Motivating millennials to become boat buyers

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Bryant Boats chairman John Dorton is focusing on the upcoming generation of boaters, and he’s taking an aggressive approach to reach that segment.

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“I call them the millennials, and they’re really the group that we’re after,” Dorton says. “We’re going after the baby boomers, like everybody else is, but we wanted to target that generation, as well. A lot of them have grown up on boats; they’re trying to make a living, and they have the water gene. So I wanted to find out: What do you invest in that’s of value to them that’s not to my generation?”

So Dorton partnered with Lawrence Technological University, a Detroit area design school, and, more specifically with Andrew Hanzel, a professor of industrial design there. Hanzel, who has deep design roots in the auto industry (with General Motors), tasked his class of 19- to 24-year-olds with creating a vessel that appealed to them. The aim was to come up with the next generation of Bryant Boats. The designs are proprietary, but Dorton says he is implementing several of the ideas in a new Bryant line.

“I think somebody needs to go after these guys in the next group, and right now you’ve got 50-year-old men trying to think like 20-year-olds, so I wanted to get their perspective,” Dorton says. “I knew they probably wouldn’t design a boat that would float, but I needed to know what their thinking was.”

Minimalism and versatility

Dorton says the whole experience taught him a lot about what the upcoming generation of potential boat buyers wants and, just as important, what they do not want. “They really don’t want their parents’ stuff,” he says. Millennials are minimalists, he says; they want less overall content but still crave the ability to personalize things. “They want the control to make the boat their own, not to show off like past generations but just to be different.”

The first in a “very long series” of design ideas that were derived from the class will be introduced at the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo in November. “To wait for the technology on all the other smaller parts to come together at once doesn’t make sense,” Dorton says. “We’ll be introducing this sequentially, and it will continue to evolve. I’ve already started down that road of creating a boat at a price point they can afford.”

The boat with millennial appeal not only must be affordable, but it also must have the networking capability that this generation has grown up accustomed to, Dorton says.

There’s been lots of discussion about what will be the tipping point to attract millennials to boating enough to compel them to buy boats, which is something Jack Ellis of Miami-based Info-Link says is crucial to the overall health of the industry. “Today there are twice as many people over the age of 65 buying boats than there are buyers under the age of 40,” Ellis says. “Fifteen years ago, this was the inverse. If this trend continues, the assumption is that it’s just a matter of time before the core market gets too old to buy a boat. This may not be a major issue today, but unless we can find a way to attract younger buyers this trend will continue until our core market is no longer around to buy boats.”

What millennials want

There are as many millennials as there are baby boomers, and they haven’t been given enough attention, some say. They value different things than prior generations, which the boating industry must recognize if it is going to win out over competing recreational activities.

“To me, this is a market that’s seeking relevance,” Dorton says. “They’ve had a privileged upbringing for the most part but are entering a tough job market, and now they’re competing with 52-year-olds who will sweep floors. They value socialization, as well as a connection with each other, their activities and the outdoors. This is not a group that grew up competitive but more cooperative. Probably the reason for that is this is the first group that grew up with participation ribbons rather than first-, second- and third-place trophies.”

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The fact that they are children of the boomer generation, a segment that has significant buying power, is not lost on Dorton. “They want to re-create their experiences in boating, or at least the parts of boating they value, which is the connectivity with each other, enjoyment of the outdoors and the clean, fresh feeling boating can bring. What they don’t connect with is viewing the boat as a trophy. What they valued was the boating experience, so that’s what we’re designing. We’re putting only the appropriate amount of content in the boat, understanding that what they value about boating is very different than previous generations.”

Marketing to this generation is in its infancy, in part because the generation is still so young, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The oldest of the millennials are 35 years old, tops. When you consider that the prime age group for boat buying and ownership is between 35 and 60, the millennials just haven’t quite reached that point. That said, the millennial generation is as big as the boomers, so when they do reach the age” they will be prime targets for the industry, Dammrich says.

“I really think our greatest growth potential in the marine industry, period, is that retiring empty-nester and that millennial, their spawn,” Dorton says. “Their kids are 35 and under, they’ve got the water bug, and they’re moving into the boat-buying demographic ranges. So we’re really trying to work on those groups.”

The generation, loosely characterized as those born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, finds technology on boats more important because they’ve grown up in a digital age, Dorton says. It’s important to understand the background of that generation of potential boat buyers at a fundamental level in order to market to them.

“The parents of the higher-end kids, they’re not going in to work carrying a lunchbox,” he says. “Often they’re working from home, and many of them are answering emails from chairlifts in Vail, so these kids don’t really understand a typical workday like my generation might’ve grown up thinking about.”

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And, matching the constant refrain one hears that’s crucial to drawing more into the industry, the millennial group at the design school said the boat had to be affordable to lure them. “These kids aren’t riding around in Suburbans. They might have a Nissan Pathfinder or something smaller,” Dorton says. “They don’t have garages, so we’re looking at hard-shell covers so they can leave them on a city street in Boston.”

Less-expensive boats are a key to bringing younger people into boating, and there have been several new product introductions in that vein, Dammrich says. Most of the new models that have been recently introduced at lower price points are still too new to the market to gauge their success, but Dammrich thinks they will appeal to that generation. “The millennial generation is still a couple years from being in a buying position, on average, but I think the moves you’re seeing today are anticipating where the market is going.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.

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