‘Ma and Pa’s barge’ is leading the way to recovery with enhanced performance and sexier styling
The trend is not new. Pontoon boats have been gaining in popularity for about a decade, but since 2009 the segment has far outpaced others in speed of recovery.
Aluminum was a growth market in 2012. For the year, sales in the main powerboat segments gained 11.4 percent to 125,544, and leading those segments were two aluminum categories: pontoons and fishing boats, according to data from Statistical Surveys. Pontoon boat sales climbed 20.4 percent for the year to 33,798, and fishing boat sales rose 9.3 percent to 37,623.
A number of factors have come together to create a perfect selling environment for pontoon boats — value, versatility, capacity, the aging boating demographic, performance and handling improvements, and the recession. It’s a trend many say will continue to grow, even in saltwater markets previously regarded as unreceptive to the aluminum segment.
“Pontoons went from something that was seen as a tired boat for old people to a really cool boat that is a good value,” says Steve Tadd, director of marketing for Elkhart, Ind.-based Nautic Global Group. Nautic builds the Godfrey and Parti Kraft pontoon brands, in addition to Hurricane Deck Boats, Polar Kraft aluminum fishing boats and Rinker fiberglass sport boats and cruisers.
“It’s a growth segment, that’s for sure,” says Bruce Wright, general manager and vice president of New Hampshire-based Irwin Marine, which carries the Berkshire brand. “We’re seeing some people transitioning out of runabouts and into pontoons as the quality and sophistication have improved. People want one boat to do everything, and now we’re able to make that happen.” Buyers also are getting younger, Wright points out.
The proof is in the numbers, says Jack Ellis of Info-Link, a company that tracks boat sales nationally. “What you can see when you look at this data is that pontoon boats started to increase, relative to the overall market, about 10 years ago, declined with the rest of the market but then really took off after that,” says Ellis. “About 2009 is when it really separated.”
Some dealers speak of an exodus from runabouts to pontoons, but Ellis and colleague Peter Houseworth say that is happening no more frequently today than in the past. “There are definitely people who sold their sterndrive boats and bought pontoons, but the incidence of that did not increase,” says Ellis. “We don’t have a solid explanation why, but they [sales] really took off after 2009.” He and Houseworth speculate that an aging boating demographic, along with versatility and affordability, has helped the shift along.
There are three categories of pontoon boat buyers, Houseworth says: people who have already owned a pontoon, those who defected from another type of boat and people who are new to boating. “In absolute numbers, there are more of all of the above, which drives the increase in pontoon sales,” he says. “What hasn’t changed is the percentage that comes from each; they all contribute to the pontoon growth proportionally. So our observation is that pontoon boats have simply become more popular among consumers in all three segments without relying on any one segment for growth. This is why we made the forecast — which we seldom, if ever, do — that it was likely to continue for an extended period. Usually if it is unbalanced [or] relying on one thing for growth, it doesn’t last as long.”
Bob Menne, owner of Wyoming, Minn.-based Premier Pontoons, agrees the trend will be a lasting one. “We see a lot of customers downsizing from, say, a runabout to a family pontoon boat, where they can get more people on board and have more space to move around,” says Menne. He says the evolution of triple tubes, bigger engines, and better performance and handling “have made a really big impression” on buyers. “They handle it more easily — ski, wakeboard. They can have a party.”
The first-time buyer has been an important part of pontoon builders’ bottom lines, Houseworth says, because about half of new pontoon buyers are new to boat ownership. But that percentage has not grown from traditional demographics, he says. “As pontoon sales have increased, the absolute number of first-time boat buyers has also increased, but proportionally the 50 percent hasn’t changed.”
But there is no question pontoon boats have increased in popularity. The accompanying Info-Link graph reflects the segment’s growth relative to the overall market for powerboats 15 feet and above. In 2012, for example, 134,169 boats in that size range were sold — 33,615 of them pontoon boats. That remains below the pontoon sales peak of 43,642 in 2005, when overall 15-foot-and-up boat sales totaled about 285,502.
Pontoon builders capitalized early on the growing success, Menne says. “We were taking it from what in the old days was a basic boat — Ma and Pa’s barge, if you will — to a nice-looking boat with deluxe amenities,” he says. “That’s opened the door for pontoon boats.”
“I think somewhere along the way it’s attracted a younger audience than it used to,” says Tadd. “I think part of that is, the outboard engines are quieter; there’s a lot of power in outboard motors, so boats go faster — there are a lot of options. I look at pontoons and the recession and how that maybe helped to propel their popularity.”
Aided by recession
The overall design of pontoons has made the segment more nimble. “They’re pretty straightforward in the build,” Houseworth says. “The base is the base. With fiberglass it’s not as forgiving, but on a pontoon the basic hull form is a flat deck. You can put what you want on it.”
That dynamic helped pontoons gain market share throughout the recession, Tadd says. “There just weren’t the resources available to invest in huge capital expenditure products for many fiberglass builders,” he says. “You have to build the mold — it’s just much more expensive, and I think it just slowed down. Meanwhile, in pontoons, it was a growing segment, so it was very easy to quickly bring the market innovations like new seating configurations, different levels of styling and finish, and all of that.”
Nautic Global saw that unfold on both sides, Tadd says. “During this time you watched fiberglass products — and we build a lot of them — slow down the development pace because business was so slow, and pontoon boat manufacturers started into a race that still hasn’t stopped,” he says. “And it may never stop because it’s relatively inexpensive to make changes on a pontoon boat. You don’t have to build a mold. You can try something and see how it works.”
For example, pontoons with aft-facing seats were virtually nonexistent five years ago. But as performance increased to allow the boats to pull skiers or tubers, the configuration has become popular. Another example is the wet bar. “We were an innovator there with Parti Kraft, and now pretty much every manufacturer has at least one wet bar seating configuration,” Tadd says. “So pontoon manufacturers kind of chase each other around if something is popular and put their own new twist on it.”
Though the boats traditionally have been used primarily in fresh water, more pontoon builders are offering saltwater packages, as the boats gain popularity in brackish and saltwater areas. Connecticut-based Beacon Point Marine, with locations in Cos Cob and Shelton, picked up the Bentley pontoon line about a year ago. Sales manager Richard Peterson thought they would be more popular in the Shelton location along the brackish Housatonic River than the Cos Cob location, whose harbor is on Long Island Sound.
“The first boat I sold last year went into the harbor,” Peterson says. “A guy sold a 50-foot sailboat and wanted something to hop around on. He went from an $800,000 sailboat to a $20,000 pontoon. That was unusual, but he and his wife went to the Greenwich [Conn.] Boat Show, took it out and said, ‘What do we need to do? We love this.’ ”
All of Bentley’s boats are available with a saltwater package, Peterson says. That consists, in part, of bottom paint designed for aluminum and anodized rails.
Premier has always built its pontoons for saltwater use, Menne says. “We’re selling a fair amount of our boats in salt water, and people don’t have to be concerned about the wiring failing and the fasteners corroding,” he says. The most popular pontoon boat to wind up in those markets is the triple-tube, or tritoon, Menne says, because the ride is much better.
“I have a home in Florida, and I’m both in brackish and salt water, and I don’t have any issues with it,” says Menne. “I have it on a lift when I come in. I wash it down, flush the engines, and that boat will last for a long, long time. The consumer needs to be aware that he can’t just pull it in and put it on the lift. He needs to take care of it. And if it’s trailerable he needs to make sure the trailer bunks are not carpeted because the carpet will hold the salt; it should be wood or plastic so they can get washed.”
During the last five years, Premier has added several dealers in saltwater markets and has seen significant growth in parts of the Northeast, southeast Florida and some areas of California, Menne says.
Nautic Global Group sees coastal areas as a major growth opportunity for pontoons, Tadd says. “Just last year we started to market pontoon boats to saltwater markets with coastal packages, and there’s some growing traction,” he says. “I would say any dealer who would say no to that is not paying attention.”
Tadd says Nautic had thought value boats, rather than more expensive models, would wind up in salt water, but the company has seen the opposite. “We’ve seen people buy high-end pontoon boats if they live in salt or brackish areas and put them up on lifts or paint the bottoms. I think we’ll see that segment grow.”
The saltwater packages eliminate carpet and include saltwater-ready electrical systems, higher freeboard (larger tubes), saltwater outboards, plastic furniture bases and stainless-steel hardware, Tadd says. Fishing amenities are also important in salt water. “You see pontoon boats in markets where you used to only see fiberglass center console boats,” he says. “We believe that salt water represents a huge growth opportunity for pontoons that is just beginning to take hold.”
Most of the growth, however, is concentrated in places where pontoons have always been strong, Houseworth says. “My speculation was that it was growing into other geographic areas, but a lot of the growth seems to be concentrated in markets that have always had strong pontoon sales,” he says.
There are a handful of states, including New York, Louisiana and California, where relative growth in pontoon boat sales has outpaced the rest of the country, but the increase was not exceptional. “In other words, we did not see an unusual jump in sales in any particular area,” Ellis says. “Instead, what appears to be happening is that the demand for pontoon boats is increasing everywhere. Large traditional markets like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin still account for the lion’s share of pontoon boat sales, but non-traditional markets like Florida and California have also experienced relatively significant growth. Pontoon boats seem to have developed a more universal appeal.”
Premier’s strongest growth has been in the central part of the country and on the East Coast. The slowest growth has been on the West Coast, Menne says, but he believes the segment will catch on there, as well. “It’s just a matter of time for people to see them in the water and see what they can do,” he says. “But it will come on stronger in the next few years. And the other part to add to that is the Canadian market has really grown, as well.”
A lot less beige
The recession also helped pontoons grow in popularity because it prompted consumers to take a hard look at value, Tadd says. The pontoon offered more deck space, more capacity and more seating options than other types of boats at a lower price than is traditionally associated with that capacity. “There was that value message that could be sent, and it attracted lot of people to pontoons, relative to other types of boats,” he says.
Families with young children and the aging population appreciate the ability to move around on a pontoon, Menne says. “We’re seeing more and more people with pets on the boats, as well as seniors, young people, old people — they all enjoy it,” he says.
Pontoon boats are considered much more easily adapted for handicapped access than other boat types and are easier to board and debark, which industry leaders say is increasingly important to an aging demographic.
Much of the credit for the pontoon boat’s enhanced performance, speed and handling should go to engine manufacturers, Menne says. The quieter rides those new engines deliver help people to communicate, a key function of the pontoon, he says. The triple tube also has greatly improved the handling and ride, he says.
Perhaps even as important, the boats just look better, Tadd says. “Five years ago virtually every pontoon was beige. Now they’re all different colors,” he says.
Menne agrees. “Years back I heard a pontoon dealer say, ‘I have any color you want as long as it’s gray,’ ” he says. “The year we came out, we had color-match carpet and canvas. Now the industry has changed. People want the style and the look.”
A continuing trend from last year is an increase in deck options, Tadd says. “You used to get vinyl or carpet. Today there are different vinyl options, different types of teak, different snap-in carpets, bamboo snap-in carpets, sea grass — you’re going to continue to see more flooring options,” he says. “It’s definitely a way people are customizing their boats. We’ve increased our offerings, and we’ve seen other manufacturers do the same. Five years ago, it was the boom in colors. Now it’s the boom in flooring.”
Menne thinks the gravitation toward amenities also will evolve. “We’re selling a lot of big boats, and people are not shy about spending a lot of money on a pontoon boat if that’s what they want,” he says.
Premier does well in the $65,000 to $100,000 range, and that market is growing, Menne says. “It’s amazing how many of those are sold,” he says. “You don’t sell as many of those as you do in the $20,000 to $45,000 range, but there’s a market there, and more people are entering it.”
Tadd agrees that the $100,000 pontoon is not the market driver, but he says there’s certainly an increasing market for it. “The high end has gotten higher,” he says. “That’s very much the case. Along the way, even the low end has gotten higher, not in price but in styling. What we would consider a value pontoon boat looks a lot nicer than it did five years ago or even two years ago. It’s been an interesting evolution, and it’s definitely been fun to be part of it.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.