Rigid-hull inflatables have traditionally appealed to very different types of boaters in Europe and the United States. In France and Italy, for example, RIBs are primary boats. It’s common to see families cruising the Mediterranean on RIBs with sun loungers and other amenities. In North America, the RIB has been more utilitarian, used mostly as tenders to get back and forth between docks and anchored boats.
Piero Formenti, the second-generation owner of Zar Formenti in Italy, discovered this usage pattern was more than academic when he began to import his inflatables into the U.S. market in 2010. The RIB builder, which started operations in 1971, had become one of Europe’s leading brands, going toe-to-toe with larger competitors such as Zodiac, and often claiming more market share in countries like Italy and Greece.
The United States, however, would be a harder nut to crack. For four decades, Zar Formenti had evolved its RIBs as “real” boats, creating models with Italian style. The company propelled the RIB world forward in 1993 with the launch of the Zar 57, a 19-footer with twin outboards. Sleek, fast and stylish, the boat was so popular that it forced competitors to follow with their own versions. The Zar Formenti brand developed an almost cult-like following in Italy, with owners referred to as “Zaristis.”
Ten years ago, most American boaters were content with plain-Jane utilitarian tenders, with no frills and as much interior space as possible for passengers and gear.
Stefano Mazzanti, owner of Euronautics in Tampa, Fla., worked with Formenti to understand the differences of the U.S. market. “Piero and I met in 2010 to figure out how we could introduce the brand to the U.S. market,” said Mazzanti, who distributes the brand across the United States. “It took a year and a half.”
The early days were not easy. Formenti said the company spent a few years trying to make its tender line “look nice” for the U.S. market. It displayed at the Fort Lauderdale show in 2011, with limited results.
Jeff Rodgers, who owns Inflatable Boat Pro in Dania, Beach, Fla., with his brother Ken, recalls seeing the first Zar Formenti 45 in 2010. “It looked a little edgy and seemed too far out there for the American market,” he said. “But then we went for a ride, and it felt like a real boat, rather than the plastic-boat RIBs we were used to.”
The ride convinced Rodgers to take on the Italian line, but he figured its appeal would be limited. “The smallest model they made was 15 feet, and we needed 11-footers as tenders,” he said. “I also told them that we don’t do sun-loungers on RIBs in the U.S. and that we’d rather have more seating.”
Formenti took Rodgers’ feedback seriously and made the company’s first tender models, specifically for the U.S. market. “Our dealers had to challenge American boaters and sell what had never existed in that market,” Mazzanti said. “It changed the way inflatable tenders were seen because they were so different than anything else.”
Rodgers said the new tenders were slowly accepted by motoryacht owners, and the acceptance has become more widespread in the last two or three years. “It’s gone from me having to explain their purpose to clients already getting it,” he said.
The dealership also started taking on larger boats in the 18- to 22-foot range, and about half of those are now sold as primary boats.
At the Fort Lauderdale show, Zar Formenti has a sleek, black Zar Formenti 95 SL on display. The 31-footer has an up-turned bow, windows that look like a “beast,” according to designer Carlos Vidal, and soft curves. The cockpit has a galley and plenty of seating.
Rodgers has sold two of these models to clients who want the stylish look. The owner of the black model owned a smaller Zar Formenti, but wanted to trade up after about two months.
The Florida dealer believes the RIB market is “severely under-used” by U.S. boaters and thinks it could grow over the next few years. Rodgers has sold about 60 Zar Formentis since 2010. He also carries several other inflatable lines at different price points and quality levels. The RIB business, he says, continues to grow, as boaters understand the multiple uses and advantages of the boats.
Zar Formenti has also seen its total U.S. business grow, with 10 dealers around the country. It is the only European RIB builder to be NMMA-certified. Formenti said the company still exports more tenders into the United States than primary boats, but the ratio is shifting. Its tender lines have also found a home in Europe.
“The difference in the two markets hasn’t changed,” Formenti said. “But we’re seeing more crossover of product lines on both sides of the Atlantic.”