Creating new customers through membership, ownership

Buying a boat is a big decision for many consumers, and a particularly intimidating one for new buyers. How do dealers help ease consumers’ fears and convince them to take that leap to ownership?

Enter boat clubs. Dealer-owned boat clubs are a useful selling tool for a business to allow customers to test various vessels, discover different ways to boat and narrow the options for customers who are unsure how they will spend time on the water.

“A lot of times [customers] envision themselves boating a certain way but in reality, they boat a completely different way. To get out of that boat [ownership] is not financially easy,” said Rob Soucy, president of Port Harbor Marine. “This is a very easy way of [helping them decide].”

phm-logo-cleanThis was the approach Port Harbor Marine took when it opened its club back in 2009 through the help of Brunswick’s special financing program for using Brunswick boats in clubs. Having that capital available to run the club is a major step for any dealership wanting to open a club.

“That was probably the biggest obstacle going into it, but once we got [financing] all resolved it works really well,” said Soucy.

The club operates within the marinas of Port Harbor Marine’s oceanfront and lakeshore locations. Club membership runs from May to October and costs $3,500 for a family membership, which can be transferred toward the purchase of a new boat down the line.

As the membership has grown, the club fleet has grown with it, now up to a dozen boats. This year Port Harbor Marine added a new 25-foot Cypress Cay pontoon to the lakeshore location, a new 25-foot Styrocraft and a new Key West to the oceanfront location.

From member to owner

Having an ocean and lake option, both of which are open to club members when they join, has been a significant advantage for Port Harbor Marine. The boat club allows those customers to experience a large variety of vessels and spend the summer learning what they want to do on the water.

“It’s very easy for someone to join the club and on Saturday, boat on Sebago Lake and on Sunday, boat out in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Soucy.

Throughout the club’s history, Soucy has seen memberships turn into tangible boat sales down the road.

“It has led to more people buying boats than people saying ‘I’m not going to buy a boat, I’m going to join the boat club,’” said Soucy. “Boating is a great sport. It’s a great family activity and you get caught up in it, especially with the boat club at first, … you make it easy for people and they love it.”

Many Port Harbor Marine customers have no idea how they want to use their boat, so they use the club to decide.
Many Port Harbor Marine customers have no idea how they want to use their boat, so they use the club to decide.

Boats are retired from the club after a few years and sold as used fleet. However, sometimes boats are retired early when boat club members decide to purchase and want a specific club vessel. Soucy believes this is an advantage the dealership has over non-dealership clubs in the area. Port Harbor Marine’s boat club also has a boat for every six members, compared to the industry average of a boat for every 10.

“It’s nice to have that freedom and luxury to do that,” Soucy said. “[Being a boat dealer] gives us some leeway and flexibility with boats and the inventory we have.”

While Port Harbor Marine has used traditional marketing to promote the boat club, much of the club’s business is now generated through positive word-of-mouth from existing members. The dealership also donates memberships to local charities to use in auctions, which has led to high bidders purchasing a membership for a second year or prompting losing bidders to buy a membership after seeing its appeal at the auction.

“That’s been pretty effective for us and it’s a win-win because we’re doing something good for the community or some kind of charity, and it’s helping our business as well,” said Soucy.

Seamless once integrated

Implementing the boat club wasn’t an effortless task and did take some trial and error. For instance, the boat club vessels used to be docked amongst the rest of the Port Harbor Marine fleet. After realizing it made the club more difficult to maintain and for customers to get the boats in and out, Soucy and his team moved the club boats to the fuel dock area, which made the club process much easier.

“It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but the way we run it now is pretty seamless,” said Soucy. “But I don’t want to discount the amount of work, because it is and I know those dock attendants work very hard to make sure those boats are checked in [and] checked out properly and clean for the next guest.”

While the club doesn’t feel like it requires as much work anymore for Port Harbor Marine, that doesn’t mean dealers can be lackadaisical about its operation. Soucy says any dealership that believes it can just open a club and have it be automatically successful is sorely mistaken.

“If you don’t dedicate the proper energy, times a resources to [the club], it’s going to blow up in your face,” Soucy said. “We’ve been through that learning curve, and now it’s such a nice part of our business.”


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