Nationally down, boat market remains at high water mark on Winnipesaukee

LACONIA — At the height of the pandemic, refunded vacations, stimulus checks and the desire for safe outdoor activities drove boat sales up a decade. Yet as gasoline prices more than double from the May 2020 average, supply chain disruptions squeeze supply and inflation pinches budgets, people are still rushing to marinas for new boats and upgrades.

“The boat market is still very hot,” said Travis Williams, sales manager at Meredith Marina. “Amazingly, there has been no impact on demand for us,” despite drastic price increases for new and used boats, fuel and services.

Nationally, boat sales numbers in 2022 fell slightly after their early pandemic surge, according to data presented by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Although sales growth has slowed, the number of boat sales remains well above its pre-pandemic level.

“We see sales beginning to normalize after unprecedented sales growth in 2020 and 2021 and as competition for consumer spending among goods and services intensifies,” wrote Sarah Salvatori, corporate communications and public relations with NMMA, in an email. “While we expect boat sales to be down this year from the past two years of record sales, we expect boat sales in 2022 to still meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels.”

In 2021, national boat sales were down more than 5% from 2020, when sales hit their highest peak in 13 years, according to NMMA. The first quarter of 2022 saw 54,000 new motorboat sales: this is a 20% drop from 2021 but still well above 2019, when there were 45,000 such sales in the first quarter.

That decline may be on its way to the Lake District, but it hasn’t happened yet. Demand for boats still greatly exceeds supply, handicapped by supply shortages around the world.

“In June and July 2020, people cleaned us up once the boating season started. They thought boating was a safe activity,” said Irwin Marine President Bruce Wright. “Since then, we have struggled to get inventory ahead of demand.”

Most new boat purchases since the start of the pandemic have taken place before marinas have even received boats from manufacturers.

Pontoon boats and wakesurf boats, some of the boat types Meredith Marina specializes in, are among the most popular, according to NMMA.

A 24-foot ATX surf boat, a high-end and in-demand model, Williams said, was sold for 2022 in March. If a buyer in April of this year wanted to buy this specific boat, it wouldn’t arrive until 2023.

Supply chain delays don’t affect all boats equally and some boat models are more available than others, Williams noted, but deliveries are down overall.

“I can get maybe 50% of the boats I ask from builders,” he said.

“If there’s a boat close to what you’re looking for at a reasonable price, buy it,” Williams advised potential buyers. “Or learn to be patient.” To facilitate this process, Williams offers people who trade in their boats for upgrades to continue using their current boat until the one they purchased arrives.

Prices for used boats have also jumped, especially when the newest model runs out of stock, Williams said.

Although Irwin customers are still buying boats before they arrive, there has been some decrease in the number of such requests, according to Wright.

“We see a decrease in future demand,” Wright said, adding that “we’re still well above 2019.”

Wright said the pandemic-related boom could wane or the growing financial and logistical challenges of boat ownership could cause potential buyers to reconsider. “We’re looking to see what the new normal is…we recognize that these trends won’t last forever,” he said.

Williams saw no signs of falling demand due to costs, but thinks people are changing their browsing habits to reduce spending. Maybe boat owners are turning off their engines instead of idling and looking for destinations closer to where they board to save gas, he said.

According to the New Hampshire Marine Patrol, registrations have grown steadily over the past few years and show no signs of slowing down: Statewide there were approximately 96,000 registrations in 2019, compared to 101,000 in 2020 and 106,000 in 2021. Year-to-date, there have been around 79,000, surpassing last year’s number. Marine Patrol Sergeant Nicholas Haroutunian said he expects this year’s total enrollment to at least match, and more likely exceed, last year’s record number.

NMMA said first-time buyers are driving the growth in boat sales, with a record number of first-time buyers entering the market in 2021 and accounting for 34% of overall sales.

As the number of boats and boat owners increases, docks, slipways and other places to house boats remain coveted, and those who do not yet have a boat are unlikely to be able to find storage on the water in their budget, if at all.

Meredith Marina and many of its peers offer a valet parking service, where boats are stored in a garage and transported through the water for customers who notify the marina when they want to use their boat. Williams said the service is ideal for new owners because, with marina staff on hand, it’s easy to have questions answered and problems resolved. However, due to the demand and scarcity of garage spaces, valet prices have increased in kind.

The inability to find a place to store and access the boats could deter some from buying. “There’s not a lot of room on the lake,” Wright said. “So maybe it would be a good thing if demand stabilized.”

“It would be nice to have an inventory on the ground to show people,” he added.

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