Seven upside predictions from beneath my boat

I recently spent a long day working on my boat — doing a bit of everything but mostly the jobs no one likes to do. Bottom work on a humid day in a Tyvek suit, hood and face mask, scraping off loose bottom paint while my glasses fogged and paint flecks found their way into the corners of my eyes. You know the kind of work.

It’s hard not to think about the industry when you’re crawling in and out and under a boat all day. And it’s a good way to stay close to your customers. With that background, here are seven prognostications derived from a day in the boat shop.

1. The overall economy will continue its slow but steady improvement. And we in the marine world will continue to trudge forward, too. Proverbially, we are first in and last out, and it’s no different this time around, except that the trough was much deeper and we are a good bit older than in previous dips (see story, Page 18).

2. New- and used-boat sales will follow improvements in housing and consumer confidence. Business remains a bit choppy, but we’re going to be OK. There are 12 million registered boats out there, which is still one heck of a lot of boats. Inventories remain at healthy levels. The supply of late-model used boats is low. The bull market has cast its wealth-effect halo over those fortunate enough to be invested in the market. It’s been almost five years since the Lehman collapse, so you know there’s more pent-up demand out there than we’ve realized. And this industry of entrepreneurs has continued to innovate and produce new products through the slowdown. All positives.

3. The brighter long-term prospect for economic growth also gives reason for optimism. The economy has shown surprising resilience in the face of tax increases and budget cuts. And the likelihood for cheap domestic energy, combined with a renaissance in U.S. innovation, has caused several leading economists to upgrade their outlook for both near and long-term growth.

4. The best recipe for attracting young new families into boating is economic recovery. To borrow money for a new boat, they need confidence that their jobs won’t go away and confidence in the future direction of the country. As an industry, we are doing what we should by dissecting the hurdles to growth, but boy, what I wouldn’t give to see the economy expand to 3.5 percent or better over the next several years. That would cure a lot of ills.

5. As a recreational activity, boating has a ton going for it, especially in this age when it is easier to stay connected 24/7 than it is to unplug and recharge your internal batteries. Boating has always been a great way to unwind, and I think its value in this area will only increase as the chorus of chirping and buzzing from our digital cicadas reaches new crescendos. If you build, sell or service boats, make sure you spend time on the water, not only to maintain your sanity but also to see what people are doing with their boats. Keep your eyes and mind open to the shifts, changes and trends taking place.

6. We may be aging, but boating is not going away. It will evolve as it always has. We need to design boats for millennials, and we need to design boats for aging boomers, too. The large contingent of graybeards will remain a significant market, and a certain percentage will buy new, especially if it makes it easier to stay on the water and better suits their changing lifestyle. The research suggests that people reaching retirement age will continue to boat. They may not be as agile as they once were, but their enthusiasm remains strong. And once a person has owned several boats, research done by Info-Link indicates that they are pretty much “boating lifers,” in the sport for the long haul, with some still buying boats into their 80s.

7. The younger audience is a bit trickier, not to mention more scarce. Bryant Boats chairman John Dorton partnered with a Detroit area design school to try to develop a boat to better appeal to millennials. He says they “really don’t want their parents’ stuff.”

He also mentioned the challenge of having “50-year-old men think like 20-year-olds.” Points well taken.

Remember, the water gene is lying dormant in thousands of former and prospective boaters, just waiting for an extended period of settled weather to kick in. It’s been a slow train coming, and the grade is still fairly steep, but it’s coming.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.


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