Rising tide floats all boat-related businesses

By Erica Batten. The boating industry impacts the state’s economy to the tune of $5.5 billion annually, according to statistics published by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. In the Charlotte metro area, which claims a fifth of that impact, the industry supports more than 4,000 jobs.

Much of that impact comes from Lake Norman. The Catawba River system’s largest lake covers 32,510 acres, with an estimated 45,000 registered boats.

Boat styles ebb and flow

In recent years, the boating market has trended heavily toward day boating—from two directions. First, boat owners who might have chosen a cabin vessel in years past are now opting for bowriders, or pontoons equipped with changing rooms, heads, upper decks and even slides. From 2014-2018, pontoon boats held a 20 percent market share for all boats combined, while cabin cruisers remained well below 10%, according to the NMMA.

Logan Kale, sales manager at Lake Norman Marina in Sherrills Ford, said he doubts there will be a single cabin boat in the Charlotte Convention Center during the Mid-Atlantic Boat Show Feb. 7-9.

Second, the personal watercraft segment is seeing continued growth as manufacturers expand the capabilities of their products with the goal of keeping users on the water longer. PWCs now have configurable decks with coolers, dry bags and fuel caddies.

SeaDoo, in particular, has led the industry’s development of sport fishing PWCs equipped with electronic navigation and fish finding systems, extended rear decks for increased stability and built-in coolers with rod holders and tackle storage. Yamaha, which claims 42 percent of the PWC market share, is expecting even higher growth than the 9 percent it saw in 2019.

The water sports segment continues to grow, as boats with built-in surf gates, like the aptly-named Malibu, bring the fun of the ocean to freshwater.

Vessel consoles come equipped with everything you’d expect in a luxury car: Touch-screen navigation, Bluetooth, USB ports, docking cameras, even heat and air conditioning. Some have integrated with Amazon Echo to bring “smart home” technology to the water.

The boat accessory market continues to emphasize safety. Several manufacturers, including ACR Electronics and Garmin, are making buoyant personal locator beacons complete with GNSS receivers to help rescuers locate survivors quickly. Mercury Marine makes an engine-integrated man-overboard system that can track up to eight passengers. Jellux and other manufacturers make submersible LED lighting that not only changes colors via remote, but also provides visibility for night cruises.

The boat industry has seen changes in not only the capabilities of its vessels, but also in the way consumers interact with the market. As in other sectors of the economy, the sharing concept has taken root in the water, too, with boat clubs cropping up all over Lake Norman.

“We’ve seen explosive growth,” said Kale. Now in just its fourth year, Lake Norman Marina’s boat club is approaching 250 members.

“That has been a very, very popular way to get into boating,” he said.

While the Lake Norman Marina fleet is comprised exclusively of new boats, other clubs present a range of vintages, styles, and membership options. Aquaventure Boat Club, with locations on opposite sides of the lake at Queen’s Landing and All Seasons Marina, has everything from power catamarans to tall rig sailboats. Memberships include use of towables and paddleboards at no extra cost. With a shared membership, the cost of boating can be as low as $169 per month plus gas and a one-time joining fee.

Still, with more than 500 miles of shoreline—much of it developed—Lake Norman has plenty of consumers looking to buy their own vessels.

Dealers dot the four counties around the lake. Charlotte Ski Boats in Mooresville was named one of Boating Industry magazine’s Top 100 Dealers for 2019. But Race City boaters can also choose from at least five other boat dealers, not to mention stores specializing in PWCs and other recreational vehicles. In all, there are some two dozen spots on Lake Norman to buy a new or used boat.

Used boats can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a jet ski to hundreds of thousands for a fully-equipped cruiser.

To hit the water in a brand-new boat, expect to spend anywhere from $25,000 to upwards of $200,000—and more.

Of course, the price tag for boat ownership includes maintenance, fuel and storage fees. Slips at Kings Point Marina in Cornelius range from $199 to $431 monthly, while dry storage ranges from $245 to $377 with an annual contract.

Affluent market

Kale said that Charlotte is not only a major market in all segments of boating, it is also an affluent market.

What took many dealers by surprise over the past several years was the consumer demographic that has emerged. Instead of catering mostly to retiring Baby Boomers looking for some lake time and “baby bait” to entice grandkids to visit, the market has spanned the generations.

Versatility is the key, and the highly adaptable pontoon has led the market, not only because its entry gates are equally accessible for strollers and walkers, but also because it can be used for towables, fishing, cruising, anchoring for a swim, or rafting.

The biggest concern for dealers this year is the overall economy and consumer confidence, which may be affected by the election cycle. Boating Industry magazine readers ranked “overall economic conditions” as the top factor likely to affect sales in 2020.


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