Some people think millennials are unlikely candidates for boat ownership. Ben Dorton, the 26-year-old brand manager at Bryant Boats, is betting they’re wrong.
Dorton and his father, John, Bryant’s chairman, are launching Wake Tractor, a new company that’s building a boat geared to the potentially lucrative millennial market. Although the Wake Tractor will be built at Bryant, “it’ll be its own brand from scratch, and it’s all millennial-based,” says Ben Dorton. “Our whole approach to this boat company is that millennials are calling the shots.”
In 2013, John Dorton partnered with Lawrence Technological University, a Detroit-area design school, and 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. That was how the Wake Tractor concept began. The boat won’t be launched until the Surf Expo in September, but the younger Dorton has been involved in every phase of development and is excited to unveil the boat to prospective buyers and dealers.
“It’s all about the wake,” says John Dorton, “the wake and the music.” It turned out that the interior was not important to this group. The boat had to be small because many millennials are parking it on the street since [some] don’t have garages — part of the urban shift seen in younger people. It also had to be light since this group doesn’t have huge cars for towing.
The 18-foot boat will have the wake of a 21-footer because it has the same amount of hull in the water, John Dorton says. It’s built for six passengers, which gave designers more ballast capacity and made for a more versatile interior space.
The Wake Tractor opens up a whole new realm to enable people to connect via social media, says Ben Dorton, using Wi-Fi, bluetooth and video integration with monitors. A professional wakeboarder himself, Ben says the boat produces a good wake, which is crucial for success in his demographic.
“In the design of this boat, we said, OK, the boat has got to do three things,” he says. “We saw a demand for a rugged boat. It had to be able to be stored, cleaned easy, trailered easy. There are a few things we’ve done on the exterior to offer protective surfaces instead of gelcoat that can scratch really easily. So when they rub up against the docks, it won’t faze the finish. The interior vinyls are really dense, so they have no chance of tearing, scuffing, scratching when your friends jump on the boat with their shoes on.”
They also knew it had to be smaller than the typical wakeboard boat, which is 22 or 23 feet. “We knew we had to make the boat lighter and easier to store, so they can tow it with their Xterra,” says Ben Dorton. “We made it durable so it would fit their lifestyle and where they’re living right now. At this point, they’re not living in a nice house with a nice driveway.
“And we knew we’ve got to hit a price point where they were comfortable buying it,” he says. “It has to retail for under $45,000 on a trailer. We knew we had to get those monthly payments down to $250, $300 so they could still pay their other expenses — student loans, rent — and get it where it was comfortable to buy.”
The Wake Tractor is set to retail at $39,900 with trailer, tower, Bimini top, speed control, ballast and music system, John Dorton says. It’s powered with a 5.7-liter engine from PCM, the engine company that Correct Craft recently acquired.
The boat has simple ballast systems. And Ben Dorton says it has a great ride. “It’s not as good as a $120,000 X Star, but I can go out and do the exact amount of tricks and flips and spins as I can do behind any other boat,” he says. “The wakesurf wake is as good if not better than most of the $120,000 boats.”
“We designed a lot of content out that’s not important to this group,” the elder Dorton says. “It’s a good-looking boat, a head turner. But there are significant content pieces in traditional boats that aren’t in this one.”
For example, there is no windshield because it’s designed for wake speeds — generally 25 mph and under. Top speeds are higher, but the sweet spot is 25 and under. The helm is on the centerline — far forward and raised, John Dorton says. “So it gives much better visibility of the rider and the water conditions in front of him.”
Typically the boats run bow-high, so the driver has to stand to get a good view — hence the windshield. But because this boat runs lower, it removes the need for that, he says. The boat has an 8-foot beam, which makes it seem bigger. And two fit into a shipping container, which will serve international markets well.
Maybe as important, the boat enables the socialization the millennials crave, Ben Dorton says. “We knew we had to make it become that tool to communicate with friends.” Instead of conventional gauges, the Wi-Fi-based boat’s engine and system data will be displayed on a tablet. It will have bluetooth connectivity so the stereo head unit can be eliminated.
“All you use is your phone to control the speakers. We’re getting rid of these expensive things that cost so much. We’re getting rid of the gauges and putting in a flat tablet, so we’re engineering out cost while still appealing to millennials. We believe millennials are minimalistic. Less is more in some cases for them. They’ll always be able to access the Internet because they’re not going to have bad cellphone reception. They’ll play off the boat.”
The seating configuration is social, passengers can easily watch the driver, and riders are easily able to get in and out of the boat. “They can connect GoPros to the tablet at the helm and record the ride. And when they’re done, they can share it with everyone.”
The marketing will revolve around video, Ben Dorton says, adding that the group has tapped a young marketing firm in Tennessee that is also run by millennials. The website is going to look more like a social media site than a traditional website, with live blogging. “It’s going to be very interactive,” he says.
The Dortons see the Wake Tractor also appealing to Gen Xers, and even boomers looking for second or third boats. But the design is geared to the Gen Y group, John Dorton says. “We need to keep those millennials to continue to love boating.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.