Utah Boat Show Thoughts
I walked away from the Utah Boat Show this year with a number of conflicting thoughts. There were exciting new innovations from major boat builders and small companies. Every vendor I spoke with told me that sales were up this year over last year, and that last year was a good year. I’ve covered these exciting thoughts over the past few episodes. I also wondered just how sustainable the current model of boat sales will be over the coming years. It’s these thoughts that I bring to this episode.
A while ago I had the chance to talk with a listener, Alex Sanford, about how water skiing is in decline. One reason we thought this may be was that the sport was getting so expensive. This thought was on my mind as I wandered the floor of the Utah Boat Show this past February. One of my goals for the show was to identify “affordable” boats for not just water skiing, but for towed water sports in general. I ended up being very disappointed with what I couldn’t find. I ended up, after three days at the show, with just a few options, which I’ll list below. Oh, and what did I qualify as affordable? I put the cutoff at $50,000. That’s right. I don’t know just how affordable that really is, but it marked a split in the market between boats that fell safely under that amount and those that went upward to the stratosphere.
The Scarab 165
was a surprise affordable boat from a more luxury boat maker. However at just 16′ 6″ long and a capacity of only four people, it had some real tradeoffs to get the price down. It did feature a tower to pull a skier or boarder from and a nice sized platform. With it’s low seating capacity, though, it would be hard to take out for a day. You are more tied to making short runs from a beach with a few friends at a time while others wait on shore.
There were a LOT of pontoons
at the boat show. The prices and features on these boats ranged from actually affordable models up to models with slides from the top deck that really started to get pricey. With affordable pontoons, you mostly got what you paid for: a bargain boat with limited amenities and less powerful motors that could be used for towed water sports, but would probably leave a slalom skier wanting on the pull up. One interesting thing about the pontoons is that they throw up a relatively small wake that could be good for skiing, but could make boarders or surfers wonder what happened to their launch and wave. Pontoons seemed to be where a lot of the growth in the market was happening, to judge from the numbers on the show floor.
was the boat line with the most to offer in affordable towed water sports boats. I saw a couple of smaller boats with great prices, then had the local sales person take me onto their 22’6″ boats. These still managed to stay safely under the $50,000 cutoff for affordability. What I know of Bayliner is based on what the company was doing two or three decades ago when they produced boats with the build quality of 1970s Detroit. If they made it through a few seasons, you felt like you got your money’s worth. With that expectation, I was pleasantly surprised by their offerings. These boats had a lot of the fit and finish of the more expensive competitors of just a few years ago, and felt like a boat I could spend the day on without bringing along a file and screwdriver to fix everything I saw. They were nice. In fact, the Bayliners were nice enough that I wondered why more companies couldn’t produce affordable boats to fill out their ranges.
showed a few jet boats that could be used for pulling skiers or boarders. While I know that a jet boat has a slower hole shot – trust me, my first experiences trying to ski were being dragged along behind a jet-powered Sea Ray – these boats do offer a transition for people moving into their own boats. They are generally shorter boats, but still have reasonable seating capacity. They’ve grabbed styling cues from other lines much like a bike at WalMart borrows from the look of a high-end mountain bike. I don’t know exactly how they’ll perform, but it seems like these models are improving every year and could represent a good way into the sport.
Comparison to cars
As I looked inside the Tige RZX, I saw a steering wheel that could have come straight off a luxury automobile. I thought that was pretty cool. Then it got me comparing the auto industry with the boat industry.
What if you couldn’t get a car for under $50k?
As I thought about defining an affordable boat as under $50,000, I realized that the auto show held just a few weeks before the boat show featured hundreds of car models under this same price point. In fact, a $50,000 car is considered luxury, not affordable. It made me wonder what would happen to car sales if there were almost no options under this $50k breakpoint. Would we start to see a reduction in new car sales like we’ve seen in past years with boat sales? How much more would my used car be worth if new cars jumped in price like new boats have over the past ten years?
I was also struck that at the auto show a car line showed up with model vehicles and a great display to support the local dealers. At the boat show, the local dealers showed up with boats in their own inventory from multiple brands. I also know that in more than one instance, the local dealers had ordered boats to display at the show that they couldn’t even get delivered from the manufacturer until after the show was done. This is a lot of pressure to put on local dealers to sell the brands they carry.
There are some brands where representatives come from the boat company to support their local dealers at the show, but these are the exception, not the rule. More often it is a local dealer emptying out their showroom and bringing every employee they have, plus a few interested family members or customers, to talk up these boats.
I share some other thoughts from the show in this final episode from the Utah Boat Show 2017, but I’ll let you listen to those rather than continue here.