Marinas evolve from a point of launch to family destinations

In order to effectively sell the boating lifestyle, marinas are increasingly turning their facilities into a hub of activity. The marina of today has evolved from a mere launch point to an all-day destination.
We spoke with top marinas to discuss what areas of their business held the most potential for driving traffic and sales, and we created a roadmap for anyone looking to maximize their marina’s potential.






Clean marinas

Virtual tours


Size increases

Professional slips

Slip equipment

Dry storage




A “country club” atmosphere

“one”While boating is certainly an activity for everyone, several marinas expressed how much their customers appreciate ”exclusivity.” Therefore, many amenities are private, members-only offerings.

“To me, the goal of every marina should be to establish a niche [market] that fills a need or a want that makes the business different from its competitors,” Dale Thomas, owner at Laurel Marina Dealership, Inc., said. “It’s another way to keep customers that you have by adding value and attracts new customers to expand your business.”

Creating the club atmosphere draws the family in and prioritizes the marina in their schedules, even as other activities overwhelm their lives.

“There’s just so many things tugging at you that if we don’t create and carve out a niche to make it more of a lifestyle, I feel like they tend to just move in and out of things too quick,” said Mitch O’Hara Jr., vice president of Candlewood East Marina. “By creating that lifestyle … they’re more likely to come back [throughout the season].”

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Restaurants draw new blood and loyal clients

Even as marinas create an exclusive atmosphere, marinas are still aiming to attract new customers. One way marinas have been able to do this is to open restaurants that rival local establishments.

Through consulting with Peters, Thomas chose the latest high-tech kitchen technology for The Harbor Grill, Laurel Marina's restaurant.

Through consulting with Peters, Thomas chose the latest high-tech kitchen technology for The Harbor Grill, Laurel Marina’s restaurant.

Payne Marine opened a small-scale fish and chips restaurant at its marina to fill a void in the market. Customers were traveling 40 to 50 miles to eat at other restaurants serving similar food options but now Payne Marine is pulling market share to its marina, which has required extended patio seating. Through marketing efforts with a greater geographical scope than the marina normally draws, the marina has been able to bring in new customers.

“It is profitable for sure,” said Mark Payne, owner of Payne Marine, which is also a boat dealership. “It’s not the major revenue stream by any means in the company, but it has given these new people a reason to stop in and see something that might be a lot more lucrative for us to sell them.”

Thomas spent around $100,000 on labor and materials to improve and expand Laurel Marina’s kitchen, which has allowed the marina to offer a full-scale restaurant, The Harbor Grill, with catering options for members’ marina events. The marina hired Justin Peters, a reputable chef in Bristol, Tenn., to head the restaurant.

The Harbor Grill offers different nightly theme specials for existing customers.

The Harbor Grill offers different nightly theme specials for existing customers.

Thomas doubled the size of the original restaurant by reducing a portion of the facility’s ship store. The new kitchen can serve up to 200 or 300 people at a time if needed. As of now, the restaurant offers outdoor seating for 125 people with a seasonal tent that covers about 40 seats, with plans to expand to indoor seating in 2016.

“It’s kind of like having a pro shop [or] a restaurant at a golf course. You can have a world-class golf course but you’ve also got to have … some type of food service,” Thomas said. “We’re not trying to create a hangout. … Our focus is that it’s a family-oriented, high-quality venue and our food quality would compete with some of our finer restaurants in town.”

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Events keep families at the marina


Laurel Marina expanded its music season to include more entertainment on Saturday nights, which helps keep customers at the marina.

Laurel Marina expanded its music season to include more entertainment on Saturday nights, which helps keep customers at the marina.

Hosting events and other activities may seem like a distraction from the water, but they offer reasons for the family to stay at and come back to the marina.

Candlewood East Marina holds club events for its members, such as free movie nights where kids lounge on the lawn while watching a movie on a screen with a projector.

“It’s just another reason to not go home at the end of the day. Spend all day Saturday boating and here comes Movie Night, and that keeps the parents coming up to the restaurant and the kids out still playing on the lawn, waiting for the movie to start,” said O’Hara. “Those were all good things that add more value to the whole boating experience, if you will, than just a ride around the lake.”

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Gathering spaces promote the lifestyle

Offering a space for a large group to gather has helped marinas promote the boating lifestyle while providing a needed amenity to its customers.

Candlewood’s club house includes a conference center, which is offered to members for small functions such as anniversary parties, birthdays, graduation celebrations and small weddings.

“People want to bring their family and friends to the lake, and this allows them to have a party like that right on the spot,” O’Hara said.

Nestegg Marine built a 20’ x 40’ pavilion for its marina, which sits on a peninsula surrounded by bulkheads with a long section of piers at the ends. The pavilion has allowed the marina to host several outdoor parties for groups of up to 250.
“It’s a great venue because of its location and the scenery,” said Jon Kukuk, owner of Nestegg Marine. “People just like to go where there’s a hub of activity.”

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Boating classes engage kids

Among Candlewood’s members-only offerings are its kids’ boating classes. These classes, called Kids’ Camp, are clinics to introduce kids to water sports beyond tubing and cost $25 a session. These classes revolve around the Nautique brand, which Candlewood sells in the dealership component of its business.
“We’ve definitely sold a few boats off of that avenue, where those kids become so active and involved that the parents can then justify purchasing a new boat or getting a different type of boat that’s now providing more than just a ride around the lake,” said O’Hara.

An additional component to these camps is the Surf Sundays, which are free and offered to the parents of Kids’ Camp attendees. The surf days offer a low-pressure environment to try wakesurfing or wakeboarding.

“To make these big investments in these water sports boats, if they can do some of it behind the boat as well, then the chance of getting that sale starts to really increase,” O’Hara said.

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Clean marinas attract customers


Being a Certified Clean Marina is a competitive advantage for Nestegg Marine.

Being a Certified Clean Marina is a competitive advantage for Nestegg Marine.

Nothing helps sell the club lifestyle more than a well-groomed facility. One way marinas can help keep their grounds in pristine shape is to become a Certified Clean Marina.

“I thought it was going to be a great marketing tool to show our customers and other people that we take the environment seriously, as we do with everything we do here,” Kukuk said on why he became certified. “We’ve cut our waste costs drastically by doing separation. We’ve started to meet some of the [requirements] that are really safety-oriented that I think we were doing before but really never recognized it.”

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Virtual tours sell the business


A virtual tour helps showcase the beauty of any marina destination, like the 360-degree tour offered on Candlewood East Marina’s website.

As web traffic becomes the front door to any business, it is important for marinas to make sure their website sells the destination appeal of their facility.

The Candlewood website includes a 360-degree virtual tour of its marina, showcasing the atmosphere it is selling.

The virtual tour “continues to show people what it’s all about, especially in the winter months. It’s not all green and plush and alive like it is in July and August, but to be able to have somebody go into your website and walk around like it’s the middle of July … that is a huge impact on our customers,” said O’Hara.

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WiFi keeps customers happy … if done right

If you plan to offer WiFi, understand that it is a big expense. A weak bandwidth at a marina that is spread out across multiple acres can quickly become frustrating to customers. All it takes is one person streaming video to slow down the signal for everyone else.

“WiFi at the marinas [is] a challenge unless you invest the money and start putting in a lot of equipment,” Kukuk said. “It’s going to get better over time when technology gets better, but right now it’s just too spread out. The marinas are so big that in order to get the signal distributed, it’s very difficult. Plus, you’ve got to have a good source coming in.”

free wifi graphic design , vector illustration (For more on the growing trend of WiFi in marina design, read our Market Focus on marina development and design.)

Candlewood made the decision not to offer WiFi across its entire facility, but it does offer free WiFi at the restaurant and conference center. It was an amenity the marina could offer its customers when it chose to create a WiFi-based POS service in the restaurant, where orders are filled via iPads and iPhones. Candlewood set up the WiFi to split between two bandwidths: a free network for members and a secure for private use.

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New boats and slip sizes increase

Regardless of the importance of destination amenities, marinas have to focus on their No. 1 priority: filling slips. As marinas are expanding their number of slips, the sizes of those slips are also growing.

The new slips Laurel marina is building in 2016 are for its wait list customers, which are primarily owners of fiberglass runabouts, pontoons and competition tow boats.

“A lot of the boats out there now are as much as 300 to 350 hp on a pontoon boat, and so we want to be able to accommodate those more luxury-type pontoons,” Thomas said. “The new slips we are building are going to be larger and nicer.”

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Professionally-built slips offer country club feel

As marinas construct larger slips and offer a country club atmosphere for its members, businesses are hiring professionals to construct the infrastructure.

“With our new increase in customer base, it will be more cost-effective and more time-efficient for us to have the professional dock builders put those together,” said Thomas.

New slips vary between bulkhead and floating docks, as the demand for either depends on the preference of the customer.

“The reason the bulkhead is desired is because you’re right next to the grass area, you’re not walking on and off the dock. People like it because they’ve got the picnic tables right next to their boat,” said Kukuk.

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Slip equipment creates a consistent aesthetic

Laurel Marina made the decision to rent dock lockers to its members for an annual fee rather than allowing customers to bring them in, as it creates a consistent look and feel.

“It keeps our docks clean and the walkways is real easy to navigate,” said Thomas.

The marina took a similar approach with its boat lifts. Members buy the lift directly from Laurel Marina, which they own from the time of purchase. When a customer leaves the marina, they can have Laurel detach the lift for them and deliver it to a new location, or sell it back to Laurel Marina for a reduced price.

“There’s so many different lift manufacturers, and different lifts require different attachments to attach into the dock. I don’t want other lift people coming in and attaching lifts to my slips, nor do I want them, when the customer leaves, detaching the lift,” Thomas said. “It maintains the integrity of our docks … and it protects the value of the boat and keeps it clean.”

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Heated dry storage a growing trend among customers

Marinas that offer dry storage add a revenue stream to the business that is meeting a growing consumer demand.
Nestegg Marina has had to steadily increase its dry storage, as its four units are at maximum capacity. The customers looking for storage expect the building to be a heated facility.

The heated buildings at Nestegg Marine are insulated steel shell buildings with heaters inside that are kept at 45 degrees. The only maintenance the buildings need is personnel checking the heat twice a day.

“It’s shockingly low [to heat the storage buildings]. I was surprised,” said Kukuk. “We’ve run the numbers for our customers, and for the big boats, [heated storage] a no-brainer when you start figuring all the different things that need to be winterized.”

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Full-service marinas offer a convenience to clients

Nestegg Marine is the only full-service marina in its market area. Having certified techs available on-site at its facilities has been a selling advantage for the business.

“That’s one of our mainstays, is service. It drives a tremendous amount of customers to us,” said Kukuk. “We’ve really ramped up our service end of things, to the point where we can’t keep up.”

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Employees sell the marina

Everyone says ‘hire the right people,’ but when selling the lifestyle, it is a vital component. If you want your marina to be a destination and to sell the lifestyle to your clients, your employees have to exemplify that lifestyle and level of customer service. Therefore, they should be your biggest capital investment. And, from a competitive standpoint, it is the one amenity a competitor can’t duplicate.
Right stuff: Sign by outdoor parking space reserved for employee of the month
“The thing that I always hear first [from members] is how great the employees were,” said O’Hara. “The employees that we have are making our facility special. You can spend all kinds of money and do all kinds of things and have all kinds of fancy stuff, but if your employees aren’t there or you’re not spending the money to get the right ones, it’s a reflection [of your business]. It’s that interaction [members] are getting with the employee and staff that makes [them] either want to stay or go.”

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  1. This is a great idea to bullet point important Marina operations & opportunities.
    I’ll be using it as a guide for our up coming Marina Strategy Meeting for the St George Motor Boat Club, here in Sydney Australia.
    Thanks, Matt Robinson.

  2. It was interesting to read that dry storage facilities at marinas should be kept at 45 degrees. I’d imagine that there is a whole lot that goes into building and maintaining a marina. It’s great to know that there are professionals out there who can make the whole process easier.

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