Boat sales could indicate NH economy's buoyancy
Pontoons popular with baby boomersBy BARBARA TAORMINA
Union Leader Correspondent
Beyond the ups and downs of the market, New Hampshire boat dealers have watched a second trend emerge.
“Pontoons showed us the first sign of good times coming,” said Steve Green of Green Maine in Hooksett, a family dealership with deep roots in New Hampshire. Opened in 1962, by three brothers and their father, Green's Marine is now operated by a second-generation staff of cousins.
And they have been selling plenty of pontoons. Compared to speed boats bulked up with horsepower, pontoons are kinder, gentler vessels. They are wide, roomy, fitted with plush upholstery and equipped with creature comforts. While some people describe them as a floating living room, some call them party barges.
Green says Baby Boomers have been the primary market for pontoons. And with the aging population in New Hampshire, that market is growing.
“They are such a big group that they can define the trends,” he said. “They have the money to spend, and right now they are tired of waiting and holding back.”
Green said the most popular pontoon model is about 22 feet long and glides through the water at about 25 mph.
“It's a family boat for cruising and spending time together out on the water,” said Green, adding that the boats appeal to people who are in their late 40s and early 50s who are looking for opportunities to share time with their friends, kids and grandkids.
David Green works on the sales side of the business, and he sees pontoons taking over the part of the market that previously belonged to power boats.
“Pontoons are quiet and comfortable,” he said adding they are also a lot more fuel-efficient than power boats.
As for the built-in coolers, cup holders, bars and stools, water slides and other gadgets and comforts, he said he thinks manufacturers are taking cues from customers.
“They go to boat shows and hear what people want,” he said. “And they try to include those things.”
In addition to comfort, and relatively easy handling, both Greens said pontoons offer more versatility than traditional boats. They can carry a crew of sports fishermen, tow tubers and water boarders, cruise out to a favorite swimming spot or a good site to watch the sunset. And in New Hampshire and elsewhere, people equate versatility with value.
Steve Green said there are still plenty of Gen Xers who prefer speed and power over quiet comfort, but pontoons, which started cruising local lakes about 25 years ago, are a significant slice of today's market.
New Hampshire boat sales are up for the third year in a row, and economists see the trend as a signal that the recovery is finally settling. Local boat dealers believe the uptick is also linked to a lifestyle shift that could continue to fuel industry growth for years to come.
"Sales have been trending higher each year," said Pete McCallum of McCallum's Boathouse in Epsom.
McCallum's grandfather launched the family boat business on the western tip of Lake Northwood in the 1950s. When McCallum was born, his father set up a crib in the shop, and he's been in the boat business ever since.
"For us, 2011 was OK, 2012 was better and we expect modest but appreciable growth for 2013," McCallum said.
Like other dealers, he said boat sales have been driven by an increase in available credit.
"People have been tied up for the last four or five years," he said. "But now, banks have relaxed their lending and they are eager to find customers again. And interest rates are favorable."
Some lenders offer three-year loans for new boats at about 2.5 percent, and four-year loans for used boats at 4.5 percent.
Nationally, the recreational boating industry saw powerboat sales jump 10 percent in 2012. The National Marine Manufacturers Association is predicting another 5 to 10 percent bump this year.
Although the numbers are encouraging, the industry still has a long haul to regain ground lost during the recession when, according to the NMMA, powerboat sales dropped 48 percent.
Still, there are signs that recreational boaters are positioning themselves for a rebound.
During the bleakest stretch of the recession, marine mechanic Chris Sandell, owner of Nashua Marine, said his shop stayed busy.
"What I saw was a lot of people in construction who were laid off," recalled Sandell. "Those guys were out of work, so what are they going to do? They're going to go fishing."
Sandell said people dipped into retirement accounts and scraped together enough money to fix up their older boats. Now that some of those people have their finances in order, they're looking to upgrade.
They're trading in their old boats for newer models and stoking a hot used boat market that puts boat ownership in reach of a lot of potential new boaters - if they can get to the dealerships in time.
"For every new boat we sell, we sell a used boat," said McCallum, adding that the turnaround time for used boats is about three days. "Pre-owned has an appeal in New Hampshire. People are interested in good, used boats."
"The used boat market is very strong," Sandell said, with prices low enough so that people who don't qualify for loans can still buy boats.
"But used boats sell fast," he said. "Even used trailers are crazy hard to find."
In 2008, there were 96,205 recreational boats registered in New Hampshire. Last year there were about 93,400 registered boats, up about 1,000 from 2011.
According to the New Hampshire Rivers Council, boats and water activities generate about 800 jobs. It's difficult to count the number of local businesses that benefit from out-of-state visitors who come to spend time at the state's more than 1,000 lakes.
"We employ a lot of people," said McCallum who added that state officials have acknowledged the industry's contribution to the state economy by providing hundreds of public launches and facilities for boaters.
"The state understands the importance of those recreational dollars," he said.
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