Changing the Marina Industry with Emerging Software Technologies

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This article was originally published on May 11th, 2018 in Marina World Magazine. A digital copy can be found here: http://www.marinaworld.co.uk/latestissue0116Tv.asp

By Iaian Archibald


Traditionally, the marina industry has been slow to adopt emerging software technologies. Difficulties in providing onsite wifi, the small size of the industry, older demographics dominating management and high industry fragmentation have all contributed. Currently, we’re seeing this trend start to reverse. Industry consolidation, a new generation of boaters demanding modern conveniences, better marina wifi, and the evolution of software development are all driving unprecedented innovation in marina software. 

Automation is central to any discussion about emerging software technologies. The automation of everything from cars, to investment decisions, to manufacturing, to business processes, is well underway. Whatever automated marinas look like, and it’s coming sooner than most think, marina automation will involve leveraging multiple software based technologies. General automation in society might not be a bad thing for marinas. One of the promises of automation is people will have more free time. Sailing is an activity that could experience a huge rebirth as people look for fun, eco-friendly, non-digital activities to fill their free time.

This article explores some of the key software based technologies that are, or will soon be, impacting marina management.

Algorithms

Modern Algorithms are computer enabled frameworks that manage complexity. They can include multiple data sets or lists, and apply procedural and statistical reasoning to provide optimal outcomes. They’re all around us and are used for everything from deciding traffic signal locations and timing, to managing what you see on social media sites. 

Algorithms and marinas are a natural fit. Marinas are inherently complex with different sized boats, different sized slips, different uses for those boats, and different types of customers. All of this is in a dynamic environment where slips turn over and people want their boats in different places. 

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is where software “lives” on computers owned by companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Before the 2000’s, software was locally hosted on a marina’s server. A strong, reliable internet made it possible to have your software hosted on big server farms in a “timeshare” of computing storage and processing power. 

Cloud hosted software is accessible anywhere, and bug fixes or updates can be applied remotely. Cloud hosted software is usually a collection of tools and features from other software providers coded together to provide increased functionality and services far beyond the capabilities of software developers servicing a small market like marinas. 

The downside to cloud hosted software is that you need to have a good internet connection to take advantage of all of the potential features and tools. Marinas in areas with intermittent internet connections will struggle with cloud hosted solutions. 

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

A new business model for software has emerged to fit the nature of the Cloud. Now, with software “living” somewhere else and accessed from anywhere, software is a service provided to the marina for an annual or monthly fee, not a one-time off-the-shelf product. Software components that make up modern software products, and cloud hosting companies like Amazon and Google, charge regular usage fees. SaaS aligns a software developer’s product costs (COGS) with their business model.

Initially, SaaS tended to be cheaper than off-the-shelf solutions. Now SaaS tends to be more expensive justified by increased functionality and the ability to integrate with other products. 

Customer Relationship Management Platforms (CRM)

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A CRM is a communication tracking tool that allows one central location for customer interactions and information to be stored and quickly retrieved. Modern CRM’s allow people to send and receive customer communications as well. The sales and hospitality industries have spearheaded the evolution of CRM’s. Current consolidation and the professionalization of marina management will drive the demand for marina specific CRMs. 

Language Translation

Language translation is in the process of breaking through. The ability to communicate through e-mail or text with your customers and have it translated in real time is now possible. Recently, early stage earbud sized speech translation tools have been released which will allow in person verbal communication across any language. Language translation is a prime example of a benefit of cloud based hosting, and the value that a SaaS based product can deliver.

Chat Bots

Chatbots are algorithm driven chat tools that have been designed to handle basic, repetitive communications. Currently, they can’t handle complex interactions like organizing a poker run, but can be used to schedule something like a pump out. They’re predominantly text or e-mail based but auditory chatbots are breaking through. Chatbots will be a central piece of automating the customer service side of marinas and boat clubs as Artificial Intelligence continues to develop. 

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

On a practical level there’s little difference between machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). As AI and ML get better at natural language processing it will be able to replace more and more complex interactions between the boater and marina. It’s hard to think of many situations in a marina that aren’t routine in nature, which is just the kind of environment where basic AI and ML thrives. It will start with the basic chatbots and evolve to replace more and more customer interactions in the marina. 

The second way AI and ML will be applied in a marina is by leveraging the huge amounts of data a marina produces to better understand boater preferences and behaviour. A very smart, observant, intuitive and engaged marina manager can do many of the things that AI and ML promise. AI and ML will give that ability to every marina. 

Mobile Apps

Mobile apps have been around for a while now. They have high adoption with boaters for navigation, but low adoption in the marina sector. As a customer service focused business, marinas are perfect for leveraging the power of mobile devices and the apps that run them. Currently, the mobile apps offered by marina software companies are pretty rudimentary as non-cloud based software is still the norm. The trend towards cloud based software-as-a-service tools will lead to an increase in boater facing marina apps.

Autonomous Boats

Autonomous cars and transport trucks are going to have a significant impact on our economies very soon. Autonomous boats could have a serious impact on marinas in the future. If people are able to call up an autonomous boat like they will an autonomous car a lot of people will forgo owning a boat. As mentioned in the intro, general automation could lead to a big upswing in sailing so it might be a case of a little bad, but a lot of good in the long run.  

Marketplaces & Platforms

Marketplaces and platforms are a technology enabled business model that allow one group of value creators to connect with another group of value consumers. Their power comes from increased distribution (connections) between one group and another. Almost all of the powerful technology companies that have emerged in the past few decades like Apple, Google, Ebay, and Facebook are marketplaces and platforms.

Marketplaces like Dockwa and Snag-A-Slip are growing quickly to connect transient boaters with available berths. Boat Setter seems to be leading “Airbnb for boats.” There’s a huge amount of value to be created in connecting different pieces of recreational boating. 

Conclusion

The marina industry is going through a significant period of change. We’re seeing extensive consolidation and demographic turnover in boaters and marina managers. These changes are accelerating the adoption of new technologies in marina and club management. It’s going to be fun to see how the industry adapts and evolves to emerging and existing technologies over the next five to ten years. 

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Iaian Archibald is the co-founder and CEO of Swell Advantage, a marina software company. He can be reached at iaian@swelladvantage.com, followed on twitter @iaianarchibald, and you can learn more at www.swelladvantage.com.  

Iaian Archibald