What Marina Customers Want Most

Today, most facilities now recognize that marinas are in the hospitality business, but how well do you know what your customers really want?

Most hospitality businesses are online asking for feedback, and, for better or worse, many others are out there asking for and posting feedback, from hotel accommodations, car rentals, restaurants, airline flights, fresh produce stores, to whatever anyone can conjure up – including marinas. While some of the comments are “engineered” by the facility (or at times even its rivals), most are from real customers, looking to point out the facility’s shortcomings, or how to make a better deal, or, sometimes, what they really liked and recommend. Pay attention – they are providing a wealth of information as to what they want, what you are doing well and where you may be falling short!
At the same time, don’t neglect the more personal route. I really enjoy walking the docks in a t-shirt and shorts, talking to customers and finding out what they think. Most are very relaxed and forthcoming as to what they like, dislike or hate. Heck, I’m viewed as just another boater gabbing. The information gleaned is more insightful than when I am perceived as part of management or doing an “official” review.

Worldwide, and whether it be coastal or inland customers, I find that most customer comments fall into a few general categories:
• Cleanliness and physical attractiveness;
• A cheery, helpful and caring staff (more than superficial);
• A feeling of security;
• Functionality; and
• Meaningful service.
First Impression

How many times do you go to a new place, whether a hotel, restaurant or something else, and form an opinion about it before you even go inside? Truth is most everyone does. Cleanliness and attractiveness start from the time one approaches the facility and creates a mindset – good or bad. Studies have shown that within the first 30 seconds one forms an opinion as to “this will be great” or “what a mistake,” and within the first three minutes the mindset is either cemented in or possibly changed. After that first three minutes though, it is awfully hard to change those initial opinions. This has become even more true with the internet, particularly when the reality is different from the online pictures. Of course that is not to say that a good opinion isn’t always at risk of going bad. Want to have a good impression crash? Just have a customer go into a dirty, musty and perceived unsanitary bathroom. The number one desire around the world is having clean, attractive, inviting restrooms. Overflowing trash containers, scattered rusting trailers, boat stands, or derelict boats do not really add to the ambiance of a facility. On the other hand, thriving colorful plants, organized parking and clean work areas are significant positive additions. Cheerful office entrances and a smoke free environment add to the relaxed feel.

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Having your staff in clean and bright tops and trained to provide customers with cheerful greetings goes a long way to set the tone for a conversation and the facility. The other day, I visited two marinas in very close proximity to each other. The first had a pleasant sign, with flowers and flags as we drove up. The parking lot had lots of potted colorful flowers. The staff all had bright red shirts identifying them as employees, and badges with their first names. As I got out of the car, a passing employee stopped where he was going, came over and welcomed me to the marina, introduced himself and asked if he could help. I was impressed, at ease and felt somewhat special. A short time later, while walking the docks and talking with customers, I was stopped numerous times by employees asking if there was anything they could do. And then I was stopped by another gentleman asking if I was having a good time – and telling me the events of the day. After a couple of minutes of inviting conversation, I found out he was the marina manager, whom I was to meet later in the day. He had no idea who I was. He has instilled in his staff the habit to greet and, when possible, engage customers and find out what the marina can do to make their stay more enjoyable. Now that was a WOW!

Boats are expensive and on the water. Marinas are typically more open than not, and so a feeling of safety and security is always on one’s mind, whether overt or subtle. The more obvious contributors to your customers’ sense of security might involve safety precautions such as night lighting, a night watchman or cameras, gates and fencing, as well as a history and reputation of protecting customers and their property. Some less obvious contributors might include ladders for climbing out of the water, firefighting cabinets, the stability of the floats, the height of your piles and degree of wave protection.

Customers want an easy to use facility. Having the trash bins on the opposite side of the parking lot from the slips or behind a building that is not convenient to get to does not encourage their use, making the facility both harder to use and probably less clean. Having a gangway end in front of a pile or a pedestal or a dockbox makes for a challenging path of travel. Having a wobbly or tippy main or finger float does not provide a feeling of stability. Worse is having a finger sink as one walks out on it. Putting a large boat into a tiny slip with multiple narrow turns just adds to frustration. Warped deck boards or large gaps between deck boards or floats, as well as gangways without transition plates, or steps at the top of the gangway area, all are trip hazards waiting to happen, and allow the 1-800-LAWYERS to have a field day. The above and many more are actual elements at facilities I have encountered.

All too often designs are driven from glitzy pictures, as opposed to the functionality of the intended use. The best compliment we have ever gotten from customers of a marina we designed was in answer to the question, “What do you like about the marina?” And the answer was, “Really don’t know, it just works – it’s easy to use and has a great feel to it.”

Quality Service
Of course a vital component to any facility is quality service, which takes two forms. One is to have a good staff available (including on weekends) to fix problems on the boat, as well as for improvements to the boats. Having your own staff that can handle these problems with engines, electrical systems or damages and other maintenance on a timely basis is great, but many facilities these days depend on vetted independent contractors, which can provide a meaningful alternative.

The other is overall service. As a hospitality business, seeking to make the customer feel special and part of the family are laudable goals that gain numerous rewards, both in terms of pricing and referral of others. Being proactive in reaching out to customers so as to find out what they want and ways to help them is a cardinal rule that often gets obscured by the crises and pressures of the day.

We have found that marina customers are willing to pay premiums for services when they perceive that they are receiving value. By making the effort to understand and fulfill customer perceptions, desires, needs and expectations, you will be providing value and you can charge more for it. Disney is a great example. There is also a particular marina organization that comes to mind. The manager and most of the employees know their customers by their first names, they have clean and inviting facilities, and they are extremely proactive, anticipating their customers’ needs and enhancing the boating experience. They have always charged 15 percent to 20 percent above the market, including in economic downturns. Customers sing the praises of the facility to other boaters, both in person and online. In talking with their customers I learned of numerous stories of the facility staff having gone out of their way for them, making the facility special, and giving them what they really want..

Dan Natchez is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES Inc., a leading international environmental waterfront design consulting company specializing in the design of marinas and marina resorts throughout the world. He invites your comments and inquiries by phone at 914/698-5678, by fax at 914/698-7321, by e-mail at dan.n@dsnainc.com or on the Web at www.dsnainc.com.