The pontoon segment continues to make big gains year over year as builders add power to the boats, broaden dealer networks, add options for saltwater markets and continue to attract entry-level boaters.
The segment’s popularity also seems to be growing among grandparents, who are trying to draw adult kids and young grandkids to on-the-water gatherings. And sales data show that pontoon owners own second boats or personal watercraft at higher rates than those in many other segments, using the boat as a mother ship for gatherings — similar to what a yacht owner might do, but on a much more manageable budget.
The versatility of the boats also continues to be a huge selling point, as higher-horsepower outboards give families the ability to day-boat, fish, pull tubes or skiers and add other toys, such as floats and slides, to create water playgrounds.
“This has been the fastest-growing segment over the past decade and the only segment that has exceeded pre-recessionary levels,” says Jack Ellis, founder and managing director of Info-Link Technologies, the Miami company that tracks boat registrations. “Everyone has jumped in and started making pontoons, and they’ve done a better job of appealing to a younger audience. The things they put on those boats are extraordinary: dual and triple engines, bars, barbecues — I wouldn’t be surprised to see a satellite dome, like you see on large yachts. They just get more and more tricked out.”
Of the 250,000 new boats sold last year, new pontoons were the second-highest-selling category, with 48,564 sold in 2016 — a 9.4 percent increase from a strong 2015, according to data from Statistical Surveys Inc., another company that tracks boat sales. The only category ahead was the expansive outboard fiberglass boat segment, which captures data on boats from 11 to 50 feet (50,087).
This year pontoons had a particularly strong April as sales rose 11.2 percent, to 3,236; in May, pontoon sales rose 7.5 percent from the previous year, to 4,741.
“Those pontoons just continue to go up,” says Ryan Kloppe, sales director at Michigan-based Statistical Surveys. “We were up over 45,000 units last year, and we’re going to be above that this year.”
The mother ship
Fort Myers, Fla.-based Juli Kern and her husband, Kevin, are lapsed PWC owners — “We sold them as soon as I got pregnant because we knew we wanted to have a boat with a baby” — and bought a Sea Ray 185 Sport, Juli says. Eight years and two kids later, they traded the Sea Ray in for a 25-foot Bennington tritoon 2575 with a 300-hp MerCruiser 350 sterndrive. That was in 2014 and they haven’t looked back.
“Pontoons are like floating living rooms, and down here everybody wants to have the convenience of that and be on the water,” Kern says. “Kevin wanted a fast boat. I wanted the pontoon because it’s easier for the kids and the dog and all their stuff. It also can pull up closer to the beach so we don’t have to wade through the water to get to the beach.”
The Kerns also scuba-dive and tube, so the pontoon is perfect for holding their gear, as well as getting in and out of the water without tripping over each other, she says. It has storage for chairs, floats, noodles, snorkel gear, sand toys for the couple’s 9- and 10-year-olds, towels and umbrellas.
“It’s the mother ship, for sure,” Kern says. “We have a couch tube, as well, that I love because it doesn’t flip over and the kids can relax and have fun, rather than hang on for their lives.”
The Kerns used to go out with their next-door neighbors and their two PWC, but the neighbors — also in their early 40s with school-age kids — loved the Kerns’ boat so much, they sold the PWC and bought a pontoon instead, Kern says.
Second boats and toys
Still, more than 40 percent of pontoon owners own another boat or PWC, Ellis says, with 15 percent owning one or more PWC, 10 percent owning freshwater fishing boats, 9 percent owning jonboats and 10 percent also owning fiberglass runabouts (roughly three-quarters of those are tow boats).
“We ran a similar evaluation on multi-boat ownership among all boat owners, not just pontoon, and confirmed that secondary boat ownership among pontoon boat owners is definitely higher than average — but not extraordinarily so,” Ellis says. “As you might guess, large cruiser and yacht owners have an even higher incidence of multi-boat ownership — the second boat is often a tender — but I don’t think this detracts from the fact that pontoons often serve as mother ships, not unlike a yacht.”
It’s not uncommon for boat owners to have a second boat, says National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich. “It’s interesting that pontoon boat owners have a second boat at a higher rate than others, but I think it’s fairly common for boat owners to have a second boat.”
There are 11.5 million registered boats and 8.5 million households that own a boat, Dammrich says, meaning, on average, there are 1.5 to two boats per boat-owning household.
Ellis wonders whether pontoon dealers are taking advantage of the fact that many pontoon owners also own either another boat or PWC, and typically, a slew of inflatables and other toys. “We refer to the pontoon sometimes as the mother ship,” says Ellis, who has watched the trend during the past couple of years.
“These are arguably higher-value customers for the boating industry because ... typically they are buying other boats to go with it,” he says.
People aren’t generally coming in to buy two boats from Sun Tracker and Regency pontoon dealer Grand Pointe Marina in Lansing, Mich., says owner Chris Stevens. “But do they have an older boat? Yeah, some do. For the people who have a cottage, everybody has a pontoon. It’s nice, relaxing, stable, there’s a lot of walking-around room, it’s wheelchair-accessible and good for families with young kids. It’s like a playpen in there. Everybody feels safe. The gates are two to three feet high, so there’s no fear of accidents.”
The pontoon appeals to many because it is “the big gathering area where people can jump on jets or fishing boats, but a pontoon is kind of the compromise to do everything. It can’t do one specialized thing super-well,” says Jason Westre, who also sells Sun Tracker in St. Cloud, Minn., at Westre’s Marine and Sport, as well as Regency and South Bay. “A jet ski or fishing boat is more purpose-built. A pontoon is a general way to get onto the water, and then, if someone in the family’s interests are fishing or skiing, they buy a second boat to fill that gap.”
Westre Marine doesn’t sell personal watercraft — “so I probably wouldn’t be the best person for that information. There are definitely people who still keep their fishing boat and add a pontoon to what they have,” he says.
Westre says he’d love an opportunity to sell PWC to his customers, but the PWC manufacturers often tap their motorcycle or ATV dealers to sell those. “Jet skis are a lot closer to a boat than a motorcycle, but people who manufacture them are power sports companies, and naturally they want to keep that business in their dealer network.”
Sun Tracker offers its pontoons standard with limited options, helping the company keep up with demand, and that gives Grand Pointe Marina an advantage, Stevens says. That also means his buyers are often drawn to the affordability factor. But “there’s a ton of aftermarket stuff we can put on,” Stevens says. “I would say that Tracker carries the best price point in the business. Their main concern is affordability and getting on the water, and after they’ve had the boat for a bit, they start adding some accessories. Grills, and a lot of tow sport stuff they’ll add afterward.”
Appealing to all ages
The platform appeals to a variety of ages because it’s easy to use, easy to move around in and is safe — exactly what the Kerns were looking for. “It’s more the entry-level boaters and younger people looking at smaller pontoons, as well as the tritoons,” Westre says, adding that he is seeing buyers of all ages. Ten years ago pontoons accounted for about 20 percent of his sales; this year, he says, it will be closer to 40 or 50 percent.
“Pontoons are a pretty hot segment,” says Stevens in Michigan, the state that sells more pontoons than any other, with 5,800 sold last year — up 15 percent from 2015 and almost 2,000 more than the next-biggest pontoon state, Minnesota. “A lot of younger families are doing it because the whole family fits very comfortably. People feel safe, and there’s a lot of square footage. With the bigger-horsepower motors to do more recreational stuff, they’re just finding that it’s really versatile and really economic, compared to a same-size fiberglass boat.”
At the same time, baby boomers are also gravitating to pontoons in droves. Tow-boat owners typically get to a certain age, in their mid-50s, when they usually sell that tow boat and either already own a pontoon or buy a pontoon, Ellis says. “There are price points for everybody. It fits every type of user, every demographic.”
“This is something fun that’s going to engage the kids and grandkids to visit. They’re excited to go to grandma and grandpa’s because they got a new boat,” Kloppe says.
Ellis says today’s grandparents are much more involved with their grandkids than in previous generations and are more likely to take the youngsters out boating. “Clearly, I think grandparents today are younger,” Dammrich agrees. “What’s the saying? Sixty is the new 40? They’re much younger than my grandparents were, so they’re much more active, and more likely to get their children and grandchildren involved in boating even as they retire.”
The grandparent economy is being seen in all industries, Ellis says, with grandparents making purchases even as their grandkids are the ultimate consumers. Lori Bitter, author of “The Grandparent Economy: How Baby Boomers are Bridging the Generation Gap,” said in an interview with seniorhousingnet.com (part of realtor.com) that the trend was born when grandparents stepped in to help their adult sons and daughters during the Great Recession.
“This new generation of grandparents stepped in to help their adult children and grandchildren in ways that redefined grandparenting,” Bitter told the publication. “They changed spending patterns, became revolving-purchase influencers and sparked a return to old-fashioned multi-generation households.”
“Today’s grandparents are more of the opinion that … instead of leaving an inheritance, they want to enjoy that stuff with the kids and grandchildren while they’re alive,” Ellis says.
A ‘living room’ on the water
The addition of horsepower and options — saltwater options, towers, customizable options — “that’s why you’re seeing that market continue to grow,” Kloppe says. “Versatility and horsepower.”
That was precisely the reason Kern was able to talk her husband into trading the Sea Ray for the Bennington. They did some research and found the Bennington with the MerCruiser 350, giving it the ability to go faster than pontoons had in the past — “so he got his cake and is eating it, too … and we’re all happy. Also it is nice to have room to bring other people and not trip over everybody, like we did in the other boat.”
Pontoon sales have grown about 20 percent every year for the past five years at Grand Pointe Marina. “I think it’s about ease of use, family time, everybody can fit, everybody can relax — I just think it’s a hot trend, especially if you have a place on the water,” says Stevens. Some of his customers elect to buy more budget-friendly options, but $100,000 pontoons are becoming commonplace, as well, he says.
“With the advancement of technology, the motors are super-quiet; it’s like being in your living room,” Stevens says. “Just with the advancements, it’s comparable to a fiberglass runabout, but for much less money. Cost is a factor there.”
Another draw is how easy the boats are to use, Stevens says, and people love Tracker’s 10-year warranty. New boaters are increasingly coming in because of that ease of use — and have learned about them from a neighbor or friend who has a pontoon — similar to the Kerns’ neighbors.
John Benchimol, owner of Harborside Marina and Yacht Sales in Connecticut, says his customers choose Bennington because “they want to have something that’s very easy to own, accomplishes a lot as far as your abilities to use a boat, and they are safer, easy to get on, easy dock, and they use outboards. The ease of ownership is unbelievable.”
Benchimol, a Chris-Craft dealer for 20 years, picked up the Bennington line about four years ago because “it was the only thing I kept seeing at boat shows that I felt fit the lifestyle of what my clients like to do. The [pontoon] boats are super-comfortable, easy to own, easy to get on and off of, easy to dock, and are not super-expensive.”
A foothold in saltwater
Benchimol’s only hesitation was the scarcity of the boats on Long Island Sound. “I was curious how they were going to do in this environment — it’s salt water, which is inherently where they’ve not been popular,” he says.
He took on Bennington “because it’s the premier line” that could withstand the harsh environment, and he says this has been the best year thus far, but it is taking time and a lot of demos to show that the pontoons are capable of handling open water.
“I have all my boats overbuilt with thickness of aluminum, as well as the saltwater packages,” Benchimol says. He avoids options that won’t work well in salt water. “The idea of this was make it an easy boat of ownership.”
He’s selling between 14 and 20 a year, and the boats usually run around $70,000. “If you go to Florida you see pontoons in salt water, as well as fresh. I think eventually it will be really good.”
The Kerns operate their Bennington in brackish water and salt water, launching in the mangroves and making their way through the maze to San Carlos Bay, and then to the Gulf. Juli Kern says spotting pontoons in their saltwater areas is common. Indeed, the rate of sales in the state has grown to 3,000, making it the fourth-strongest state, just behind Minnesota at 3,990 and Wisconsin at 3,021.
“I think eventually things will change and you’ve got to think about the future and think saltwater is the future for these boats,” Benchimol says. “If you go to any lake, like Lake Winnipesaukee, all the rich people own pontoons, probably most are Benningtons, and many probably have a boat next to it. Those dealers are selling Benningtons against other pontoons. I’m selling against Grady-White or something else. It’s a whole different mindset.”
The ones that do choose pontoons in his market could afford to buy whatever they want, but are sold on how many people they can put on the boat, the lower price point and the fact that they can still take it from Connecticut to Newport to Norwalk, he says.
“I’m putting the time and effort in now, and I’m hoping that in a couple of years it’s going to pay off,” Benchimol says. “About 85 percent of the population lives coastally. That’s an untapped market.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.