Building a better marina
Marina industry leaders share their best practices
Marinas come in several shapes and sizes — from small operations with a few dozen slips to large facilities with hundreds if not thousands of slips. We talked to leaders from marinas across the spectrum, as well as industry experts, to learn what makes successful marinas profitable year after year.
Master customer service/hospitality
Customer service is huge for businesses like marinas that exist to deliver experiences to customers that they wouldn’t get elsewhere. RCR Yachts, with 125 deep-water slips and more than 150 moorings in New York, goes the extra mile to treat its customers like family.
“In our case we do not have fancy amenities, and we are surrounded by low-cost alternative marinas,” CEO Don Finkle said. “What we have found to work for us is treating our customers like part of the family. They are always stopping by to chat with our staff, drop off goodies for them and sometimes just to say hello. We also provide repair services that the others do not wish to deal with, and that has made permanent customers out of those who first came to us for work to be done.”
Anna Townshend, editor of Marina Dock Age magazine, added, “You can have the best marina and the best docks, but if you aren’t catering to your boaters in that way, you’re not going to succeed.” She compared a marina to a hotel in terms of services rendered, and the hotel industry overall is known for their above-and-beyond customer service. To get boaters to stick around long-term, she says, marinas have to treat them right and go further than just meeting needs.
Determine your mission and vision
A few years ago, the staff at Herrington Harbour Marinas, with two locations in Maryland, decided it needed to redefine its mission and vision. Despite being in business for more than three decades, the marina knew it was time for a change and for the business to be redefined.
“You have to understand who you are, what you want to provide for people,” owner Steuart Chaney said. The marina’s new vision is to become the best eco-lifestyle marina on the East Coast, and its mission is to treat every visitor as a personal guest.
Marina Dock Age surveys its readers annually, and an item of note each year is how many profit centers marinas have. From small marinas to larger operations, offering a variety of places for customers to spend their money allows marinas to profit in more areas and to deliver a slew of services, Townshend said. Added profit centers could include a ship’s store, a pump out, a restaurant or a bar.
Offer access to modern amenities
Value-added amenities, along with great customer service, can differentiate one marina from the next. Oak Hill Marina, with 80 slips combined on Lake Minnewashta and East Okoboji Lake in Iowa, provides a gas grill for use and leaves its bathroom and shower house open 24 hours a day to customers with a key code. “If you’re coming to the lake and you choose to go out for supper afterwards and want to rinse off and go out to dinner afterwards, it’s a huge convenience for them,” president and owner Phil Miklo said.
Roxie Comstock of Bellingham Marine, has found a number of amenities are in demand from marina customers.
“Among the top amenities most important to boaters aside from ample power and water are access to Internet and cable TV at the slip and convenient sewage pump out also preferably at the slip,” she said.
Herrington Harbour, with two locations totaling 1,200 slips, hosts a variety of events, including dog swims, Independence Day celebrations, a St. Patty’s Sock Burning Social, Memorial Day picnics and more.
“We have a lot of social events that are free to our slip holders, so we go to great efforts to provide parties where it’s free food and drinks,” owner Steuart Chaney said. The parties are designed so marina users can meet each other, giving them added reasons to return to the docks.
“I think events are really huge things at marinas, and it’s sort of about creating that boating lifestyle and creating a community place where boaters want to go and spend their time,” Townshend said. Marinas overall have been reporting that fewer people are leaving the docks, while more are spending time in their boat while it’s still moored.
Open marina activities to everyone
“A marina needs to be more than a place to keep a boat. It needs to be a place where everybody can come and have fun, not only boat owners,” said Bob Evans, manager of Dillon Marina in Dillon, Colo. When Evans was brought on board at the 296-slip marina, his primary task was to increase occupancy. To do so, Evans opened up on-site activities to customers, locals and tourists alike. Events that the marina has participated in include National Marina Day, a dog show, an air show, sunset sailing tours and championship regattas. At some events, non-boaters are welcome to ride boats for a small fee that goes to benefit a charity. The goal is to get them interested in boating, so they consider buying a boat and docking it at the marina. Evans has worked with area boat dealers to host in-water boat shows to make that a reality. “The thing we have at Dillon, it’s kind of the jewel of the town. The only reason people come there really in the summer is because of the marina,” Evans said.
Offer valet service
Oak Hill Marina provides a valet service to its marina patrons. Boaters who want to get on the water quickly call the dealership before arrival, and Oak Hill’s courtesy crew gets the boat to the dock, fills it with gas if necessary and fills the onboard cooler with ice. “It just gives them more time on the water, more time to enjoy with their family because the boat’s sitting at the bottom of the dock, so they jump in, and they go,” president and owner Phil Miklo said. If customers want, the courtesy crew will also return the boat to the slip.
Take care of the environment
Marinas are situated in the midst of nature, with docks sitting in the water, and facilities placed waterside. Because of that, Chaney says marinas should be mindful of their environment, so boaters have a place to enjoy their sport for years to come. When Herrington Harbour set out to become an eco-lifestyle marina, the business took that to heart in every aspect of its operation. “Basically before making any decision, we look at the impact that it’s going to have on the environment,” Chaney reported. To that effect, Herrington Harbour created four acres of Spartina marshes, installed a system to recycle 100 percent of the wastewater at its wells, developed a No Discharge Zone at its bay, added no flush urinals, installed spill prevention devices at the fuel dock and more. The initiative not only created a more visually appealing marina, but it also attracted wildlife to the area and impressed customers. “We believe that taking care of the environment is something that boaters will appreciate and relate to,” Chaney said.
Be mindful of marina design
“A well-designed marina with easy to navigate fairways, ample clear water space, full length finger piers, freeboard sized to the vessels accessing the docks and wide stable floating docks that are well maintained are characteristics of some of the world’s most successful marinas,” Comstock said. The company has found that floating docks with finger piers have become the preferred type of moorage for boaters.
“Boat docks that present a danger to the vessel, are hard to get on and off and are cluttered with equipment and personal belongings are always a problem,” Comstock said. “A well-maintained, sturdy dock system with wide, clear walkways and appropriately sized freeboard will help ensure the marina is one that boaters rave about.”
Maintain fuel docks
“Every customer and visitor or transient visitor to the marina at one time or another makes a trip to the fuel dock, and in the past, the fuel dock is kind of a forgotten place in marina from a maintenance standpoint,” said Jerry Nessenson, president of ValvTect Petroleum Products. “A marina operator should be aware that that’s probably the first thing a boater sees when he comes up in the water is the fuel dock, and it can have a big impact on the image of the marina.”
Nessenson recommends that fuel dispensers should be clear of rust, spider webs and decals. Fuel dock staff should be trained to assist docking boaters and dressed appropriately in clean uniforms. Marina operators should also be cognizant of the quality and grade of the marina’s fuel, Nessenson said.
Remember to have fun
“Well I don’t know if this is a big secret, but the key to success for marina operators is to remember rule No. 1: Boating is about having fun,” said Kevin Ketchum, owner of California Yacht Marina and president of the Marina Recreation Association. “A successful marina creates an environment where customers and staff have fun being around each other. Owners and executives need keep the stress part of the business to themselves — inwardly disciplined and enthusiastic about boating. Boating is innately enjoyable and the best marina adds to the experience. It’s all about having fun!”