Catch a Houseboat With a Net…the Internet
By Erica M. Stokes
Houseboat hunters take heed—the first step to making the dream a reality can be taken at home. Before traveling cross-country to take an inside view of the best boats afloat, let a mouse guide the way as you embark on the adventure of buying, renting or building a houseboat. Try logging on to one of the many sites geared for houseboat aficionados and novices alike and experience the virtual world of boating. Besides learning about the benefits of owning a houseboat, Web surfers can familiarize themselves with terminology, costs and features to begin internalizing the selection process. Fact-filled Web sites are educating, exciting and enticing to potential buyers, repeat customers and maintenance-seeking clients who are just a scroll away from entering the biggest houseboat market in one place.
“We knew we had to get the word out,” says Brent Fothergill, vice president of Sharpe Houseboats. “There are so many people using the Net.” With houseboat manufacturers and brokers displaying vast amounts of information, the Web-assisted purchasing process heightens consumers’ awareness, efficiently informs readers of features, floor plans and financing available. Some sites display links that allow users to dive even deeper into the houseboat hub of knowledge. “We knew the Internet would have a big impact so we tried to jump in as fast as we could,” says Jeff Nash, vice president of Kentuckiana Yacht Sales, whose company’s Web site has been up for approximately five years. “My partner and I thought the Net would take off,” explains Terry Miller, boat broker for Top Shelf Marine Sales. Created three-and-a-half years ago, the company’s site continues to grow. “We wanted pictures of boats along with descriptions. We made it user-friendly and real basic.” Up since only 1998, Sumerset Custom Houseboat’s Web site earned first place in General Excellence among the Inc. Web Awards 2000. This esteemed title was primarily earned through commitment to serving customers and using innovative technology. “You can see your boat, get a quote and buy insurance,” adds Sumerset spokesman Mike Johnson. “You can communicate directly with the service department.” He says the best thing about Sumerset’s Web site is “the ease of navigation and customer friendliness.”
So what exactly can a houseboat connoisseur learn from the Web that he doesn’t already know? In one word: tons. Want a brochure? Just log on and download a full-color brochure complete with floor plans. Type in Sumerset.com to take a virtual tour or see the progress of houseboats under construction. Enter information and order a houseboat, insurance, accessories and supplies online. Learn about each company’s history and commitment to quality and service. Angela and Marshall Hargis of Knoxville, Tenn., watched the construction of their boat via the Sumerset site. “I would say [the site] saved us two to three trips up there.” Angela says she felt reassured about the company’s reputation because she could look up various departments and employees. To anyone who plans on looking for a houseboat, “I would definitely recommend [Sumerset’s] Web site.” Nash adds, “The biggest advantage [of the Internet] is that customers can see what we have for sale. A lot of times they’ll know as much about the boat as we do.” Kentuckiana accompanies a description of each boat with six pictures to illustrate different angles and details of houseboats. What is the best feature about the Web site? “The speed at which you can get the product,” Nash says. Connie Sue Wilson, marketing coordinator for Fantasy Custom Yachts, says, “Our goal is to give clients an easy way to shop for houseboats, nautical accessories, clothing, insurance, loans and many other features that go hand in hand with our industry.” Fantasy’s Web site comes complete with the option to download a brochure instantly. “You can do your own quote.” Wilson says buyers can actually come within $1,000 of the cost of the boat, transportation excluded.
While Sharpe’s Web site serves as an introduction to the Somerset, Ky., manufacturer, Fothergill insists the company wants to keep its business on a personal level. “We still want to talk to people.” He says the personal aspect is necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. “Anyone can write it on paper but making it a reality is a whole other deal.” Ultimately, Twin Anchors Marine manufacturer’s Web site seeks to promote a positive image conveying their quality products and services, says president Greg Kyllo. Visitors can check out times available for renting one of Holiday Mansion’s fleet of 65 houseboats, request reservations and receive a confirmation call. Those interested in purchasing boats can fill out a wish list complete with chosen amenities. “We can then formulate a specification sheet,” he says. The online “ordering” feature on Sumerset’s site serves as a pre-order form. Having potential customers fill out information about which features and floor plans they desire helps familiarize them with the entire process of creating a houseboat while giving them a blueprint of what they want as a reference guide. So when they enter the Sumerset showroom, many time-consuming steps have already been saved. “This is an add-on to person-to-person contact,” Johnson says. Miller says that vivid photos add to the appeal of Top Shelf Marine Sales’ Web site. She says the site will display as many pictures as the seller gives. “Some may have 20 pictures. There are no limits to the information you can get.” She explains the premise, “I sell whatever people want me to sell.” The company displays various pictures of boats to make memories in every price range, she adds. Saving time is also a bonus for Fantasy Houseboat customers. “[Our Web site] educates our buyer,” Wilson says. Learning about what goes into creating a houseboat through the Net turns concepts into realities and buyers into builders. “People can do a lot of homework before they actually walk through our doors,” she adds. “And people do.”
“Over the next few years you be able to take a virtual tour of our plant, check on the progress of your boat being built and purchase your nautical theme party supplies—all from our Web site,” Wilson says. Though Sumerset updates its site every day and redesigns it every few months, the word complete will never be used. He compares the joys and anticipation to the never-ending duty of a parent. “You’re never finished,” Johnson adds. He says goals include making the site more interactive, adding glamour shots of completed boats and a virtual boat tour. Internet plans for Holiday Mansion and Twin Anchors Marine manufacturing center include entertaining as well as educating visitors. Kyllo says they will continue to “focus on making it fun.” He adds that the already interactive site is appealing because of the many things to do online. “We’ll continue to update [the site] monthly so it doesn’t get stagnant.” Fothergill says Sharpe’s site is changing continuously. “We’re constantly updating [our site] with new boats.” Future plans for Sharpe include “more interaction, more links.” Two sets of goals lay ahead for Stardust Houseboat’s site, says Webmaster Eric Weber. He says the short-term checklist for improvements include keeping everything functional, presenting articles better, adding boat tours and creating classifieds. Long-term plans include developing personalized Web sites for each customer and displaying progress pictures of boats being built. Nash says, that while the future is hard to predict, Kentuckiana’s site aims to incorporate video clips and better the quality of photos. He also indicates that down the road customers will be able to complete the purchasing process without even picking up a phone. Whatever the houseboat enthusiast’s heart desires, it can be found with the help of the Internet. Boaters, buyers and browsers can find joy through houseboating on the Web.
Erica M. Stokes is a freelance writer who currently resides in the Tennessee Valley of northwest Alabama.