Lessons Learned and Being Learned from the Pandemic

I must admit that when we settled on this topic, I thought it would be such an easy article to write. When it comes to the pandemic, especially now that we are more than two and a half years in, there are so many lessons out there that people point to, relate to, or talk about – and they cover the spectrum from relatively small matters to very significant, from things that apply for the world to those that are extremely personal. How do you choose? What do you focus on? In some ways I think the disorientation we have all experienced to one degree or another appeared front and center.

So, with that as a disclaimer, here goes my list of sorts – keeping in mind that it is all rather subjective, with lines that get a bit blurred at times, and I very much welcome your thoughts.

What’s Really Important?
It’s a question that has always been worth asking, but one that most of us have probably been asking a lot more than we used to, whether relating to our personal or professional lives – and so often involving the blending of both. On the business side, a fundamental answer has long been the happiness of our customers – and this is, of course, more true than ever.

But the pandemic has also compelled us to take a closer look at the health and happiness of our co-workers, employees, and ourselves. At first, that emphasis had to be on health, but then as the boating boom unfurled, marinas soon were scrambling to bring back or add staff. Those that did not retain their employees or have good working environments found themselves particularly scrambling to find people to hire. Now we are faced with a tight labor market, creating another staffing challenge. You cannot have happy customers if you do not have happy employees, and more attention has been needed to keep employees happy.

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Communication, Trust & Transparency
The three really do go together, and communication is key. The pandemic started out with major shutdowns and a sort of slow motion panic. Almost every day there was another rule, requirement or rumor coming from government or other mostly well-meaning sources. Forgetting the technically specific requirements, it was, for most of us in our lifetime, an unprecedented shutdown. Many marinas stayed in touch with their employees and customers, trying to provide meaningful information. Most employees and customers were appreciative, although they may not have always liked what they heard. But it was coming from a trusted source who was reaching out to them. As things started to open up, that line of communication continued to strengthen the connection.

Those marinas that provided and have continued such communication have strengthened customer appreciation and loyalty. The other day I was on the docks at a marina catering to boats under 36 feet and met a young couple who had returned from an outing on the water. I asked them why they picked this marina as there were multiple choices in the area. They told me that the marina was always keeping them informed, both when things were shut down and more recently about activities, such as an upcoming fishing contest they had entered, boating safety tips, or how to get a boating license, which is required in that state.

Communication has always been important, but the pandemic upped the ante. It also emphasized the need for transparency in that communication and in most every aspect of one’s operation. Communication without honesty does not build trust, and without trust you don’t get loyalty, whether from your customers or your employees.

As I have often emphasized, do not promise what you cannot deliver. This is true for just about everything, but particularly for those offering service. Being upfront with customers, communicating with them when things go wrong and there are delays, or, better, when things go well, is a major part of keeping customers. Many times customers will try to force a desired answer – but explaining the reality in a proactive manner and assuring the customer that you are really making the effort to get things accomplished for them is very important, especially for customer retention.

Boom … But
It did not take long after the initial shutdown for boating to become one of the outlets for people to get out of the confinements of isolation. Suddenly boating was booming, not only with the return of existing customers, but also with new customers, including many who had never been in a boat. And the market moved from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market, and marinas, dealers, and manufacturers turned into order takers. New and used boats were selling like hotcakes, slips, whether wet or dry, were sold out, and rates and prices rose. And, fortunately, these trends have largely continued as the world has continued moving to more open activities with fewer restrictions.

Unfortunately, along with the boom have come a number of problems, including overcrowding, delays for repairs, supply chain issues and, as noted above, many new boaters with little if any experience owning or operating one.

I will never forget when my mother (a true landlubber) decided one day to come out with me on my outboard boat. I still have no idea what made her want to come, but I was not going to discourage her. Once in the boat as we left the dock, she was eyeing all of the controls and my maneuvering, and she suddenly screamed, “Where is the Brake?!” I of course found this very amusing at the time, and I am sure there are many current stories of newbies making mistakes that are generating some laughs, but this moment of so many new boaters out on their own without any real training or experience is problematic and can be outright dangerous. I became particularly alarmed when I read in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Joint-Annual Report on Recreational Boating Statistics that, while fatalities had only increased 3.2% from 2018 to 2019, they increased an unprecedented 25% from 2019 to 2020. I’m sure there are many components that factor into this number, but it’s clear the industry cannot simply be order takers.

Some marinas spend time to help a new boater understand the basics of how to operate the boat that they just bought. Many have partnered with Coast Guard Auxiliary and other educational organizations offering courses and training for boaters as well as obtaining operating licenses which are becoming required in more and more states. Some have provided information to new boaters of experienced boaters that would be willing to assist the new boater with hands-on lessons. Bottom line, the takeaways for the marine industry is to be proactive to customers in a meaningful helping manner that can be appreciated by boaters – many of whom are shy in asking for guidance.

There has to be enough follow-throughs beyond the sales and providing berthing space by providing education and instruction. If not remedied, drastic numbers like these will likely result in a lot more regulations that will end up stifling boating. Increased bad experiences of a less drastic nature also will not bode well for those new boaters sticking with boating, or even some experienced boaters sticking with boating.

Not too long ago I came across an article by Janet Balis in the Harvard Business Review 10 Truths About Marketing After the Pandemic, where she outlined the “old” truths versus the “new.” While the article is geared to fairly hard-core marketing folk, one of the 10 happens to be:
“Old truth: You are competing with your competitors.
New truth: You are competing with the last best experience your customer had.”
Or, conversely, if your customers are having bad experiences, they may not be your customers much longer. And we have to keep in mind it’s not just the best boating experiences we are ultimately competing with, but all those other recreational pursuits trying to grab our attention.

Easy & Hassle-Free
A sure way to help prevent or minimize bad experiences is by making boating easier and keeping it hassle-free. While boat manufacturers, equipment, as well as electronic providers, have come a long way in quality control, the industry is far behind the automobile industry that provides bumper to bumper warranties. The boating industry has a long way to go before it could provide gunnel to gunnel warranties. The new breed of boaters have little to no tolerance for things going wrong, particularly when they want to use their boat. Boats are expensive and, on average, much more costly than cars. Yet the issues continue to pile up. In more cases than not, the issues are relatively simple to correct or at least make the boat usable quickly. That is one reason we continue to strongly urge marinas to have a mechanic on duty on weekends and holidays, which are the heaviest times boats are used.

Changing a spark plug, charging a dead battery, or reattaching a loose wire can save the day, and turn the bad experience of a last minute cancellation due to a mechanical issue into an enjoyable experience and the desire to stay in boating.

Sometimes it is hard when you’re so busy to worry about potential future slow-ups in demand. But truth be told, boating has always had its ups and downs, and there are some pretty good odds that the pandemic boom will be slowing down, particularly with financing costs increasing as they are. This is not meant to be a doom and gloom message. It is simply a reminder to marinas, dealers, and manufacturers to be thinking longer term to not only attract new customers but, more importantly, to keep both new and old boaters boating. The latter is key to the long-term health of the industry!

One thing the pandemic has certainly taught us is to never take anything for granted.

Stay safe and be well.

The pandemic has taught the marine industry that communication and cooperation with customers is a key component to operating a successful business

Detailed signs allow marina guests to know details about the facility that make their stay as easy as possible.

Marina events continue to be an inexpensive way to keep guests docked and coming back to the facility

Great customer service has become one of the most important aspects of operating a marina