“We try to keep in mind that we don’t sell a damn thing that anyone needs, so we have to keep ’em close.”
These are the words of Carlton Phillips, owner of Prince William Marina in Woodbridge, Va., but they could easily be attributed to a growing number of dealers and marina operators around the country. For this group, keeping ’em close means offering products and services that make owning a boat easier — from buying it to maintaining it to using it.
Such thinking dominates the tech industry, where Apple and Amazon have become two of the most valuable companies in the world by emphasizing “frictionless transactions,” in which a single click downloads a service or sends a product winging to the buyer’s door overnight. Consumers have come to expect that sort of elegant and seamless approach to shopping.
The marine world is catching on and catching up. “It’s not even about if we’re gonna sell more boats,” says Kevin Roggenbuck, president and CEO of the Seattle-based Lake Union Sea Ray, “but we feel we have to get the family involved and keep customers enjoying their boats. If we can’t make it fun and easy, we’re probably in the wrong business.”
Removing the hassle
“We’re trying to take as much of the hassle out of the experience for the buyer as we can and put that on ourselves,” says Natalie Rankin, the event marketing coordinator for Sun Country Marine Group, which has eight locations and is headquartered in Ontario, Calif.
She means it too: Sun Country has rolled out what it calls its “mobile showroom.” After buyers of smaller boats whittle their choice down to two or three options, the company will bring those boats to the buyer’s house, either by land or by sea. One phone call can launch a mini-fleet, allowing the customer not only to inspect the vessels on his home turf, but also to assess which one best matches his dock box.
Lake Union Sea Ray takes a less practical, if more fun, approach to the sell, emphasizing time on the water. As Roggenbuck puts it: “We give away a lot of free boat rides.” The company also offers an Advantage plan, which includes a branded gas card worth roughly one and a half fill-ups, a gift card for the ship’s store and ongoing training with a seasoned captain.
Some of those perks are fairly common — free Coast Guard packages with life vests and such, fire extinguishers, a spare fluids kit, cleaning buckets and gas, to name a few — but Phillips will also take care of the title and registration for the trailer. For some smaller boat purchases, Phillips wants so much to simplify the process that he’ll even finance some of the deals himself. “This new generation doesn’t want to commit to anything,” he says, “so we have to remove all the obstacles we can.”
MarineMax, the Clearwater, Fla.-based behemoth with 65 locations, uses its purchasing clout to get the best deal it can, and it passes savings on to buyers with its ONEprice, no-haggle plan. “They will get the same price at any of our stores,” says Joshua Lavine, the general manager of the St. Petersburg location. “It makes the whole process a lot less stressful.”
Keep on Running
The big trend in boat maintenance is concierge service, in which an increasing number of dealers and marinas take the most onerous part of boating out of their clients’ hands. Many of these programs are similar, offering home or dockside pickup and return for scheduled services, cleaning, winterization and spring launch, plus weekend techs on call.
Often, these services are packaged in bundles, but Joe Lewis, president of the Mount Dora Boating Center in Florida, finds that many clients have individual wants. His staff tries to remain flexible, taking a “tell us what you want and we’ll make it happen” attitude. Lewis charges $5 per five minutes for the tasks and finds that the more frequently people use the service, the more likely they are to use their boats, and the more efficient the process becomes. “When we clean it or put it away, it’s done right, so the next time they want to use the boat it’s less work for us,” he says.
Most programs have individual elements that set them apart. Sun Country provides a Platinum Concierge package for its small-boat buyers that includes two to five years of free pickup and drop-off maintenance. A Yacht Concierge package for larger-boat buyers arranges service and cleaning through third-party providers, so the boat owner has one point of contact for all his needs. The boater has to pay for the outside services, but Sun County charges nothing for arranging it all and organizing the billing.
“We’ve collected a lot of feedback from our customers over the years,” Rankin says, “so we know what’s standing in the way of them enjoying their boats more, and we’re trying to solve those problems.”
Lake Union has five maintenance vehicles — land and water based — on call at all times. Those “on-the-road” services cost more than the ones performed in the shop, but Roggenbuck finds that many “people are willing to pay a little more so they can enjoy the time they have to use their boats.”
The concierge concept extends to the more day-to-day needs of boaters in a hurry. With one call, service-conscious marinas will prep a boat for use, doing everything from filling the gas tank to filling the cooler with ice.
Perhaps no one takes the concierge concept more literally than Oasis Marinas. Dan Cowens, CEO of the Annapolis, Md.-based company, and his team spent 20 years in the hotel industry before moving to the boating world. The staff goes through a training program based on the one its executives learned while prepping personnel to work at Four Seasons and Marriott. As a result, dock hands — “service associates,” in Oasis lingo — have done everything from making restaurant reservations to arranging event transportation to finding babysitters for visiting boaters.
At Mount Dora, Lewis estimates that roughly 50 percent of his clients use the concierge service while about 10 percent go for what he calls the full monty. “That’s when they show up, jump on, go have fun, then just tie it off and walk away.”
Sun Country, which is composed of eight dealerships, helps new boat buyers find a slip in a marina that has the atmosphere and services they want. And the company is developing a service out of its West Coast locations for yacht clients, in which Sun Country will transport boats to a distant destination so the owner can fly in, go cruising and fly out. Sun Country then gets the vessel back home.
Likewise, MarineMax organized GetAWAYs for its customers, leading them on mass excursions to distant ports. “Being part of a group makes it easier for people to participate, especially because It’s the kind of trip they usually wouldn’t do on their own,” Lavine says.
Besides the pampering, many locations are offering instruction — everything from on-water training, docking classes and women-only sessions to fishing, wakeboarding and knot tying. And of course, the most devilish of all tasks: trailer handling. “The problem with that one,” Phillips says, “is that someone is always the fool, whether it’s the driver or the one giving directions. It causes more divorces than anything else.”
All Hands on Tech
In addition to Oasis Marinas, with 24 locations, the Oasis Marine Group owns Snag-A-Slip, a free website and app that’s basically Airbnb for boaters. Snag-A-Slip allows transients to book dockage not only at marinas, but also at unused residential slips. And once boat owners have signed up for the service, snagging a slip takes a single click.
“Marinas love it because our management business allows us to interface with whatever operational software they use, so the app can access inventory in real time,” Cowens says. “That means boaters can book a slip at midnight. I always thought it was crazy that you could book a flight or a hotel from your smartphone at any time, but if you wanted to rent a slip, you needed to call between 8:30 and 4:30 Monday to Friday.”
Some marina operators use the app to do more than fill vacancies; they drive additional business by emailing visitors before their arrival, to sell additional services. Cowens says that as of four years ago, 15 percent of boaters were looking for slips on mobile devices. Today that number is up to 70 percent.
In the end, all these strategies are about keeping boaters happy and engaged, which is good for business. “It allows us to retain customers and turn them into multitime buyers,” Raskin says. “The longevity of the relationship will make up for any front-end staffing and investment.”
That philosophy applies not just to any single marine business, but to the larger whole. “We’re not interested in fighting for a bigger piece of the same pie,” Cowens says. “We should all be interested in making the pie bigger, and the way we do that is by providing better service to the customers.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.