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Today’s marinas are much more than a place to tie up

Boats are to our industry what elephants are to a circus. They’re the big draw, the main attraction.
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Boats are to our industry what elephants are to a circus. They’re the big draw, the main attraction.

We’ve all been in the industry long enough to appreciate the important role that marinas play in creating an attractive, enduring boating lifestyle. They’re more than just stables for fiberglass show ponies.

Marinas are integral to the happiness of the boat owner and to the growth and success of our industry. For boaters, is there any greater peace of mind than knowing their boats are safe and being tended to by people who really know their business? As an industry we won’t be able to realize our full potential for growth without new marinas.

Operating a successful marina is not easy. It’s a capital-intensive undertaking that requires constant reinvestment in facilities and employees. There’s certainly no shortage of regulatory hurdles and environmental challenges, including Mother Nature. Hurricane Sandy was a rough wake-up call for scores of marinas and yards from the Mid-Atlantic to southern New England and beyond. And good help remains in short supply.

In next month’s issue, Trade Only will take an in-depth look at the challenges, trends and newest wrinkles in marinas.

Among the changes in this segment has been a swing toward designing and upgrading marinas to be more destination-esque, rather than just points of departure or merely places where people keep a boat. The idea is to attract customers by building quality waterfront facilities that offer everything from pools, tennis courts and restaurants to boat clubs, family picnic areas and a range of other services — in addition to modern slips, clean heads, Wi-Fi and other amenities, which increasingly are considered de rigueur.

The focus is — or should be — squarely on enhancing the consumer experience.

I remember listening to successful Northeast marina operator Jack Brewer address about 80 of his mechanics and techs in early 2009, when the recession was still upending businesses left and right.

“Your boss and my boss is the customer,” Brewer, the founder, chairman and CEO of Brewer Yacht Yards, which includes 24 yards and marinas, told his workers. “And he can put us out of business just by taking his business elsewhere. Many businesses don’t exist today because they either couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of their customers.”

Sound advice from a successful marina veteran.

I recently interviewed John Hall Jr., another longtime yard owner who runs the third-generation Frank Hall Boat Yard in Westerly, R.I., on land that has been in the family since 1749. Hall grew up in the boatyard business and understands well that the challenges small yards face are the same as those that small businesses everywhere face — plus the hurdles unique to businesses on the water.

“Boatyards were started by people who loved boats but didn’t have a business background,” says Hall, 75, a former president of the American Boat Builders & Repairers Association.

For a long time, change arrived so slowly that many mom-and-pop yards simply didn’t notice, adapt or keep pace until it was too late, says Hall, who has about 110 slips, heated indoor storage and a dozen workers.

“You wake up one day and say, ‘Where did this come from?’ ” As a result, many were caught off-guard by the recession and shifting business models.

“The business has totally changed,” says Hall, the 2015 recipient of ABBRA’s prestigious Dennis Snow President’s Award, which is given for significant and lasting contributions to the boatyard and marina industry. “Now you have to have an intense focus on business to stay afloat. Mom-and-pops have had to get smarter or they’re not here anymore.”

One way to do that, Hall says, is to join an organization such as ABBRA and learn what other marina owners and managers are doing to overcome similar challenges. “The best thing I did in my career was to join ABBRA,” says Hall, who runs the business with his wife, Brigid Rooney Hall.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I grew up a five-minute walk from the Frank Hall Boat Yard, and I keep my boat there today. A lifelong sailor and powerboater, Hall understands how a love for boats drew starry-eyed entrepreneurs into the business in the “old” days.

And although it’s easy for me to get nostalgic for the sounds and smells and clamor of a working boatyard, Hall says yard owners can’t afford to forget they’re running a business. They need to keep pace with changing consumer expectations, technology, rules and regulations, and myriad other factors.

Having said that, he adds with a smile, “The boatyard business is my first love, my life.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.


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