Boat Clubs Continue to Provide Additional Revenue Streams for Marinas

For recreational boat owners, a perfect day on the water can sometimes turn sour thanks to what happens after the vessel is docked. Mechanical issues, interior upkeep, fighting for a spot at the fuel dock, insurance costs and more can overshadow those beautiful days on the water.

But a trending movement continues to capture the attention of marina owners and boat owners alike. Carefree Boat Club is at the forefront of providing a service that lake and ocean enthusiasts are embracing. Members simply pay a one-time initiation fee, monthly dues and then whatever fuel they use after a given boat excursion. All other costs are covered. Since Carefree maintains a high boat to member ratio of 10/1, customer satisfaction begins the moment members make an online reservation.

Shifting Behaviors
“As consumer behaviors continue their shift toward experiences over ownership, Carefree Boat Club is perfectly positioned to provide access to boating in a way that reflects this market demand,” said Travis Zielasko, chief executive officer of Carefree Boat Club. “This, in turn, is a colossal opportunity for independent boat clubs, entrepreneurs and marina owners to join the fastest growing network in the country.”

Originally started in 2002, Carefree Boat Club began with a single location in Virginia. After inviting other independent boat clubs to join forces, a network for members who could enjoy reciprocal privileges was born. Soon, entrepreneurial marina owners wanted to be part of Carefree as well, asking to use the Carefree Boat Club brand because they recognized not only the significant revenue growth potential but also their customers’ desire for a boating lifestyle without ownership hassles. Now, there are more than 140 locations in the United States, Canada, British Virgin Islands, Panama and Philippines.

Establishing a boat club at a marina can lead to multiple revenue streams including steady slip rentals and an increase in sales at the fuel pump and ship’s store.

“We wanted to remove the financial hurdle for marina owners,” said Nicholas A. Mastroianni III, chief strategy officer. “Carefree built a proprietary online reservation system that handles everything from member billings to boat reservations to maintenance. It takes away some pain points for the operation and growth of a boat club.”

How a Marina Benefits
This tech-forward approach was unlike anything the industry had seen before and remains central to the Carefree business model, but Carefree is also interested in equipping marina owners for financial success.

“One of the biggest benefits we bring to a marina looking to become a licensee is just the value of their property and that initial revenue stream,” Zielasko said. “When a marina owner takes on this kind of business, it can double their sales price and really help their EBITA. Now you hold the customer from beginning to end, so you’re kind of a graduation program, creating more boaters in your area and more consumers in your marina space. It elevates everything at the marina.”

For marina owners, opening a Carefree Boat Club at their facility also is a boon because of the diversity of revenue streams and more foot traffic. Beyond increased slip rentals, cashflow stems from purchases like fishing equipment, apparel and snacks. By establishing a licensee agreement instead of franchises, the start-up cost for marina owners is substantially lower.

Justin Church, harbormaster and owner of Choto Marina in Knoxville, Tennessee, places a high value on customer service, which drove his desire to add a boat club under the Carefree umbrella.

“Establishing a Carefree Boat Club was a way to bring in new customers while serving existing customers in a new and even better way,” he said. “Because of their model, we can offer members unparalleled access to a fleet of boats. What sets Carefree Boat Club apart is their emphasis on hassle-free boating. Our members appreciate the convenience of simply arriving at the dock, ready to embark on their day without worrying about maintenance or storage.”

The partnership between the marina and Carefree Boat Club extends beyond mere business transactions; it embodies a shared commitment to enriching the boating experience.

Silly Lily Fishing Station is a Carefree Boat Club licensee, which allows the facility to manage the boat club independently but receive assistance and support from Carefree.

“The club’s dedication to safety and education aligns perfectly with our values,” Church said. “Through training programs and ongoing support, they empower members to navigate the waters confidently.”

As a licensee, Choto Marina provides dockhands and other boat club staff members from their existing marina staff. Church said that arrangement provides a seamless experience for customers and members whether they are dining, buying snacks at the ship store or gassing up for a day on the water.

Listening to Customers
In 2015, Jay Scott purchased Silly Lily Fishing Station, a longtime staple since 1932 in East Hampton, New York. He is intentional about how to grow it appropriately.

“We believe that to succeed in business, you always have to be listening to your customers’ needs and to be constantly adapting to the times,” Scott said.
It became clear to Scott that their customers were using boat clubs in Florda during the winter and were exposed to bigger, better boats. When those customers suggested checking into a national boat club, Scott took the leap and then some.

Silly Lily Fishing Station in East Hampton, New York, is home to a Carefree Boat Club. The additional amenity is popular with existing customers and brings in new customers who are interested in boating.

“We created a space that customers didn’t even know they wanted and needed,” Scott said. “Being in a boat club is a culture. We embraced that idea and expanded our food/drink offerings and opened the waterfront space for socializing. We also offer evening events to our customers and members. We built a new dock house that is dedicated to greeting members and providing them with beach chairs, beach umbrellas, tables and watersports toys.”

Carefree gives licensees the flexibility to manage their boat club independently while receiving top-notch support, and that is exactly how Zielasko and Mastroianni want it to be.

“For our licensees, opening up a Carefree Boat Club can be an incredibly rewarding decision,” Mastroianni said. “It is a chance to help remove barriers to the water and access to boating. The sharing economy is the economy of today, whether through housing or bicycles. I think the boat space is the most untapped version of that because the barrier is so large. This brings everyone to the boating industry.”

According to Carefree Boat Club, members typically come from one of two market niches. Some people are looking for a simple, low-commitment entry point into the boating world and can afford to put their money toward a membership that not only equips them with boating and safety training but takes care of all the minutiae typically involved with high-end boat ownership. Others may already be long-time boaters but have grown tired of burdensome upkeep and expenditures.

“Members are able to take advantage of many different boat types,” added Mastroianni. “From center consoles and bowriders to pontoons and deck boats. This opens up a variety of water-based activities, including fishing, skiing, tubing or just leisurely cruises with family and friends.”

Amenities Required
The right marina partner has specific attributes, with available slips being the top priority. Sometimes, this is an opportunity for a marina to free up slips by not renewing contracts with existing tenants who are not up to date on fees and rent. Accessible boat fueling capabilities are imperative to operate with greater efficiency and profitability.

Dedicated boat club office space is also needed for on-site presence, which can provide prospective members with ready access to information or immediate registration with the boat club. A ship’s store and restaurant also are target points to not only add value to the membership but drive additional revenue.

Certain best practices help make Carefree Boat Clubs more successful in marinas. The more family-friendly they are, the better they are. Well-kept bathrooms are a must, and sufficient parking is important.

“It is worth underscoring that the members tend to be affluent, so marina owners want to ensure the experience feels professional, clean and organized from the moment the members enter the marina area,” Zielasko said. “Boat clubs provide members the feeling of ownership, without all the ownership hassles. That translates to members caring for the boats as if they were their own, unlike typical renters, and thus their expectations are understandably higher.”