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Juggling marina priorities

The savvy operator must offer basic services and accommodate customers’ demands for social activities, all the while staying on top of infrastructure and regulatory issues.
Aqualand Marina, on the shores of Lake Lanier in Georgia, is known as the largest inland marina in the country.

Aqualand Marina, on the shores of Lake Lanier in Georgia, is known as the largest inland marina in the country.

Running a marina today means balancing time and money spent on daily maintenance and infrastructure repairs with that spent on capital improvements and long-term investments. It means juggling investments in facility upgrades and grounds maintenance while investing in mooring field expansions. It means saving money for seawall construction while applying for permits for new clubhouses and upland structures.

It means managers must recruit, train and retain high-quality staff and provide exceptional customer service while keeping emergency management plans and environmental compliance up to date. Most important, running a marina today means operators must come up with profitable ways to fill slips and moorings while keeping marinas safe, clean and attractive.


One of the biggest concerns in marina management today is getting the most out of aging infrastructure. Many of today’s marinas were built 25 to 30 years ago, says Jim Frye, vice president of business development for Encino, Calif.-based Westrec, and the older designs may not be ideal for more modern boats.

“In some [marinas], for example, we’re seeing sailboats replace the battlewagon sportfishing boats,” says Frye. Aging docks are not configured to suit the needs of today’s boat designs. The half-length finger piers that worked well for stern-to sportfishing boats can’t comfortably accommodate a sailboat, Frye says. In other cases, marinas are seeing a number of smaller boats whose owners are willing to pay for more slip space. “We’re having to accommodate them in slips designed for larger boats.”

In addition, older docks and seawalls are often in need of repair, and even replacement, he says. “Too often the maintenance on marina assets gets put off, and facilities fall into disrepair,” says Frye. “Without the opportunity to reconfigure marina space to create more revenue, marina operators suffer the need to replace facilities with no new revenue to pay for the [replacements].”

Scott Robertson, owner of Emerald Cove Marina on Bullards Bar Reservoir north of Sacramento, Calif., has experience with marina configuration issues. Emerald Cove has moorage and slips for 170 boats and a small area for limited winter storage. The marina was built in 1988, and although it underwent major remodelings in 2006 and 2009, some sections are still in the original 1988 form. The original docks were 20 feet long, and most of the houseboats that used the facility were 26-footers. Today a small houseboat is 33 feet, Robertson says. To accommodate the longer, newer boats, Emerald Cove added extensions to 40 docks.

The mooring field was also originally designed for smaller private houseboats. The moorings are on a grid system; as the houseboats grew over the years, the tendency for larger boats to bump into other boats has grown.

“People are willing to pay exorbitant fees for these moorings,” Robertson says. The moorings are highly sought after, and people will go as far as to buy the mooring first and then get a boat to keep on it. But the original concept in the mooring field was for smaller boats, and no one is happy when the bigger boats move about and hit other boats.

At the destination marinas that are prevalent today, people want more than a boat slip. Shown is Brewer Essex Island Marina in Essex, Conn.

At the destination marinas that are prevalent today, people want more than a boat slip. Shown is Brewer Essex Island Marina in Essex, Conn.

“We’re constantly upgrading and at the same time fixing what we have,” Robertson says.

Emerald Cove is building new docks this year, adding more 30-foot docks to meet a high demand for what is now considered a “small” houseboat — something in the 30- to 35-foot range.

“We’re putting in 2,300 feet of new line [in the mooring field] to accommodate 13 more houseboats. We’re lucky — we’ve been able to have the cash flow [available]. We can put it back into the facility,” he says.

Robertson says that when it comes to older slips, Emerald Cove is challenged by the length and beam of new boat designs.

Just outside Atlanta on the shores of Lake Lanier, Aqualand Marina’s general manager, Patrick Kenney, faces some of the same challenges and a few that are unique to his inland marina. With more than 1,700 slips — 10 times the size of Emerald Cove — Aqualand is known as the largest inland marina in the country.

Kenney says optimizing dock space while providing marina clients with the best possible experience is one of his top concerns. Aqualand was built 45 years ago, and although renovations and updates occur each year, some parts of the original design are not ideal for today’s boaters. Shared slips, where two boats share a 20-foot-wide berth with 10 feet of width apiece, have been successful in the past, Kenney says.

“We created this 10/10 shared slip awhile back for the big sailboat community we have here,” Kenney says. “Two sailboats fit side by side in the 20-foot space nicely.”

Today, Kenney says, boaters prefer a single slip. They want to be able to tie up on both sides and add spring lines. Aqualand’s challenge is to balance the need to optimize the value of dock space with the need to provide each customer with the best possible experience.

Around the country, the types of boats dominating a particular market also have changed. In recent years some markets have seen a dramatic rise in pontoon boats, and sportfishing boats and sailboats have seen some ups and some downs across different regions.

Aqualand began adding houseboat docks eight years ago, and the marina keeps a steady occupancy on those docks, Kenney says. He has seen a trend toward smaller sailboats, and the number of older sailboats has dwindled at Aqualand.

A few years ago, Aqualand experimented with a new idea for a revenue source. A group of marina members banded together and paid the marina to have an empty slip decked over. The members of the group have boats on the dock, and the decked space became a common area for parties and get-togethers. The members share the rent on that space.

“It’s a party patio for this group,” Kenney says. “They bring in projectors to watch football games. They have a bar and have meals there.

“There is such a social aspect to the marina. The docks are like little neighborhoods — one [dock] might have spaghetti night on Friday, while another hosts a Saturday breakfast before everyone heads out on the lake. Decking in keeps the dock [group] together. The dock with the decked-in slip has 100 percent occupancy.”

Other members have requested similar opportunities, and Aqualand decked a second slip last month.

Judges at the International Marina & Boatyard Conference recognize original revenue-generating ideas such as this each year. The “best profit” idea of this year will be recognized in Fort Lauderdale at the Jan. 27-29 conference. IMBC organizers also have scheduled a seminar on renewing and updating aging marinas — those built in the 1970s and 1980s. The presentation will discuss design and code-related changes in older facilities and look at topics such as slip sizing, electrical code changes, International Building Code implications and customer expectations.

Each year, IMBC seminars address a range of topics that organizers have found to be of the most value to conferees and exhibitors, say Wendy Larimer and Catherine Stanley of the Association of Marina Industries. Stanley says this year’s seminars are a mix of engineering topics (drystacks, anchoring and wave attenuators) and general marina construction.

“Human resource concerns such as promoting from within, skills training and generally how to work with people are always popular topics,” she says, along with seminars that address current issues such as invasive species and electric shock drowning prevention.

Weather continues to be a major concern, especially managing the effects of storms and droughts, inland and on the coast, she says. Government regulations are another source of concern and of interest to conferees. OSHA and Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and the Clean Water Act are always on the radar. Marina operators have to stay vigilant in tracking new rules that could be lurking and what regulations can do to their bottom line, she says.

Frye says today’s boats have differing requirements for utilities, especially electricity, and many marina operators struggle to create the necessary reserves to replace or update aging systems. In some cases, even when resources have been set aside, operators have difficulty getting the permits required for the work, he says.

Kenney says Aqualand works with upper management on a capital expenditures budget each fall and seeks approval for the budget by Jan. 1. That way, he can go into the new year knowing what his budget is for a new roof on the ship’s shore and for a new section of paving on marina grounds.

Robertson says Emerald Cove is fortunate to have the cash flow for maintenance and upgrades, but other marinas in the same drought-stricken region have struggled desperately. Lake McClure is at 7 percent of capacity, Robertson says, and hundreds of boats on Lake Oroville had to be removed for lack of water. “The marinas are empty because the slips are dry,” he says.

Frye says that in some markets the trend toward moving smaller boats upland and into drystack storage continues to grow. Westrec is developing a 500-unit dry storage facility in South Florida to satisfy the demand for this type of dockage among a growing number of anglers and day cruisers (see story on Page 15). “A building of this size is expected to yield great efficiencies and accommodate a large number of boaters on weekends and other peak boating days,” he says. “With a limited impact on the water space, we’ll increase boating access in the area dramatically.”

Clean, space and fun

For today’s boater, looks do count, Frye and AMI chairman Jeff Rose say. “Today’s boater is looking for a clean, neat and new-looking marina to stage their boating experience,” Frye says.

“Along with slips and services, marina members are looking for safe, clean and fun environments,” Rose says.

Boaters want more amenities and things to do at the marina, Rose says. They want sport courts, swimming pools, restaurants and gyms. They want covered areas or enclosed air-conditioned rooms where they can congregate. Well-stocked ships stores and low fuel costs are important.

The natural setting and peaceful atmosphere of Aqualand’s 144 acres is probably the marina’s biggest draw, Kenney says. The landscaping is meticulous, and the grounds are scrutinized daily. Kenney says the staff works hard at imbuing the property with a sense of peace, and clients who visit for the first time are always stunned at how beautiful it is.

“I hear it time and time again,“ he says. “They love the shade trees, the peace by the lake. When a member comes through this gate, this is where they leave the city behind.”

Boaters not only want a place to store their boat, but also a place they can deeply enjoy, a place where they can invite their family and friends, Rose says. “They want a place they can be proud of.”

A lot has been said about changing boater demographics, but the connecting thread between generations is the value of time, Frye says. With more choices and less time, boaters of all demographics want boating to be easy, worthwhile and valuable.

He says he has seen how changes in the way some people use their boats affect marinas, but in the end it’s all still about sharing the boating experience. Some boaters participate in weeknight sailboat races; some stop by on the weekends and work on their boats. It’s important for marinas to create gathering spaces so people can come together and share adventures, he says.

“We’ve seen cruising clubs develop from relationships on the docks; we’ve hosted many larger regional clubs, like the Trawlers Association. And, of course, we’ve been working hard in support of local fishing tournaments so that our customers can get the most out of their boating experiences,” Frye says.

“The single biggest change in expectations from today’s boaters, compared to those 10 years ago, is access to Wi-Fi,” he adds. “Transient boaters are choosing destinations based on the quality of Internet access at the marina. If a marina doesn’t have good Internet access, it isn’t ranking very high among boaters.”

And it isn’t just because boaters are trying to stay connected to their work, he says. Many are streaming video and interacting on social media as part of their relaxation on the boat. Many boaters are tech-savvy, and access to technology is an important part of their boating experience.

There is no question that boating clubs, such as the Freedom Boat Club, are bringing an increase in activity to marinas, Frye says. The club customer is using the boat; buying fuel, bait and ice; and creating service work based on that use. Frye believes this kind of ownership is introducing an entirely new customer to boating, and marinas are benefiting from that growth.

Boat clubs are appealing to and attracting members of Generation X, and especially the millennial generation, because the ownership model suits their interests. The younger generations are demonstrating a movement away from collecting trophies, as their parents did, and are interested in investing in experiences, rather than tangible products, Frye says. The peer-to-peer rental programs are meeting this interest.

“Access to quality boats and boating experiences without the commitment of capital will fuel interest in boating and, I believe, ultimately fuel growth in boat ownership. Marinas that are supporting peer-to-peer boat rentals are reaping the benefits of increased traffic, as well as benefiting from a growing number of marina customers who are going to hang on to their boats because peer-to-peer rentals have made ownership more affordable. Westrec has been aggressive in their support of peer-to-peer rentals.”

It’s fair to say that today’s boater is looking for many of the things their boating predecessors wanted, Frye says. Boaters look for marinas that provide access to quality boating areas and ones that offer a clean, safe and comfortable environment at the dock. They want reliable utilities and enough amenities to entertain the entire family, he says. Marinas that are delivering an entertaining experience, rather than just a place to store a boat, are leading the market.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.



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