Servicing, maintaining and storing a gaggle of boats year after year helps keep the wolf away from the door, especially when sales or new builds are slow. Think of it as an annuity of sorts.
I had several conversations at the Maine Boatbuilders Show about the continued importance of service, but with something of a twist. That was the idea of 24/7 boat care - soup-to-nuts boat concierge programs. Service on steroids, if you will.
The idea is not unique, but it appears to be evolving in Maine, where builders often operate a boatyard with slips or moorings, too. That makes it possible not only to build the boat, but also to service, commission, decommission and store it - sometimes from one generation of family ownership to the next. That's as close to birth-to-boneyard as you're going to find in this industry.
"It's unique to New England, where our summer communities are wealthy and our season is short," says yacht designer Mark Fitzgerald, of Camden, Maine (www.mark fitzmarine.com). "It's six weeks on the water and their time is precious, really precious. The boat has to be right."
What is new are the comprehensive service and yacht management programs that include everything from traditional boat maintenance, repair and storage to providing and managing crew to responding to emergencies day or night. Yachting Solutions, of Rockport, Maine, is a leader in bundling this broad range of services into a single package, which it then offers at a fixed price (www.yachtingsolutions.com).
"To take it to the concierge level, you really need all the services at your disposal," including a repair yard, says Yachting Solutions president Bill Morong, whose company also provides new-boat and brokerage sales. "It's a complete service package. We take them from cradle to grave."
And the concept of one price that essentially covers everything gives owners a clear idea of what their fixed costs are for the year, which they like, Morong says. Success hinges in large part on developing excellent customer-service relationships, he says. "People feel like they live in an impersonal world," Morong says. "Take the average car service experience. It's rare to feel you've gotten personalized service. People are hungry for that. They recognize superior service when they see it and they're willing to pay for it."
A graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, Morong, 38, says he developed a keen understanding of what constitutes top-flight service during the 13 years he spent running large yachts. "That level of service is really hard to teach," he says. "You have to have lived it to understand it, to understand what that level of clientele wants."
Designer Fitzgerald works closely with custom boatbuilder York Marine in Rockland, which also offers its customers a suite of services, from traditional repairs and storage to around-the-clock emergency assistance (www.yorkmarineinc.com).
Fitzgerald says the marine industry needs a good dose of fresh thinking - in service, in its approach to warranty work, and especially when it comes to improving the breed by incorporating technology from other fields. Engine advances notwithstanding, Fitzgerald says, "The technology available has gone way past what we're using. We're just not leading the way. We haven't offered product that is that much different in many years."
In designing his new 28-foot center console Fitzgerald turned to a team that included a leading designer at Ford Motor Co., who did the user ergonomics and fabrication work. The F-28 incorporates a number of features not typically found on a boat, including a shock-absorbing bridge deck for comfort and quietness; a hydraulically operated bow door and a side door; a soft, upholstered sheer collar to protect the hull sides; a radar scanner built into a molded hardtop; and an engine hood to cover twin outboards for noise suppression and exhaust diversion.
"As they say in the car business, it's about the whole package," Fitzgerald says. "If you don't get the cup holders or the TV in the backseat just right for the kids, it doesn't matter how nice the car is. The parents won't be happy with it. In boating, if we get half of it right we feel pretty good. In the car business, if you get only half of it right you're out of business."
Part of the reluctance to change is the traditional hidebound mindset still present - some might say prevalent - in "yachting," and part of it simply is inertia.
Fitzgerald and York Marine hope to offer an innovative boat supported by innovative service. Yachting Solutions is raising the bar on customer service. The concepts are more novel in our industry than they should be.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.