A surge in larger outboard boats

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Outboard boats from 25 to 43 feet are on a tear and four successful builders in this segment were at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show press breakfast to explain why.

Sales in that size range are growing at a rate of 25 percent year over year, says Boston Whaler president Huw Bower. Why? “Innovation,” Bower explained, as did fellow panelists Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boat Co.; Todd Albrecht, vice president of sales with Jupiter Marine; and Ken Clinton, president of Intrepid Powerboats. The panel discussion was moderated by Trade Only editor-in-chief William Sisson.

“If anything drives sales, it is innovation,” says Clinton. “New product, new designs — we’re never resting.”

The panelists identified other factors, as well. Outboard boats are getting bigger. They are carrying more and bigger engines that are a lot more sophisticated and reliable than they used to be. They offer comfortable cabins and more interior volume than the I/O boats that used to dominate the upper end of this segment. They’re multiuse — not just for fishing, but also for water skiing and day cruising. They are feature-rich and showcase the latest technology for a younger, wired demographic. And these boats are sociable, for gathering the clan.

“The reason people boat is to spend time with friends and family,” Bower says.

Albrecht says he sees more people in their 40s stepping up to Jupiters and some older boaters stepping down from big sportfishermen to his larger outboard-powered boats, which top out at 41 feet. Using innovative design and neat features, “we’re getting [big-boat owners] looking again at a smaller boat,” he says.

Formula for success

Bower, who launched the 420 Outrage, Whaler’s largest boat yet, with quad 300-hp Mercury Verados, at Lauderdale, says bigger boats, big and reliable outboards to power them, comfortable accommodations and a platform designed for multiple uses is the name of the game for much of this segment. Deal agrees. He says millennials (generally boaters under 35) and young athletic types are buying his Maverick and Hewes flats fishing boats; baby-boomers are eyeing his Cobias, which are bigger, “softer,” roomier, more comfortable — a multiuse, multipurpose boat.

The formula seems to be working for Deal, who says his trio of companies has seen revenue grow 460 percent from 2010 to 2014. “We’re building 1,200 units [a year] at Fort Pierce,” he says. “We’re running our production lines 24 hours a day. We’re pretty well back to where we were before the recession.”

Intrepid’s Clinton agrees that bigger outboard-powered boats with more interior space and a reliable power plant are huge. “They want the convenience of letting their boat sit for the winter and [come spring], put their key in and it starts,” he says.

Marketing is a new game, too. Deal says he sponsors a lot of owner events. “Owners love to get together with each other,” he says. He markets online at websites such as BoatTrader.com. He uses all of the social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. “That’s huge with younger people — the millennials,” he says.

He says social media are “very efficient, very inexpensive and very useful.” Deal says his companies offer the social media platforms to owners and prospective customers, but let them determine the content.

“Boat shows remain incredibly important for our customers,” Bower says. Prospective buyers typically do a lot of online research, gather information, watch videos and read online commentary about products, then go to the show see the boats, get on the boats and drive the boats. “This is a very efficient way to shop,” he says.

Boston Whaler creates a lot of online content about its products to capture shoppers.

Jupiter has no dealers, so boat shows are its biggest sales tool. “We easily do 50 percent of our sales at boat shows,” Albrecht says. “They are very expensive,” but shows deliver sales year in and year out, he says.

Facebook and Instagram also have turned out to be good marketing tools.

“Our existing customers love to post photos of their boat” on social media and share them with other owners and with others to go to its Facebook site, Albrecht says. “We’re also getting into fishing tournaments again.”

Intrepid’s Clinton also is a big believer in boat shows. “We average $9.5 million [in sales] at this show,” he says. “It’s a great show.”

He stresses to prospective buyers the sophisticated technology of an Intrepid — the reliability and performance of the outboards and the boat’s vacuum bag infusion and cored composite construction.

And lastly, listen, listen, listen to your customers, Albrecht says.

“The days of sitting around and saying ‘This is what we’re going to build’ are over. You have to listen to your customers and build exactly what they ask for.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue.

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