Marina Competition: It's Not What You Think

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It’s easy to look across the bay, lake, river, or harbor and think that marina or yacht club is your main competition, but it’s not. If anything, that marina or club down the way might be your biggest ally.

Your biggest competitors are massive technology companies like Facebook, Netflix, Google, and EA.

The reason these technology companies are your biggest competitor in the 21st century, and the reason mature tech companies are worth so much money right now, is they’ve won the battle for people’s attention. Whereas before, the focus of people’s free time was social gathering spots like marinas, golf courses, church, social clubs, bars, and sporting events. Now, a lot of that time is taken up with social media, online gaming, YouTube, and streaming services like Netflix.

Recreational boating has always been a fairweather industry. When things have been economically humming along, recreational boating surges. In economic downturns, the industry suffers. As many in the industry are realizing, this time it’s different. Recreational boating, and the marinas that serve the sector, haven’t experienced a rebound with a strong economy like it has in the past.

So if this is the new reality, how can marinas fight to bring people back to boating and attract young people to the lifestyle?  

Here are a few suggestions:

Create a buzz and make it fun: With so many distractions in people’s lives, people need a reason to pay attention. One fun way to create a buzz within your marina community, and outside the community, is challenge other marinas to a competition. Maybe it’s a weekend fishing derby where each marina or club in the lake or harbor put together a team and the teams go head-to-head. Maybe it’s a Sunday sailboat race every year with a fun trophy. Whatever it is, everyone wins... at least in the big picture.

Get engaged with social media: At the absolute minimum, you need a managed Facebook group where you can interact with your boaters, and most importantly, they can interact with each other. Set basic content rules around what’s appropriate and make sure that someone on the team is checking it each day. Posting marina events and pictures will keep everyone engaged and keep you in their feed.

If your goal is to attract younger people to your marina Instagram, is a great tool. Don’t worry about other types of social media unless someone on the team is already highly engaged with them. Tools like HootSuite can help you manage content.  

Join and support industry groups: One of the biggest weaknesses in recreational boating is that there are few big players who have the budget and scope to promote recreational boating properly. Supporting groups like Boat US, NMMA, and your regional marina organization, and pushing them to promote the boating lifestyle, is critical to keeping recreational boating relevant.

Support boater technology, boat rental companies and new boat ownership models: We’ve heard a lot of marina owners complain about new boating platforms like Boatsetter/Boatbound, Freedom Boat Club, and Dockwa. We’ve also heard more than a few stories about issues with rental companies operating out of marinas. There’s little doubt that using some of these new systems creates work and there’s risk in having strangers around the marina, but you probably can’t afford not to use them.

Platforms like Freedom Boat Club and Boatsetter introduce people to boating and make boating accessible for people who can’t afford a boat or don’t want the hassle of ownership. Platforms like Dockwa and Snag-A-Slip don’t just introduce people to your marina, they’re a new type of boating infrastructure that makes it easier and more fun for people to use their boats.

Educate: The good news is that young people are more interested in experiences over owning things, and recreational boating is a great experience. The bad news is that young people who didn’t grow up boating, and especially first or second generation immigrant young people, find boating intimidating.

Offering introduction to boating sessions for free, or at a reasonable price, is a great way to get new people into your marina. More advanced courses, potentially free for your current boaters, will help you bring in boaters from other marinas and help you build capacity in your current community of boaters. Teaming up with marinas in the area with different course modules at each facility, or altering a regular introduction to boating session between marinas, is a great way to spread out the work and increase the program’s reach.

The marina industry is facing a lot of competition from forces outside of the industry, especially when it comes to attracting younger people and immigrants to the boater lifestyle. Being proactive and cooperative with other marinas and yacht clubs is probably the best way to take this competition head-on.

Iaian Archibald