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So what exactly does innovation look like?

The post-recession mantra for success in new-boat sales has gone something like this: People want new, and they want innovation.
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The post-recession mantra for success in new-boat sales has gone something like this: People want new, and they want innovation.

What does innovation look like? You need look no farther than today’s cars.

I used to wince when I heard people say boats were becoming more like automobiles, primarily because the worlds in which they operate are so different. We grew up with the old saw: “You can’t just pull over to the side of the road and get out of a boat when something goes wrong.”

That hasn’t changed, but what has shifted is the consumer’s expectation of quality and innovation. And that’s been driven in large part by improvements in automobiles.

Boomers certainly remember when 100,000 miles on a car was considered a lifetime, with the scrap yard waiting just down the road. No longer. Now you’re likely to hear that a car at that stage has just been broken in.

Increasingly, boat buyers, especially new and younger ones, are expecting the reliability, longevity and features in new boats that they find in new cars. They are taking a close look at fit and finish, ride, performance, efficiency, handling, noise, ergonomics, layout, connectivity and a host of content ranging from sound systems to electronics and so on.

They want hatches, doors, lockers and canvas that fit, close, snap, latch and stay shut. No flapping, banging, clattering or vibrating. They don’t want a boat that sounds like a rattletrap running in a light chop. They expect a new boat to be as “tight” as their car. They don’t want one that is slow to get over the hump, lists slightly to port, has poor sightlines or a layout where people have to turn sideways to squeeze by one another. Comfortable helm and passenger seating are de rigueur.

New doesn’t automatically mean better. We’ll all walk the fall and winter shows and see things on 2017 models that make us scratch our heads and say, “Really? What were they thinking?”

New sells not just because it’s new, but also because it’s better. Reliable, dependable, durable, comfortable, tight, smart — boats on which it is easy to build a fun-in-the-sun lifestyle, be it fishing, cruising, diving, skiing or towing, or just kicking back. That’s what sells.

Like cars, boats are the sum of their parts. And it’s not the individual features that matter so much as how they’re put together. Lots of stuff has to fit into a small package, which is the challenge.

Boats are complex creations asked to do a great deal. The key — and this is the difficult part — is making all that complexity disappear. And in its place the proud new owner is presented with an operating experience that is intuitive and relatively simple. Things are where they should be. Controls, gauges, switches, buttons, cleats, latches and so on make sense. And they work — over and over and over.

Remember, much of the technology that makes today’s boats better is buried between skins, beneath decks and engine hatches, under cowlings, below the waterline, in electrical panels, in the adhesives that hold parts together, in the software that powers navigation and communication electronics. That’s not innovation the consumer necessarily “sees,” but it has been critical to the evolution of ever better boats.

That’s one reason IBEX is so compelling. It’s the best place in this country to survey the state of the industry in terms of products and processes, and catch glimpses of the future. In a seminar, walking the aisles or in an impromptu conversation with someone at lunch, you’re exposed to the thinking, materials, components, methods and ideas that will shape tomorrow’s boats. That’s the heart of IBEX: A light bulb goes off, and you find yourself contemplating a better, smarter way of moving forward.

A boat is so much more than a list of standard equipment, features and options. Everyone offers those. They quickly become commodities. It’s how they’re put together — the quality of components and materials, the execution and workmanship, the design, aesthetics, thought and attention that go into every system, every nook, cranny and cup holder. These are boats that consistently over-deliver on customer expectations. It’s what differentiates one center console or bowrider or express cruiser from another. It’s innovation.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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