Among the boats that represent the fastest-growing segments in the United States, the pontoon is in the top three, along with wakeboats and outboard-powered center consoles. The pontoon has always been a natural fit in the Midwest, and during the last decade it has become popular in coastal saltwater areas, but it remains a hard sell in Europe.
In France, however, one company is betting that the pontoon will develop a large following in the next five years. That’s a challenge in a market where the main obstacle to the pontoon’s success is cultural.
For years, European boaters, the French in particular, have been raised within the cult of the invincible sailor, which includes facing horrendous seas, preferably aboard a sailboat. For much of Europe, sailing is done on the ocean or Mediterranean. For a boat to be considered worth its fiberglass, it must be able to face extreme conditions. The open pontoon, of course, falls woefully short in that context.
Today’s boating across Europe, however, is rarely so adventurous. Not only do most boaters use their boats in fine weather, many prefer inland waters. With thousands of lakes or protected waterways, Europe is definitely suitable for the pontoon boat.
Pierre-Loïc Deragne, a Frenchman and connoisseur of American culture, has been selling American boats in France for more than 15 years. He is a bass-boat specialist, importing models from White River Marine Group. At the conglomerate’s annual dealer meetings, he typically test-drives pontoon models. “I have regularly seen the Sun Tracker range of pontoons, but France is such a virgin market that, as much I loved them personally, I could only made one-off sales,” he says.
Attitudes started to change three years ago with the development of the Reata range by Ranger. “I was approached by several professionals who organize events and private cruises, especially in cities like Paris, Lyon or Annecy, and step by step, we started selling a few more pontoons,” Deragne says.
Recognized as one of Europe’s bass-boat specialists, with his Bass Boat Europe, Deragne thought it was necessary to create a marketing blitz around the pontoon to take leadership of the segment in Europe. That’s how Pontoon World was born, the first dealership dedicated to pontoon boats in France. Organizers of private cruises and boat rental operations are Deragne’s first targets. Private tours are the best way to reach customers, helping them discover the pontoon’s advantages by experiencing one.
“France has a lot of resources, perfect places for the pontoon boat,” Deragne says, “and even if there are challenges with accessing inland waters, large lakes or protected water, these areas remain underexploited.”
Deragne hopes to double his pontoon sales over the next four years, eventually reaching 50 units annually. At that point, he will consider a more ambitious strategy.
Pontoon World officially launched at this year’s Paris Boat Show with three models, a Sun Tracker, a Regency and a Smartliner, a basic pontoon from China.
The launch was positive. “One out of every two visitors who came to see us had already seen this type of boat, and above all, 60 to 70 percent have a clear plan of what they might do with a pontoon,” Deragne says. “For a first-time showing in Paris, we were very satisfied.”
Deragne might be overly optimistic. Besides the fact that the pontoon needs a concerted public relations campaign in France, there are currently 25 percent tariffs on all U.S.-built boats imported to the European Union. However, this is a long-term strategy, and there is a good chance that other pontoon brands will follow the Pontoon World path as European attitudes begin to change.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.