Add diversity and focus on design to keep your boaters entertained
Some of the marine industry’s best speakers encourage their audiences to focus on selling “the big show.” It’s an attitude that’s become more pervasive in an American economy driven by services, which make up approximately 75 percent of the country’s GDP.
In the marina biz, this shift has lead to a new mindset where marinas aren’t only a place to store boats, but actual destinations where the customer experience matters.
Marinas now are placing a greater focus on material selection, aesthetics and environmental considerations. It has also heightened the importance of working with a design firm that specializes in the marine industry to upgrade an existing marina or build a new facility from scratch.
High-end goes mainstream
Roxie Comstock is the manager of business enhancement at Bellingham Marine Industries’ American headquarters in Washington State, a marina design-build firm that also manufactures dry storage and concrete dock systems.
The company’s design-build approach — where one company handles design and construction to save time and resources — allows Bellingham to compete with other contractors, designers and builders that don’t have a similar depth of marine experience.
Bellingham bills its floating concrete docks as the greenest system in the industry, and has used its expertise to streamline marina designs and dock projects for its clients.
As the gradual economic recovery filters into the marine industry, the company has noticed an uptick in marinas renovating their facilities, as well as embarking on entirely new “greenfield” construction. Comstock said Florida and the Northeast have recently been particularly strong.
“We’ve had a couple of greenfield projects come online and were finished up recently, which is a pretty good indicator of the health of things,” she said. “Once brand-new marinas are starting to be built again, it’s a sign that things are starting to do better … and that’s good along with all the other expansions, repairs [and] renovations.”
The uptick in business has exposed a few new trends in marina design. An overarching theme is higher quality construction, Comstock said, where upgraded finishes, richer materials and a higher attention to detail have become more prevalent in even municipally owned
“When it comes to the aesthetics, we’re seeing a lot of people inquiring about the texture or the color of concrete, rather than just the standard,” she said. “There’s becoming more interest in a trim package, rather than doing the polymer covers that have typically been seen in marinas, they’ll either do a hardwood cover or a composite cover — so you have these concrete docks that, rather than just the base materials, are now being trimmed out in higher-end materials.”
She added that the trend mirrors what’s happening in custom homes, where many customers are willing to spend more to tailor the look of a project. Beyond upgraded finishes, marina bells and whistles have been including rounded dock ends, personalizing individual docks with the name of the owner or boat, color-coding docks, as well as accent lighting that’s become more affordable with the drop in price for LEDs.
Bellingham’s recent work has also included projects that needed to be re-bid to meet budgetary targets. In such cases, the company’s design-build approach and history with concrete construction allows its designers to be more efficient with dock piling to minimize the amount of structural steel, reducing cost for the business or agency.
“There are lots of little things where … we’re able to go to the owner and … change this or tweak this, whether it be with the configuration of [the] slips or where you put your ADA slips or just little things that really add up in the end to be a more user-friendly marina for the users, but also a cost savings for the owner,” Comstock said.
Adding supplemental uses is another trend for marinas big and small that can be seen in new and upgraded projects across the globe. Many larger marinas have added spas, hotels and even housing, while many smaller marinas are adding restaurants, dry-stack storage and clubhouses to make their locations true destinations that encourage its users to spend more time at the site.
“A marina is hard to make pencil with boat slips alone — for the most part, they need an upland business to support them,” Comstock said.
As an example, she said Bellingham’s recent 220-slip Milltown Marina and Boatyard in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a smaller marina that elected to include storage and a clubhouse for additional revenue.
Pier 32 Marina in National City, Calif., which uses Bellingham docks, installed unique kayak and bike racks on its docks, and installed a miniature putting green, which Comstock said create an atmosphere that shows the marina cares about its customers and their possessions — while also appealing to a younger demographic.
“It’s a lot of little stuff that I see marinas are doing that don’t cost a whole lot, and you could probably do it with what you have,” she said. “You don’t have to build a new building or [entail] a huge capital expense.”
East Coast expansion
On the opposing side of the country, Marinetek North America is the American arm of the international Marinetek Group based in Helsinki, Finland. Marinetek NA is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., and former CEO Kent Johansson sees similar strength in North American marina development.
Marinetek is a marina designer that also manufactures docks made from several different materials, wave attenuators, floating playgrounds, swimming pools and recreation centers that give the company a unique product offering.
As its year-over-year revenue has quickly grown, Marinetek NA has recently been involved with projects in Africa, Costa Rica, Florida and several in the Boston area. Like Bellingham, its primary competitor, it has seen its recent U.S. business strengthen in Florida and the Northeast.
With a vast number of aging marinas, Johansson sees a bright future for new construction and redevelopment projects in the years to come. Storms like Hurricane Sandy and the generally harsher climate of northern states has helped spur work throughout the country.
“There are 12,000 to 14,000 marinas around the United States that are in some kind of aging state,” he said. “They’re going to need to be rebuilt at some point.”
Marinetek NA has also focused on maintenance-free concrete dock systems and wave attenuators that are required to tame harsher waters for many marinas built in new, less naturally suited areas.
“Most good marina sites are already occupied by a marina,” Johansson said. “Without wave attenuators you cannot have a marina — the wave environment would be so drastic nobody’s going to want to put their boat in the marina.”
With its recent projects, Marinetek NA has seen similar trends of marina owners looking to make their locations destinations on their own. Its floating recreation products are intended to encourage customers to spend time at the marina, which aligns with recent trends of boaters spending more time on the dock, rather than out on the open water.
“We have seen the embryo for the start of … wanting to include restaurant areas, sitting areas, meeting areas [and] pool areas into the marina facilities,” he said. “They come and spend time on the boat, but don’t necessarily take the boat out.”
As average boat sizes have increased in recent years, marinas have been challenged to build larger slips within the same footprint, meaning fewer overall slips in many cases. That trend conflicts with the desire to add amenities on sites that are often squeezed for extra space. Johansson said some marinas have responded by converting underperforming slips to recreational zones that can add new revenue streams for the business.
Design trends at Marinetek NA have included a greater focus on design, with color-coded marinas, a focus on minimizing utilities and generally creating spaces that are more inviting than utilitarian designs of old.
The company has employed the use of LED lighting to improve the aesthetics of docks, while also attracting fish, which Johansson said, also tends to attract people who want to watch the fish.
While many clients begin a project with some design goals in mind, Johansson said the company finds design inspiration in all corners of the human experience.
“When you walk through life, you get influenced by so many different things,” he said. “You never really know what parts influence what you bring into a project.”
Environmental regulations are a challenge for Marinetek NA, and the marina industry as a whole. While many marinas have been in place for years, placing infrastructure in the water that has become underwater habitat, permitting issues can still be a factor when changing designs or shading over additional sections of water.
Johansson feels municipal and regional agencies unfairly treat the boating industry. He stated an example in the firm’s hometown where a municipality restricted the construction of new boat moorings for environmental reasons, when the city has storm drains running into the same section of water.
Across the pond, Marina Projects is an international marina design firm located on the Atlantic coast two hours southwest of London. Mike Ward, project director at the company, spoke at the International Marina & Boatyard Conference (IMBC) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., although the company’s clients are primarily located outside of North America.
Ward is fascinated by the diversity of the American marina market, with large chains and countless mom-and-pop operators. He cautions that, from his perspective, some marina owners feel a solution that works at one marina will also apply to their business. He cautions such groupthink is often misleading, as all marinas are different, with unique customer bases and entirely different geographic challenges.
“Two marinas in very close proximity can have a subtly different appeal to a customer base, which means the response in design terms needs to be slightly different and it’s important to understand that [unique selling proposition],” he said.
Marina Projects has recently completed projects in Asia, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the Falkland Islands. Across the globe, Ward often sees marinas and renovation projects that perpetuate similar themes that aren’t ideally suited to the local mix of boats and customers.
This lack of tailor-made marina designs provides an opportunity for marine-specific companies to better understand the local demographics and help marina operators create efficiencies to improve profitability.
“There are some huge opportunities to create efficiencies, because there’s a sector of the market that’s being missed out and it’s fascinating,” he said. “That international experience can definitely add another dimension.”
The company’s master planning seeks to thoroughly understand the relationship end users have to a specific marina, giving Marina Projects the chance to maximize opportunities and optimize the use of valuable waterfront land.
While there are plenty of marina design outlets throughout the world, Ward says the firm’s competition often includes local engineers, architects and dock suppliers that often lack the depth of understanding that can elevate marinas beyond simply a location for boaters to get on the water.
In locations that lack an established boating culture, primarily in Asia and the Middle East, Ward has seen a trend of creating mixed-use waterfront destinations that include a higher grade of services, quality and convenience for customers — all the more important when customers are spending more money on their boats.
“Gone are the days of tying their boat up to a rickety old pontoon,” he said. “Customers are investing more money in their boats, they want to make sure their asset is looked after … [and] maximize the benefits of their leisure time.”
Many higher-end new projects seek to create a hotel-like environment, with similar levels of customer service to create a destination and appeal to the local customer base.
Ward sees similar trends working their way into the North American market, where subtlety of design and year-round interest is the key to creating profitable marinas.
He added younger customers are generally under increased financial pressure, and have lifestyles that can discourage outdoor pursuits. Some of the company’s projects have included smaller, cheaper berths and additional water sports and activity centers to appeal to younger boaters.
All marina businesses, he said, should think carefully about their customer mix, as he has seen many projects where clients have made significant miscalculations about the different uses and local boat population.
He urges marina operators to “think very carefully about who [customers are], what size boats they’ve got, what services they need and how does your site respond and what access to boating opportunities does it provide, because that will dictate who the customer is at the end of the day.”