Dana Point Harbor’s Mighty Marketing Machine
Joins Public And Private
By Anna Townshend
With around 2,500 slips and more than 500 dry storage spaces, the three marina and dry storage facilities that are a part of Dana Point Harbor in Capistrano Bay in California, make up one of the larger recreational facilities along the West Coast.
The harbor draws huge numbers of boaters to the waterfront. And tourists, too, as well as stand-up paddleboarders, fishermen, bicyclists, walkers, picnickers—Dana Point Harbor is public property, with commercial business and booming recreation.
In 2001 and 2005 the private marina leases on the property expired and ownership of the facilities reverted to the County of Orange. The county entered into a management/operations agreements with the management firms, Dana Point Marina Company, Dana West Marina and Vintage Marina Partners to run the facilities.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the County of Orange created the original harbor infrastructure, and private leaseholders developed two marina basins separately. Dana Point Marina, including 29 docks with 1,400 slips, opened in 1971; Dana West Marina, with 980 slips, opened in 1975; and Embarcadero Marina with dry storage for more than 500 vessels opened in 1970.
The OC Dana Point Harbor (Department) acts as the umbrella company, overseeing the management of its different waterfront facilities. “I’ve worked as an operator for private and municipal facilities. This operation is a hybrid of the two,” Director of OC Dana Point Harbor (OC DPH) Brad Gross said. Each management company runs its facility on its own budgets, approved and provided by the County. The operators retain a management fee based on a percentage of the revenues, and remaining revenues after expenses go to a special fund, for use exclusively in the harbor.
“[The management firms] employees work for their business directly. We [OC DPH] have overriding authority, but we stay out of daily operations, unless there’s a problem,” Gross said. OC DPH meets with its general managers every other week.
The docks belong to the county, open to anyone who wants to enjoy the water view, but the marinas’ boaters do generate a significant income for the harbor.
Dana Point Harbor services a mix of power and sailboat customers, about 50/50. The majority of its customers are long-term slip renters, including only about 40 liveaboards between the two basins.
The marinas service boats from 20 to 85 feet, with a waiting list for slips more than 30 feet. Of the harbor’s 2,500 slips, 1,700 are 30 feet or less. “It’s a small boat harbor,” Gross said. “It’s what our niche is.” Most of the basin is around 10 feet deep, some of it is eight—where it will stay. The hard bottom can’t be dredged, Gross said.
Dana Point Harbor’s niche is also middle of the road recreation, not a high glossy, luxury-based brand. “We’re a Cadillac, we’re not a Porsche,” Gross said. “Good, high quality, American made.”
It isn’t a facility where boaters simply store their luxury yachts before long cruises. In part, spending time at the harbor is what they enjoy about boating. “The boaters are very involved with each other,” Gross said. “It’s a friendly harbor. We hear that all the time.”
With a number of different management teams running their own shows at the waterfront, the county’s “umbrella” administration helps ensure customer messages are consistent and everyone has reliable information.
The county has amassed an extensive email list, and it advises boaters on many issues, pertinent to boating and pertinent to boating in Dana Point Harbor. Of the 3,200 emails on the harbor list, the marinas have a list of around 2,800 boaters, which the marina operators diligently gathered over time. In 2000, Gross said the harbor wasn’t very savvy with email, but by 2007, it began email blasts to boaters.
The harbor hosts numerous public meetings for just about anything it wants to do at the harbor. This is an important time when it collects emails. Boat shows are another good venue for securing email addresses.
The most important boater communication it’s often light-hearted; more likely, it requires a tactful delivery, instead of direct, harsh warnings. When Gross arrived on scene in 2007, he made small changes to help strengthen how management communicated with, particularly in dealing with “trouble” tenants, non-payment, evictions, etc.
“At a public marina, you have to give them notification, and I tried to soften the delivery of those messages,” Gross said. The operators send three letters, dubbed the “soft, medium and hard” letters, reflecting the seriousness of the harbor’s intent and with clear direction. “I also try to make sure people always know they have the opportunity to come in and talk with me,” Gross said.
With 2,500 friendly boaters, sometimes their own gatherings require as much work as planned events. “One of the more challenging events we have at the Fourth of July are the dock parties,” Gross said. “There’s pop up tents and chairs on the docks. But it’s all good fun, and our boaters like that time.”
For the marinas, the “challenges” requires planning upfront for parking, shuttles and trash. “We bring a whole crew for trash service,” Gross said, often high school students doing community service. Not only are the grounds very clean, people see staff cleaning the whole time. Gross called it the “Disneyland concept.”
The truest test of the harbor’s operational skill comes on the Fourth of July. While the harbor hosts many other planned events throughout the year, this is not one of them, but its presence is just as important. While the boaters do the planning, the marina staff attempts crowd control, especially around the parking lots. On America’s birthday, the lots started to close down around 9:30 a.m.
The harbor and its managers know when the crowds become too much for their staff to handle alone. This year, by 11:30 a.m. Gross said, the managers had stepped back and handed over order to the local police. It’s not violence or crime that requires their assistance, but the mere numbers of people that swarm to the harbor to have a good time.
Mostly, the largest crowds gather at Dana Point Harbor for planned events. The harbor’s success lies in its organization and the event’s many host partners and consultants, which varies from event to event.
“What I’ve found is the secret to these large events is good initial planning and logistics, and the set up. If it’s set up correctly, the rest should take care of itself,” Gross said. “And if it’s not set up correctly, you’ll lose it early, and it’s hard to get back.”
For Dana Point, events are critical to the public’s perception of the harbor and critical to its revenue streams, generating tremendous traffic and increased spending.
The Dana Point Harbor Association is the organization that represents all the merchants in the harbor, with the main purpose of marketing and advertising Dana Point Harbor as a destination.
“We focus a lot on awareness about Dana Point Harbor and what it has to offer, often our events,” said Executive Director of the Dana Point Harbor Association Kim Tilly. “The harbor is a different animal than most, in that we are a county park that has business enterprises within in.”
Much of the Harbor Association’s marketing promotes Dana Point at the harbor-wide level, and it partners with many to execute the extensive events schedule.
Lot Of Logistics
Overseeing the execution of events is a year-round task for the harbor association. Almost every event has a different host, attendance numbers and demographics, and overall purpose, sometimes charity, sometimes commerce, sometimes entertainment. Annual event spending by OC DPH and its partners is estimated at more than $300,000.
Most of the events are open to the public and draw huge crowds—the Festival of Whales, 25,000 over two weekends; Dana Point Harbor Boat Show, 15,000 over three days); Tall Ships Festival, 15,000 over three days; Turkey Trot, 15,000 on Thanksgiving morning; Holidays in the Harbor, 2,500 on one night; Holiday boat parade, 2,500 per night on two weekends.
OC DPH is involved in the planning and logistics of each and every event to ensure permits are in order. It also oversees parking and location logistics plans and ensures that communication lines to all involved are constantly updated.
With 3,962 parking spaces in five separate areas for the marinas, the customers alone can easily fill those lots. During events that draw in the public by the thousands, parking is serious business. The marina parking lots do have gates, and on holidays the spots are only for boaters. Other events may include a shared public parking program, but marina staff members always man the lots.
To help with the parking issue the harbor has encouraged (and the community has embraced) a shuttle program.
“We’ve been working on that for 15 years,” Tilly said. “It’s easier to jump on shuttle buses than it is to try and drive.” Over the Fourth of July holiday, the harbor used nine school buses to shuttle people to the harbor from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
A harbor/city committee was developed to keep both apprised of all the business in Dana Point, and not just for information but to seek out opportunities for cross-promotion. Keeping all parties involved, up-to-date and on-point is a major goal of the harbor association. The harbor association’s budget is funded from the dues from its merchants and the majority comes from the OC DPH (County of Orange).
“With the advances in technology, it’s an important marketing technique, if you do it right,” Tilly said. “The small merchants in our harbor aren’t always educated about how things are changing, and that’s a part of what we do too,” Tilly said.
Tilly manages a list of more than 6,000 emails for the entire harbor and a Facebook page with 15,000 fans. She said next on the list for the harbor is an Android app. “We’re taking baby steps into that field. It all costs money and we’re doing it on a shoe string budget at first. We have to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Find out what people want from an app,” Tilly said.
The harbor association is also working to revamp its brochure from a basic directory with names and information to something more narrative in form. Tilly said customers want to see more about activities and events.
And the harbor plans a healthy distribution for the brochure. “Why have a brochure, if you’re not going to distribute it,” Tilly said. When visiting and exploring, Tilly thinks tourists and boaters still appreciate that guide in hand. “When I’m having breakfast, I want to look at it. I want to read it,” Tilly said.
Of course, the new brochure will also include the QR code for tech savvy boaters who would rather browse on their smartphones.
This year Tilly said the harbor association has solidified a partnership with Vintage Marina Partners, which often does its own marketing, to combine their budgets. Dana Point Harbor is planning an upgrade to the website, under a combined budget with the marina operators, to make it more interactive.
Its current six-year-old site still gets significant traffic. Tilly said, over the four-day Fourth of July holiday weekend, the website had 11,678 visits.
The harbor doesn’t invest in print advertisements for its events. “Being that we are event based, the harbor gets a lot of free editorial,” Tilly said. The harbor events are big and well-known, but Tilly still sends regular press releases to news outlets. “They have a lot of turnover,” she said.
Aside from event marketing, the association tries to educate the public about what the harbor has to offer. “There are things to do here. It doesn’t have to be a big event. You can park for free,” Tilly said.
Perception, Public, Pride
The wills and desires of the harbor depend on more than the boaters and the waterfront businesses. Cultivating relationships with the city and the public mean the marina can continue to profit and grow.
The importance of these relationships in Dana Point couldn’t be demonstrated any more clearly than in the harbor’s much-anticipated $145 Harbor Revitalization Project.
The 40-year-old facility has been well-maintained, but it’s time to “rebuild everything,” Gross said. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2014, and the harbor will remain open during the many-phased renovation. OC DPH hopes to complete the project over the next six years.
This is much less than the time it took to get the project off the ground. The public property required public approval, and that process began as far back as 1997. “In our final presentation with the coastal commission, we documented the number of public meetings; we had more 150 meetings. Those might not all have been huge gatherings. It might have been me talking to a small civic association, but we kept a running record of that,” Gross said.
Not only was that evidence that a proper public process took place, it shows why catering to the public, not just the customers at the docks, may help a marina’s future.
“There’s other people that we have to answer to and avenues that we have to go through in the public process,” Gross said. While the bureaucracy of government rarely evokes images of efficiency or public apathy, the combination of public and private at Dana Point Harbor uses its public status to its advantage. It has a high level of communication at and between all operational levels, something rarely seen from the government. And all the while, pleasing its paying boaters.
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Q & A: The Basics For Marinas And Boatyards
Wanda Kenton Smith, a 32-year marine industry marketing professional, is president of Kenton Smith Marketing, based in Destin, Fla., and president of Marine Marketers of America. She previously owned an international advertising/PR firm with more than 35 global, national and regional marine accounts, and served 11 years as vice president of marketing for a major boat manufacturer.
Q: What’s the difference between marketing and advertising?
A: I find many executives mistakenly use these terms interchangeably. Let me try to make this as simple and straightforward as possible. Marketing is the umbrella term that refers to the big pizza pie of all the activities a business may use to research, communicate with and develop its customers.
Marketing may include many unique disciplines such as market research, strategic planning, public relations, promotions, pricing, distribution and more, including one very critical slice called “advertising.”
Advertising is but one piece of the pie—albeit one of the most important. Advertising involves a brand and/or company’s distinctive messaging, manifested in any number of platforms (print ads, magazine ads, radio or TV spots, Internet ads, billboards/outdoor, direct mail, e-blasts, and the newer social media initiatives.
Q: Where do businesses generally struggle with marketing and advertising?
A: Too many marine companies shoot from the hip and hope to hit the target. They fail to be strategic about their overall marketing and advertising initiatives and ultimately waste money, only to conclude that “marketing doesn’t work.”
In today’s tightened economy, it is more important than ever to PLAN your marketing and your advertising activity. Every dollar counts! How can you reach your target audience(s) most effectively? And how will you measure your ROI (return on investment) so you know whether your marketing and advertising is working? Too many fail to plan, so they unknowingly, plan to fail.
Q: How should they plan?
A: Don’t roll the dice and spend the first cent on marketing or advertising without having carefully thought through the process. Don’t fail to be strategic! Don’t waste your money!
Also, what works for one business in one market won’t be the right mix in another market. Every business and every market is unique, which is why you need to invest the time at the outset to get strategic and plan.
In my experience, I’ve observed that too many businesses, large and small, simply repeat the same type of marketing activities they’ve always done because they honestly won’t invest the time to plan, lack the expertise on staff, or just don’t know where or how to start.
Q: How else might a marketing plan go wrong?
If you don’t have the time or don’t have the resources, get help. You can retain a local marketing consultant, or even check the local college and speak to the head of marketing; lots of times classes, working under the direction of an experienced marketing instructor, will take on a major project.
Having an annual plan is a great idea because it allows you to be strategic and think ahead about how you’re going to get in and play the game and what it will cost you. It should be written, including your goals and your objectives, your strategies and your tactics and your budget breakdown. I suggest you set up an annual plan by quarters and allocate your marketing activities and funds accordingly.
One last precaution. I’m a huge fan of having a plan, but I also understand it needs to be fluid. Some wonderful opportunity may arise that you cannot even anticipate today. You cannot be so rigid that you don’t build in flexibility to your plan. The key is to have a plan and work it, but allow some flexibility and hold back some funds so you can take advantage of unanticipated opportunities that may arise!
Q: What are some effective marketing activities for marinas and boatyards?
A: Marinas and boatyards have a wonderful advantage in that they have a sanctuary for boat lovers right there in their back yard. What are you doing to leverage that advantage?
How often do you bring your audience of existing customers and prospects together? What type of special event calendar have you planned? How do you show appreciation for your customers? How about a monthly event or more during the season? A steak dinner or a crawfish boil (whatever is the culinary kingpin in your market!)? Family hot dogs and hamburgers on a Saturday afternoon? A Sunday brunch cruise to a local restaurant, or a water sports day with demos from a local expert?
Education can be a real winner. Women’s only boating classes. Kid’s clinics. Here’s the bottom line: ENGAGE your customers! Invite your prospects. E-blast invitations and follow-up. Make those PERSONAL phone calls and get commitments. Whatever you do, make it fun and memorable! Take pictures and upload them to your website and post them on Facebook!
Q: How should businesses make the best use of their websites?
A: Anyone these days considering anything of value first searches for it online—from their business or home computer, or their telephone or tablet.
Too many businesses produce a website and then do nothing with it. Information is terribly outdated and the presentation and navigation is often poor. Also, many websites are not formatted to be mobile friendly.
Assigning someone to own and champion your website is a must for success. Updating a calendar or inventory, changing out dated web banners or rotators, uploading current event photography, cross pollinating your social media efforts … be smart and be especially strategic with your website. Make sure it is optimized so the right search results drives customers to you … and when they get there, they like what they experience and have a fantastic first impression.
Editor’s Note: Read Part Two of the Q&A with Wanda Kenton Smith, when she discusses current marketing trends in the December 2012 issue.
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PRODUCT FOCUS: DRY STORAGE Business Booms At Coral Gables Yachts, A Mile From Lake Michigan
by Michael L. Martel
Heated indoor winter boat storage is a booming business around the Great Lakes. Coral Gables Yachts in Holland, Mich., is part of that boom, operating a 25,000-square-foot facility that stores boats up to 55 feet long during the off-season. The facility isn’t on Lake Michigan; in fact, it’s about a mile away from the water. But Coral Gables Yachts is a ‘total care’ concept for the boat owner.
“Essentially, the boat owner steps off his boat at the dock in the fall, and in the spring, steps back into it dockside,” said Josh Van Howe, who founded the business a decade ago with partner Brandon Ricci. Both Van Howe and Ricci began their careers as professional crew and yacht captains and started the business as a yacht brokerage.
“We pick up the boat at the owner’s slip and drive it to the ramp that we use, where the trailer is waiting,” Van Howe said. “Then we load it on the trailer and bring it here. In the spring, we launch it and drive it right back to the owner’s slip.”
Coral Gables doesn’t use a rack system and stores on blocks and stands. The owners trailer a few boats in, but almost all of them are picked up by Coral Gables and transported to the storage facility on a hydraulic trailer.
Boats are hauled, cleaned and stored for the winter in a building maintained at around 58 degrees F. The boat owner, as a consequence, is saved the cost of full winterization of engines and systems, shrinkwrapping, and other costs and issues associated with outdoor storage. Coral Gables will of course service the boats as requested by the owner; it provides a full range of boat services that include repairs, engine maintenance, painting and more, whatever the customer wants. Being a short distance removed from the lake isn’t a disadvantage; in fact it means that Coral Gables can offer more competitive rates to prospective storage customers.
“The advantage to storing them in a heated building, even though it costs a little more, is that the boat owners can work on their boats over the winter inside. It also helps avoid little aggravations, such as condensation in the fuel tanks, for example. I’d say that the lion’s share of our customers opt for heated storage in our facility,” Van Howe said.
This success for Coral Gables’ storage business, however, was not planned. Van Howe said it happened by accident. “I was a full-time yacht delivery captain for eight years, but once I had a family, I didn’t want to be away anymore, ” he said.
In 2002, Van Howe and Ricci founded Coral Gables Yachts / Southport Marine Group, a yacht brokerage and service business. The indoor storage business simply grew out of the increasing need to provide storage for its customers. As time went on, Coral Gables added more space, and upgraded and expanded its service equipment. “We haul our boats now using a hydraulic trailer,” Van Howe said. “It’s an older model but very robust and can handle anything we can store. It only travels back and forth to the ramp, seven tenths of a mile each way.”
Van Howe and Ricci began the brokerage business in 2002 and began storing boats in 2007. In the past five years, the business has grown rapidly, and the partners invested in new buildings and infrastructure to match its growth. Van Howe estimates that their investment this far has been in the vicinity of $500K.
Currently, the Coral Gables facility can store approximately 50 boats. Boats come from local marinas and as far away as Chicago and Marquette, Wis. Van Howe estimates a third of the company’s annual revenue comes from indoor boat storage.
The dry storage spaces are such a hot commodity that Coral Gables doesn’t need to market its storage availability. “We don’t even have any signs out front,” Van Howe said. “It’s all word-of-mouth. And we have a waiting list.”
Filling The Niche
When Van Howe and Ricci began the brokerage business in 2002, they leased a 2,500-square-foot building and soon outgrew it. “We started out by leasing a building where we stored boats that were listed with us for sale. Then a buyer would come along, and as they took delivery, would say ‘I really like this facility, could you store it for me back here next winter?’ and so it began. The brokerage was and is our primary business, but after a while, the storage part of the business took on a life of its own.”
Van Howe and Ricci leased a larger 10,000-square-foot building and also began looking for property closer to the water that would allow more room for growth. Coral Gables left its leased property and purchased its current property and the original office building in 2008.
Prior to improving their new property and expanding, Coral Gables had to go through the permitting process and its many hurdles.
“I think how much difficulty one has all depends on how the property is zoned. For us, we built new construction, and we had to get permission from the city, they wanted to know what we were going to do, all that sort of thing. In the end, they really had no problem with us doing it; in fact they were happy to see the property used for a productive purpose. It wasn’t difficult for us; this is a boat town, the town supports us, our enterprise is good for the local economy, providing jobs, so everything about it really is a plus for the whole community,” Van Howe said.
“We improved the property a lot. Before we bought it, the property was run down. Now it has brand-new buildings on it and is landscaped; overall, it's been a win-win for our neighbors, the area and for us,” he added.
Now, Coral Gables has three buildings with a total of 25,000 square feet of space, including its original brick building, which has office space plus storage on two floors. There is 12 feet of clearance, but Coral Gables can store up to 35-foot center console boats, Van Howe said.
Two other new buildings were built over the last five years, using local construction companies and contractors based in the Holland, Mich., area.
One of the newer 10,000-square-foot buildings, with a 20-foot by 30-foot door, stores the largest boats, and the third building has six overhead doors, with a clearance of nearly 16 feet.
Van Howe added, “Don't misunderstand me; this didn't happen all by itself. When the storage business and service business began to take off, I spent five years searching for the right property, as close as we could get to the water. We did the necessary due diligence, the research, to make sure that the income would pay for the work, the building, utilities, the taxes, and everything else.”
Van Howe and Ricci recognized the demand for indoor storage and planned carefully to capitalize on it. “As the business grew, we continually reevaluated our situation to make sure that we had made the right choices. For example, we chose a spot where the incoming power lines were higher than usual because there is a festival here where the bleachers rise fairly high. What I'm trying to say is that there was a lot of thought and planning that went into the infrastructure here and putting together this facility. I didn't go into business to be storage facility, but at the same time the potential for the storage business was something that we recognized at the 50 yard line,” Van Howe said.
Is further expansion in the future for Coral Gables? “Sure we’re going to expand, but we want to make sure that any further expansion or growth we do in a composed manner, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and regret trying to move ahead too fast. We've been running on fast-forward for the past three years and so now we want to pause and get our bearings straight, get our systems down and make sure they were running efficiently, because a lot of things have happened growth-wise that were not initially anticipated,” Van Howe said.
Coral Gables Yachts plans to wait a year before any further expansion takes place, Van Howe said. “Service and storage has become a very large part of our business. The key is taking good care of our customers and providing the level of service and convenience that allows them to get the most use and enjoyment out of their boats. In the spring, when they show up with their bags, the boat is right back where they left it and ready to go,” Van Howe said.
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