There are early signs of an improving market, but boatbuilders say there are still bargains to be had
Have we reached bottom? Can we be confident about the future? Is this the time to buy a new boat? Those are some of the questions on the minds of prospective sailboat buyers as the fall boat show season gets under way.
No one can answer those questions in absolute terms, but this much seems certain: The sailboat industry’s prospects for breaking out of the doldrums are getting stronger. Few expect a fast and dramatic turnaround, but many say there is reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Several U.S. builders were out of the gate early with new models this year (mostly in the spring), hoping to hit the sweet spot with boats between 29 and 45 feet. Bass Harbor, Maine, builder Morris Yachts, for example, brought out its elegant M29 daysailer, and Newport, R.I.-based J/Boats introduced the J/95 shoal-draft daysailer and the J/97 racer/cruiser. On the cruising side, Island Packet, of Largo, Fla., rolled out the 36-foot Estero at the same time Woodland Hills, Calif., builder Catalina launched the new 445 cruiser.
The big European builders won’t be far behind.
“There won’t be a huge uptick in sales this fall, but we want to be big and bold and send an important message to the market,” says Paul Fenn, who handles U.S. sales for French builder Jeanneau. Jeanneau plans to bring eight boats to the U.S. Sailboat Show Oct. 8-12 in Annapolis, Md., including three new models.
“Nobody will be in a rush to buy just yet,” Fenn says, but he believes now is the time to lay the groundwork for a successful 2010. Jeanneau, he says, will introduce incremental improvements, such as optimized interior design features and the latest in Harken hardware, but the company also will be pushing energy savings through the increased use of LED technology.
The impact of the recession on various manufacturers will, to some extent, be evident in their show displays. “Large production builders must deal with large inventories, and there will be bargains,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing for Sabre Yachts in South Casco, Maine. “But it’s a different story at the higher end, where inventories are much smaller and prices are holding up well.”
Collins says people in the market for a semicustom sailboat can take advantage of available production capacity and order their dreamboats for guaranteed spring delivery.
“For a sustained recovery, consumers must become confident again, and we have seen a great deal of improvement in this respect in recent months,” Collins says.
This summer, Beneteau — one of the world’s largest sailboat builders — held a factory-sponsored sale and moved 60 percent of its existing inventory, according to Mike Lechelop, vice president of sales for Beneteau USA, Marion, S.C. “If you [didn ’t buy] then, you probably missed the boat [on great deals],” he says.
Lechelop says the next step is helping dealers build up margins again. To that end, Beneteau will bring the new First 40 to Annapolis and hopes to debut the Beneteau 58 in February at the Miami show. To weather the downturn, the company has had to trim costs by reducing staff and furloughing workers, and it plans to have fewer new boats at dealer docks. “We don’t want to overload dealers with inventory,” Lechelop says.
J/Boats president Jeff Johnstone says the company has been making adjustments to respond to the new realities, shifting its marketing focus to the Internet to prequalify buyers. “Judging by the demo-sail requests, we sense pent-up demand in the market,” Johnstone says.
J/Boats has added two new boats to its lineup — the J/97 racer/cruiser and the J/95 shoal-draft twin-rudder daysailer. The company also is updating the J/100 with a retractable bowsprit. It also hopes to entice current J/Boat owners to use a new design service to optimize their vessels.
Reviving shared boat ownership might become an option, too. If two parties with different schedules but similar sailing tastes can work it out, Johnstone says, co-owning a boat is a great way to minimize cost and maximize use.
At any rate, the consensus among vendors is that it’s still a buyer’s market, but nobody should expect bargain-basement prices across the board, especially not for higher-end boats. Instead, manufacturers will pare back standard equipment lists to reduce base prices.
Many say price is less important than the boat itself. Price is soon forgotten, but quality prevails, as the saying goes. And over time, a purchase that seemed good on paper might turn into a dud, especially if the boat fails to excite and becomes a burden that will be hard to unload.
To prevent buyers’ remorse, veteran sales executives remind customers to look past the price tag and be selective. Because in the end, they say, you still get what you pay for.
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This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.