As spring rolls around in northeast Indiana, boats are selling out faster than the lake ice melts on a hot afternoon.
“If we build it, it sells, right now,” said Jeff Haradine, vice president of sales for Barletta Boat Co., which builds pontoon boats in Bristol, near Elkhart.
On the dealer side, “If we put something online, it sells out almost in a week,” said TJ Guthrie, marketing manager for Casey’s Cove Marine in Steuben County.
“People are just excited to see this spring coming,” said Cory Archbold, co-owner and vice president of the Dry Dock Marine Center in northwest Angola.
Dry Dock sold 12 boats during the annual Tour the Lakes Open House, March 4-6, at nine dealerships in the Steuben County Lakes area, Archbold said. That’s 4-5 times the usual sales volume of Dry Dock.
“We were packed with people all weekend,” he said of the open house event.
The boating industry has just had its two best years in the last 15 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
“Demand continues to outstrip supply by quite a wide margin,” Haradine said. The pandemic of the past two years has affected both sides of this equation.
During the pandemic, “people have fundamentally changed the way they live and work. … It was great for the boat business,” Haradine said. He calls it “a silver lining in a really lousy situation.”
When stuck at home, Haradine said: “People gravitated towards families, they gravitated towards close friends, and the boating lifestyle is very much in line with that lifestyle shift. .”
By working from home, people had more time to be on the water. The townspeople moved to the lake houses. This has led to a large increase in the number of new boat enthusiasts.
“First-time boaters are always part of this uptrend in the boat business,” Haradine said.
National new boat sales fell from 279,000 in 2019 to 319,000 in 2020 and about 304,000 last year according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
At the same time, the parts needed to build boats have become more difficult to obtain, due to factory shutdowns and shipping backups caused by the pandemic.
“It’s been very difficult to keep up with the demand” for new boats, Haradine said.
“There are dealers who don’t have inventory, and it’s going to be really difficult for them this year. There are bigger ones like us that have the inventory,” Guthrie said. Casey’s Cove sold half of its inventory during the Tour the Lakes event.
“I don’t think anyone has enough to keep up with the demands, but there will be some who will get by,” Guthrie said of boat dealerships.
“We have quite a few boats in stock. We will be ordering and getting boats for this year, which is not the case in the whole industry,” Archbold told Dry Dock.
At the Fort Wayne Boat Show in February, “half of the dealers had no new boats for sale,” Archbold said. “They’ve all been sold out, already, sitting there, bringing them to the show just to have something to show, because they’re already sold out for the year.”
He added: “There are a lot of big boat builders building big boats right now, and they’re delivering them, but there’s no engine in the back, so it’s a really tough sell. .”
Dry Dock also escaped this problem, he added.
“Mercury Marine – that’s our brand – is made in Wisconsin, so we had no problem” getting engines, Archbold said.
However, supply chain issues have changed the way dealers and customers place their orders.
“We did some pretty heavy inventory in the fall,” Archbold said. “We have probably 60 boats on the ground, ready to go, with engines, everything. … This is well above what we normally stockpile – even before the pandemic -.
“Last year our showroom had a few boats…and sometimes they sold out,” Archbold said. “Now there are plenty of them, and it’s nice for people to be able to climb on them, watch them, sit on them.”
Buyers can no longer wait until February to order a bespoke boat for the summer, he added.
“You have to have your boat ordered by November-December to have it for Memorial Day, that’s kind of the new normal,” Archbold said.
By ordering inventory from Casey’s Cove in the early fall, “we stocked our build locations and made sure to fill the showroom at the right times of year,” Guthrie said.
For those who haven’t made up their mind yet, “it’s time to buy now,” he advised. “If you wait too long, you probably won’t see it until next year.”
When buyers order boats, the vast majority choose pontoons – a trend that has grown over the past decade.
“Our customers will say, ‘This isn’t Grandma’s pontoon boat,'” Haradin said.
Once thought of as pokey rigs that circled around local lakes, pontoons now feature powerful motors of up to 300 horsepower and design advancements that make them faster and more stable.
“When we started making our boats work well…not only were they comfortable and big and spacious…but you could ski, tube and wakeboard and all the fun things kids enjoy behind that same boat” , Haradin said.
“It’s just a versatile family boat that you can ski on, you fit a lot of people in it comfortably and it has speed – its handling is good now,” Archbold said of the pontoons.
Pontoon prices start at $30,000 and can go up to $250,000 for deluxe models. Archbold said pontoon sales average about $85,000 at Dry Dock.
Barletta launched its pontoon building business in 2017 and now employs 400 people at its Bristol factory.
“We saw opportunities versus high quality in the pontoon segment,” Haradine said.
The market remains tougher for personal watercraft commonly known as jet skis, which have been hit harder by parts shortages.
“We normally got maybe 60 units a year…and we’ve been down to about 18 at least a year,” Archbold said of the watercraft. “We’ve been sold for two years now, and we’re already starting to look at 2023.”
As boat supplies improved, dealer concerns turned to the health of the overall economy.
“The problem now is that you don’t want to overdo it – overdo it and sit on it,” Archbold said of the boat inventory. “I would rather miss out on sales by not having enough products than end up with way too many.”
Guthrie fears fuel prices will scare off buyers. Boat fuel generally costs $1 per gallon more than vehicle gasoline.
“When you’re talking about $5, $6 a gallon to fill your boat, that would definitely worry people,” he said. “I’ve never seen our gas for boats go over $5, and it will be well over $5 by the time all is said and done.”
Archbold said he was cautiously optimistic for the rest of this year and 2023, but keep one fact in mind.
“All of us in this industry, what we sell, no one has to have,” he said. “These are just toys and fun.”