Cat Calls...

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The cruising-catamaran market has its own dynamic — different clients, different attitudes, says Phil Draper.

APRIL 2005

Groupe Bénéteau’s Lagoon operation, which can now claim to be world’s largest cruising catamaran builder, has some very interesting commentary to impart as regards yacht design. Owing to the fact that the cruising cat sector is a relatively new market niche, having really only got going seriously 15-20 years ago, and because a surprisingly high proportion of even quite large cats are actually sold as entry-level product, the modern cat builder’s perspective is all rather different from the monohull builder’s; and particularly so when it comes to interior design issues.
Whereas the mainstream monohull market — of which Groupe Bénéteau just happens to be the world leader too by a huge margin — is more established and relies on a more traditional type of customer, it is said that cat clients tend to come unencumbered, which means they don’t buy on historical precedent, but rather on present-day practicalities. And this is not to say that they accept less, but rather that they expect different things.
For a start, as cats offer so much more in terms of interior volume than a comparable-length monohull, the living spaces they provide tend to be viewed very differently. To the cat client, it seems, the interior space on offer is more waterborne apartment than boat. And they think about furnishing and using them in similar ways.

“Up to now cruising cats have tended to be viewed as rather utilitarian machines, where the focus has always been on matters technical rather than style... But now the emphasis is shifting... Cats are starting to get sexy.” 

How this all translates to aesthetics, ergonomics and specifications is very interesting. For the Lagoons, power and sail, it has meant significant development has gone into creating interiors that are less ‘yachty’ and more ‘home from homey’.
For instance, Lagoons now have sensible door dimensions — which means less tight squeezes for those more ‘horizontally challenged’ clients — and galleys that are more akin to the cottage kitchen. And for cat customers, a lift-lid on a cold box is no good at all. They want fridge/freezers like the ones they have at home, ones with proper doors. Portlights are also turning into windows and cockpits are moving up top, flybridge-style, to free up aft decks from the technical business of sailing.
And as for the future, Lagoon’s marketing team sees the big challenge as making catamarans look good. Up to now cruising cats have tended to be viewed as rather utilitarian machines, where the focus has always been on matters technical rather than style. But now the emphasis is shifting... Cats are starting to get sexy!
There is no doubt some of the cat market lessons could also assist the monohull sector. Certainly Group Bénéteau admits to having learnt a lot with its catamaran programmes, sail and power. Indeed, the guy with managerial responsibility for the Lagoon design process also happens to do the same job for the group’s Wauquiez-branded monohull cruisers, so there can not help but be a transfer there.
Lagoon’s results over the past few years are telling too. Even Groupe Bénéteau’s top management admits to having been constantly surprised by the rapidity of growth in its cruising-catamaran operations. Ever since the Lagoon brand and a few models were acquired back in ’96 — along with the Jeanneau operation, which started with Lagoon in the latter half of the ‘80s — its forecasts have been woefully pessimistic. For the first four years with the brand it under estimated its results by a factor of four. Then for the second set of four years, and despite the successes of the previous four — its forecasts were similarly low by a factor of four once again. Such growth is way beyond the industry norm.
Indeed Groupe Bénéteau’s chairman Bruno Cathelinais says he would be delighted if the rest of the group was doing as well, which is an interesting notion seeing as the group as a whole can hardly be said to be under performing at the moment. Its turnover for it ‘04/05 year is on track for yet another record, probably something approaching €790 million, and up 10 per cent on the previous year.
You’re certainly a hard man to please, Bruno!

© Phil Draper