24 June 2009

Marinas Staying Afloat In Stormy Economy

Owners get creative with pools, parties as enticements while boat lovers reel in their spending
Story from the Detroit News

michigan boat docksHigher gas prices the past few years, coupled with a slow economy, have forced southeast Michigan marinas to rethink the way they do business -- from making capital improvements to providing packaged deals to ramping up customer service -- in a bid to attract boaters.

Boating, like most industries, is feeling the impact of layoffs, reduced pensions and tight credit, said Van Snider, president of the Michigan Boating Industries Association, a trade group with 350 members. People aren't buying as many new boats and those trying to unload their boats aren't able to sell.

Although boat sales are down, Snider said, those who already have boats still are docking them at marinas. Gas prices have been higher during the past three years, but they're lower this summer, also helping marinas stay afloat.

"If (marinas) are doing as well as they were last year, they should be pretty pleased," he said. "It's still a challenge."

Marinas will have to be creative in order to compete, Snider said. Many are adding amenities such as swimming pools and hosting events such as fireworks displays to give their boat docks more of a vacation atmosphere to attract families.

That's what Jefferson Beach Marina in St. Clair Shores did.

Knowing this year would be a tough sell, managers made some major improvements, including remodeling the fuel dock and bathrooms and offering packages like the use of the pool and discounts at the restaurant. The marina also is offering new amenities including wireless Internet access, more cable channels at the dock wells and special pricing to attract customers, general manager Semo Post said.

The marina, which is under new management, has ramped up customer service, Post said. Management hired a new staff of experienced workers who understand the business and go out of their way to help customers.

The improvements appear to be working: The 750 wells are 80 percent occupied so far, with many weeks still left in the summer; last year the boat wells never reached more than 80 percent occupancy, Post said.

Business is "better than expected, even with all the economic uncertainty," he said. "It's a lot of hard work with a little bit of luck."

With 1,194 square miles of inland waters and the Great Lakes' 38,575 square miles, Michigan boat docks and boating are just a part of life here, said Mike Litt, owner of Kean's Marina in Detroit.

"In Michigan, people are always going to have boats," he said. "They will still do what they love to do. It's in our blood."

He said business is off about 10 percent from this time last year, but he's not worried -- he expects things to pick up during the winter, when boaters put their watercraft in storage on the property. Unlike last year, Kean's customers don't have to pay for winter storage up front; they can wait until the end of summer to pay.

There are 260 wells at the marina. So far, nine fewer wells have been rented out, compared to last year.

"When we close the books at the end of the year, we'll be a smidgeon ahead," Litt said, adding that he's not requiring customers to sign a one-year contract for well rental and storage this year if they can't afford both right now. "We're working with customers so they can still do one thing besides working and watching the news."

At St. Clair Boat Harbor, a municipal marina in St. Clair, its 120 wells are 99 percent occupied this year, but higher gas prices during the past few years hurt business, said Avery Armstrong, director of operations.

During the past few years, expensive gas kept boaters away from the marina's fuel dock and clubhouse, he said. Last year, he sold 60,000 gallons of fuel, compared to 100,000 gallons a few years ago and there are fewer parties at the clubhouse because people aren't traveling to the marina from other cities as much.

"It has affected us," Armstrong said of gas prices. "But if (the price of) gas stays where it is, we're anticipating a better year this year."

Justin Baxter of Redford Township bought a 26-foot Sea Ray cruiser last year, when gas prices hovered around $5 a gallon at the fuel docks. Now that fuel is in the mid-$3 range, he plans to get more use out of his boat.

"I won't be taking it on long trips because of gas (prices), but I'll still be taking it out on the water," said Baxter, 28.

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