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Melding tradition and technology in a purpose-built boat

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Our industry is an interesting mix of tradition and innovation.

We build some magnificently innovative boats, from the AC72 cats vying for the America’s Cup to superyachts that are nothing if not little ships to 40-foot center consoles that make the old 13-foot family Whaler from the 1960s look as if it emerged from a pharaoh’s tomb.

Sabre and Back Cove are among the brands that have nicely melded modern construction, propulsion, electronics and so forth with handsome styling and design — traditional, yes, but with curves, shapes and proportions that are pleasing to a “contemporary eye.”

It is a winning formula that can play out in any number of iterations over a range of models and sizes, from cruising yachts to sportfishing boats to express cruisers.

Sabre and Back Cove vice president of sales and marketing Bentley Collins and I had an email conversation Tuesday on this and other topics. The genesis of the talk was the new Back Cove Downeast 37, which reflects the company’s understanding of what consumers are looking for today — a handsome, well-built yacht with a good turn of speed and more room for socializing and day cruising. Perfect for boomers.

“Less time means that boats need to be more purposeful,” Collins says. “The Downeast 37 is not filled with beds and unused frills and accessories. It's all about short periods aboard, comfort for the owner and space for entertainment and water activities, such as fishing, swimming and socializing.”

As for styling, Collins says: “Traditional values are more important to Americans today than they have ever been. The Down East style is popular and making an ever-increasing impact in the boating market.”

Click play for video of Back Cove Downeast 37.

The company’s trade dress for each brand is very specific, Collins notes. “And every time someone tries to step outside the lines, another member is there to remind them that our focus on trade dress is what is responsible in many ways for our success,” he says.

“For example, we are asked all the time why we don't build twin-engine Back Coves, and our answer to that is we have built the brand around a single diesel engine drive line,” Collins says. “Simple is good, hence the new tag line: ‘Practical Elegance. From Maine.’ ”

New boats and new technology help coax people off the fence. That hasn’t changed for generations.

“We believe that clients need reasons to change boats, and technology is one good reason that many folks buy into,” Collins told me. “The example to consider is the Apple iPhone. The moment a new [version] comes out, our clients buy it. The old one still made phone calls, but the technology has improved.”

Whether you’re building software, smartphones or boats you want to be part of a consumer’s regular conversation and thoughts, even if the vast majority of them are not in the market today for a new boat. New product and technology keeps people talking and thinking about you; it keeps you in the conversation, and that helps keeps you relevant.

“Share of mind is so important,” Collins says. “Presence [on] the consumer’s radar screen is important. Making sure we are visible across the marketing spectrum is important. In the press, in advertising within the press and being front and center at boat shows, being on social media all the time with images and comments are all things that we do to build share of mind. When boaters are sipping a cool drink together I want them to say to their friends, ‘Hey have you seen the latest model from Back Cove (Sabre)?’ ”

Microsoft’s retiring chief executive, Steve Ballmer, was criticized last week for having become too removed from the way people use technology today and, therefore, being late with such market changers as smartphones and tablets.

Ballmer once famously said in an interview: “I’ve got my kids brainwashed: You don’t use Google and you don’t use an iPod.”

Talk about how not to stay close to your customer.

I asked Collins how he stays tuned in to the market. How do you anticipate where the consumer is going before he or she gets there? It’s the old Gretzky line about great hockey players moving to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.

“The answer is listening,” Collins says. “I go to shows and talk to clients all the time and get a strong direction from the market as to likes and dislikes. Sometimes I just sit on a boat and spend an hour listening, and it's very cool what you learn. The design office is not the place to learn what customers want.”

Playing it safe does not necessarily mean playing it smart, not if it comes at the expense of innovation and market share. During the recession Sabre still managed to introduce new product, even as it trimmed its sails and navigated choppy waters.

“Our ownership managed resources very carefully during the recession, understanding the need for new models to maintain momentum and at the same time keeping cash reserves to sustain key activities,” Collins says. “New models were bold moves, but when I see the Sabre 42 Salon Express now at hull 80 and the Back Cove 37 at hull 80, I know why we designed and introduced these two models into the headwinds of the recession.”



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