that this early affinity with water sports will, in time, make them better candidates for traditional boat ownership. We just need to build a wider bridge for bringing more new people into boating. Is the answer fractional ownership? Peer-to-peer rentals? A new generation of entry-level boats?
Like most industries, we face a multitude of challenges. On the positive side, the series of broad industry-wide discussions held during the last two-plus years has done much to raise awareness of key issues. Diversity, youth, costs, education, access, advocacy, fisheries, the aging boating population and others should now be top of mind for anyone serious about making a career in recreational boating. If you’re waiting for someone else to fix the leaky through-hull, you’re going to founder.
Change comes rapid-fire these days, whether the topic is engine and electronics technology or mobile apps and social media. Companies and individuals need to be smart, nimble and versatile. That’s the new norm. Average? In small, highly competitive markets, is average enough? We’re all finding out.
Products are becoming more complex and customers more demanding. Today’s buyers of premium brands are coming to your website or showroom, factory or marina with more knowledge, information and boating experience than ever before. They may be in their mid-50s, with 30 years on the water and four or five previous boats.
They expect a level of reliability that mimics what they’re used to in their automobiles and other high-end products, and they expect quality service on par with what they find in other areas of their lives. Can you blame them? You and I expect the same. Success will go to those who can meet — and exceed — consumer expectations.
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.