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This article, by Dennis Kissman, was published in Marina Dock Age –  January/February 2013


Over the years, I and a host of other people that write articles for this publication have written on customer service and employee training. However, from my experience in consulting with a number of marinas over the past 24 years, how well facilities address these two topics and implement them in actual practice seems to be another matter. If you expect to have a competitive edge over your competition, employee training must go beyond the basic job skills and knowledge required for the daily function of an individual’s position.

Before any meaningful job training can begin, employees must understand their own job duties and carry out those duties to the very best of their ability. Whether they are pumping fuel at the fuel dock, assisting customers docking their boats, or providing correct customer billing, if the basic job functions are not mastered, then attempting to improve employee customer service skills may be a waste of time.

Serving the Customer

Employees should be trained to give each and every customer the feeling that he or she the most important person in your marina. The training begins with the basic tenets learned from an early age; simply saying “please” and “thank you,” looking a person in the eye when talking, and smiling. The basic training continues with courtesy and respect to your customers. Employees must not be belligerent with your customers, but to listen, smile and hold friendly conversations where appropriate. Employees at this level understand that when a customer visits a marina, he is visiting the place where he should feel at home, as a special guest.

Urge employees to be honest, frank and sincere and show a positive attitude, not only dealing with your customers, but also with each other. This is an ideal way to build one’s self-confidence and help build long-term relationships with your customers and fellow staff members. Bad attitudes chase customers away.

Sometimes, the employee just has to temporarily “grin and bear it,” when faced with an angry or upset customer. It is precisely at these times when customer service is at its most useful. Let’s take for example, at the end of a long July 4th holiday, with the temperature and humidity soaring, the boaters all at their moorings or safely nestled in their slips, you take a well-earned breather waiting for fireworks. However, the real fireworks are in the marina office, as two irate customers bound in to complain about the other. Here is a chance for your employee to excel at customer service. A well trained employee will diffuse the situation, acknowledge the problem if one exists, and most importantly he should be empowered to deal with the situation at hand.

It is this last item where most customer service programs fall short. Smiles are great and polite words are fine but if the employee facing the situation at hand is not empowered to solve the situation it is not resolved. I am not saying that the employee has “Carte Blanche” to give away the marina but he should know who to go to resolve the situation and not let it get out of his control.

Exceptional Employees

Here are four attributes that will make your employees stand out in your customer’s eyes:

Employee Recognition

Remember, employees need to get constant feedback for their service performance from a pat on the back for a job well done to awards and other formal types of recognition. Each manager or supervisor should set the example for the employee and be the motivating force for providing excellent customer service.

Here are nine statements that define what a customer is and what he means to the success of your business. This should be the foundation of your employee training program:

1)    The customer is the most important person in our business.

2)    The customer is not obligated to us; we are obligated to him.

3)    The customer is not an intruder on our work; he is the reason for it.

4)    The customer does us a favor when he arrives; our service is not a favor to him, but our purpose!

5)    The customer is not a slip number or statistic; he is a human being with the same feelings and emotions as us.

6)    The customer is not someone with whom you argue or match wits!

7)    The customer brings us his desires; it is our job to fulfill those desires.

8)    The customer is deserving of the most courteous and attentive service we can provide!

9)    The customer is the person who makes it possible for us to pay our bills, provide salaries and maintain our marina.

There is no substitute for a well designed employee training program with a strong customer service component but it is only as good as the dedication of management to implement that program. Employee training is an ongoing endeavor that will keep your marina ahead of your competition for the years to come and develop a loyal and dedicated staff.


Marina Safety Equipment and Policies

This article, by Carl Wolf, was published in Marina Dock Age –  July/August 2015

In this article, I’d like to address some marina safety equipment and policies for the customers and guests who use your marina.  While not an inclusive list, the equipment and policies should become part of the management practices at your marina.

 No Swimming

It used to be a common sight to watch boaters and their guests jump off the back of the boats and swim in the marina basin. Today, we are aware of the dangers of swimming within the marina basin.  Those dangers range from stray electricity, propeller injuries, underwater currents, and hidden submerged objects.  I recommend that each marina adopt a “No Swimming” policy within the marina basin and post signage to that effect.

 Safety/Rescue Ladders

In my travels, I have observed marinas with safety/rescue ladders ranging from one at each slip to ones without a single ladder within the entire marina.  The intent of these ladders is not to provide access to our customers, but a way to safety egress from the water or to provide safe access to/from a boat.  There are challenges to making sure a person who has fallen in the water can get out safely or helping a boater who needs get off a boat.  Those challenges include: water level fluctuations; water currents; cold water temperatures; accidents/injuries; and vertical bulkheads.   Review the risks at your marina, create a plan to determine the placement and number of safety/rescue ladders needed.

 Life rings

If someone falls in the water and that person has trouble swimming (as a non-swimmer, has an injury or water conditions) and he is unable to safely reach a safety/rescue ladder, how would you assist him out in getting out of the water?  Having a life ring readily available could be your answer.  The life ring is easy to throw and easy to retrieve and should be part of your overall safety policy. 

 The life rings need to be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as Type IV personal flotation device.  Make sure that adequate line is attached to the life ring for you to pull in the person in the water or in case you need to throw the life ring again.  I recommend that you train your employees on an annual basis in the use of life rings.  Again, review the risks at your marina, and create a plan to determine the placement and number of life rings needed.

 Tripping Points

As a frequent visitor to many marinas, I can’t help but noticed the tripping hazards associated with a marina.  Noticeable tripping hazards at a marina are: transition points (where a ramp meets the pier); unmarked curbs; cleats that are poorly placed; customer lines, hoses or electrical cords laying on or across the dock; deck boards that have broken free on one end of the board; and screws or nails that have popped up.

 Take a walk through your marina, identify these tripping hazards and others which are not mentioned in this article and create an action plan to address the tripping hazards.  Some of these tripping hazards could reappear on a frequent basis.  Conducting a dockwalk on a daily basis will give you the opportunity to identify and correct these hazards before an incident or injury occurs.

 Slippery Decks

Whether it’s due to rain, ice, frost, the type of deck material used or the incline of a ramp, the decks of our walkways and ramps can become slippery.  In the northern states, we are accustomed to seeing signs posted on the highway stating “BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD”.  The same is true at marinas.  The decks of our docks and ramps freeze before shoreside walkways.  Your marina needs to address the slippery decks with proper signage, using materials that are resilient to ice, or addressing the slippery surface, such as the removal of snow from the dock.

 First Aid

Marinas are more frequently providing first aid supplies, equipment and training their employees to handle first aid issues.  Signage near the public and private phones at your marina should have the phone number posted for the first responders to your marina.  Work with the first responders in your area as you prepare a written first aid safety plan for your marina. 

 Today, more and more marinas have Automated External Defibrillator’s (AED’s) located at the ship’s store, the fuel pier, or in the Dockmaster’s office.  Create a dialogue with the First responders in your area on what you should include in your first aid plan: training for your employees; supplies to keep available; and/or equipment to have on-site.

 Each marina has an obligation and a supervisory responsibility to evaluate and address safety issues or risks at their marina.  It is important to understand the liability associated with safety issues, and if you neglect these and other safety issues, your insurance may not cover you, if there is an accident due to your negligence.  Invite your insurance company to walk through your marina with you to help identify what those risks may potentially be.  Then create and implement your safety plan.






This article, by Dennis Kissman, was published in Marina Dock Age –  December 2012

I have been writing articles in this publication for the trends issue for a number of years and have never had difficulty with looking forward and giving an opinion as to where the industry is headed except this year.  I happened to be giving a presentation to the Kentucky and Tennessee Marina Associations annual meeting on November 7 and meeting with several marina owners I felt there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of their marinas.  The presidential election was to eliminate the uncertainty we have all lived with these past couple of years but it appears based on the people in the industry that I have talked to, there is a general consensus that the uncertainty of the past is just continuing into the foreseeable future.

There is one fact that started many years ago and is continuing and that is the growing number of Americans that have been forced on the government dole with this lingering weak economy.  With that fact in mind, we in the marina industry must face reality that we are in a leisure industry and not in an industry that is necessary to sustain life.  As a result the areas where someone will cut back is in their discretionary spending and for some, that discretionary spending is boating.

Because of the length of time this recession has lingered on a lot of marina owners are facing a host of new challenges that was not an issue in earlier downturns in the economy.  The biggest problem that I see looming on the horizon is maturing of marina loans.  Most marinas are financed to some extent and of those most loans are structured with a five to seven year balloon payment that will be coming due shortly.  Lenders are faced with their own troubles and marinas are only a small portion of those troubles.  This could be a blessing in disguise.  Lenders are more apt to work with you to restructure your loan than to foreclose but they can only do that if you communicate with them.  One thing a lender hates is not communicating your problem.  Trust me you are not alone and they have heard far worse than what you are going to tell them.

Let’s assume you get your lending situation squared away and on track you still have work to do.  The days of raising rates because you are spending more money are over for a while.  You need to take a close look at your operating costs and where those could be reduced.  Don’t take a machete to your costs but rather a scalpel.  For example, you can cut down on labor expense by adjusting your hours of operation or maybe a closer eye on maintenance issues to get an extra couple of years use out of a piece of equipment because you tightened a couple of bolts or changed the oil more frequently.  It is these little things that will end up making a big difference without alienating your customer base.

Next you need to keep a close eye on your cash situation.  Keep a daily log of cash receipts and disbursements.  Know at all times how much money you have to operate with.  Take into account the seasonally factor for receiving cash.  A lot of seasonal marinas get the bulk of their cash before the boating season begins.  If that is your situation look at your historical cash flow and figure at least thirty percent less cash flow for this upcoming boating season and keep enough of this year’s receipts in reserve to cover any shortfalls.

Be diligent on collecting your receivables.  During these times look at the payment pattern of each of your customers.  If a customer always pays his dockage on the fifth of the month and all of a sudden it goes to the tenth of the month that should raise a red flag and you need to look into what has changed.  It could be as simple as someone going on vacation but then it could be that customer has some other financial issues that could be a problem going forward and impact your ability to meet your financial obligations.  One other thing I want to mention about cash management and that is if you sell fuel.  No matter how hard it is write the check to the fuel company do it the minute you get the delivery.  That does not mean you pay the fuel company before your agreed terms of payment but you want to get it out of your available cash.

Any of you that know me I am a strong advocate of adjusting dockage and storage rates annually.  Well, with these economic times and the unknowns ahead of us I still recommend adjusting rates annually.  More care has to be exercised than you might take in a better economy but look for small adjustments.  For example let’s say that you price slips by groups like boats from twenty to thirty feet in length one price and boats from thirty to forty feet in length pay a higher price.  You notice that two thirds of the boats in the twenty to thirty foot group are twenty eight feet in length.  Instead of raising your group rates why not change the upper group’s lower end from thirty feet to twenty eight feet thus increasing the revenue you receive without actually raising your published rates.

This is a time to pay close attention to your business like no time before. By making small adjustments in how you conduct your business like those mentioned above will make the difference in your success in the years to come.




What Marinas Can Do to Weather Today’s Economic Challenges 

This article, by Dennis Kissman, was published in Marina Dock Age –  May/June 2011

I was recently reading an article that caught my eye where a group of industry leaders were talking about an Association of Marina Industries survey of 124 marina professionals where they talk about the changing climate in the industry.  The one particular comment that caught my eye was the mention that marinas are going into receivership because they lost business.  A marina should be able to withstand a certain amount of lost business if the business was solvent before any downturn in the economy.  What I have seen so far in this economy are the marinas that are headed for or in foreclosure or bankruptcy seem to have one thing in common and that is they are in some stage of redevelopment with one exit strategy and that was becoming a dockominium or rackominium.

The article went on to state that the banks that have taken over the management of these marinas are reducing slip rates to boost occupancy and offset their costs.  The banks that are doing this did not make a marina loan based on an operating business but rather a real estate play.  Instead of these banks recognizing the mistake they made in the first place their actions now are only making the entire industry suffer more than necessary and in the end it will cost the bank more of a write-off.

The question now is what you should do as a marina owner that just happens to have one of these bank owned marinas in your neighborhood.  You cannot pick up your marina and move so you must deal with the poor decision made by others that do not understand this business.  The first thing is to understand the banks motivation.  They are in the business to make money on the money they loan.  Most of the time this works out for them but in the case of these marina loans it did not happen.  You as a marina operator in that market most likely know what that marina is worth and at the right price it would be a good deal to acquire.  If you have aspirations of expanding your business come up with a plan to acquire the marina.  This may sound ridiculous at first but even if you just go through this exercise it can help you improve your business because you will now have a better understanding of the competition.  First you must come up with a value of what you would be willing to pay.  You know the depth of the market because you already do business in it.  From that estimate the amount of income you could generate from it if the marina was in the condition equivalent to your current marina and without any expansion.  That will give you an estimated income number that you will now apply an interest rate that would be acceptable to you.  For example, let’s say that you believe you could generate $600,000 of operating income and for the risk you are taking you expect a 12% return on your investment.  That would mean that you would offer $5,000,000 but let’s say that in order to achieve that 600,000 of income you have to invest $500,000 in deferred maintenance in the property therefore your offer is $4,500,000.  Now that is probably a fraction of what the bank has invested in it but if you are serious about it, persistence and educating the bank on its true worth you may have a good chance of acquiring the property at your price which would not be the first time that has happened.

You are probably thinking to yourself that buying that marina is all well and good but I am trying to stay afloat when the bank is trying to put me out of business by lowering rates below what makes economic sense.  First, do not lose sight of the type of business you are in, the service business, bankers look at it as a rental business.  Second, you have a defined amount of space to generate income from, maximize it and third, boats physically do not disappear as rapidly as owners of those boats may change, meet those new owners expectations.  If you stay focused on these three thoughts you will weather this economic downturn.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail and what can be done to improve your business.

First, there is a big difference between running a service business and a rental business.  I think it is fair to say that most boaters are willing to pay something for service and that is what you have to sell over a bank managed property.  To look at how we can do this let’s look at other industries and see what is being done.  Take for example the airline industry; they continually modify their business model.  If you have flown recently you may have noticed the additional checked bag fees and on some airlines if you want a drink of water you have to buy it.  Personally I am not a fan of these policies and would rather pay a little more and have these services included but many people I talk to likes it because it gives them an option.  If you consider a policy such as this, make sure that: first, it is a service that is an actual cost savings if none of your customers want it and two, it is at a minimum a breakeven for the customers that want the service.  As is the case with the checked bag fees on airlines, bags mean extra pounds and on an airplane that equates to extra fuel consumption.  Reduced fuel consumption means reduced fuel cost.

Second, marinas have only so many slips to rent.  Here again let’s look outside the industry and see what is happening and how a marina can benefit from it.  The hotel industry has a very good business model in their room rate structure.  For example, two identical rooms, one overlooks the dumpster and costs $100 per night while that same room with an ocean view is $300 per night.  That is called value pricing the same should apply to your slips.  Look at your marina and decide which slips have more value to the boater than others and price each slip accordingly.  Again you give your customer a choice of where they would like to be in your marina and willing to pay for that location.  Here the key is to use your current published rate as the median with slips that are better than the median cost more and those that are below the median cost less.

Third, unfortunately many of the existing boats are going back to lenders.  Lenders are not boaters and their interest in that boat is to preserve the value of the collateral for their loan so they can get their money out of it through a sale, while the original boat owner who would be using his boat is buying fuel, getting repairs and buying sundries in your ship’s store.  If you have or can attract lender owned boats into your marina there is an opportunity to maintain or increase your revenues by creating a caretaker program for these boats.  A caretaker program includes items such as detailing services, exercising the mechanical systems and brokerage services.  Most likely some or all these services in some form you already provide at your marina.  To succeed with a successful caretaker program it must be sold to lenders as a value added program until the boat is sold.

This is the time to take control of what you can change and be aware of what you cannot.  Turn this negative situation into a positive that will make your operation stronger as the economy begins to turn around.


Drones in your Marina? You Decide!

This article, by Carl Wolf, was published in Marina Dock Age –  February 2015

What is a drone?  Technically, it is an unmanned aircraft or ship that can navigate autonomously, without human control or beyond line of sight.  In general, a drone can be any unmanned aircraft or ship that is guided remotely.

Recently, I came across a few aerial videos shot by airborne drones hovering above two different marinas.  The first aerial video showed a vessel that was up for sale.  The drone was remotely operated in a graceful hover, circling the vessel which was being put through the paces of operating in the confined waters of the marina.  As the vessel maneuvered through the water, the drone filmed its every movement. Wow, who wouldn’t want to buy that boat? 

In the second video, the drone hovered near the top of a sailboat mast, filming a member of the sailboat crew slowly climbing the mast on his way to adjust, repair or check-up on the equipment on top of the mast.  Have we found a new way to check the top of a sailboat mast without sending an individual up in a flimsy bosun’s chair?

Think of the other possibilities.  If the marina has been shut down due to a fuel spill, an aerial drone could be used to monitor events as they unfold.  If a significant storm has struck your marina, the docks have been damaged and boats are perilously floating around the marina, a floating drone could help you evaluate the situation without putting an employee in harm’s way. 

To that end, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Hawaii Harbors Division have recently developed the “Unmanned Port Security Vessel” (UPSV).  The UPSV will allow a rapid response to assess threats to ports or harbors after a catastrophic natural or man-made disaster.

You might recall another definition of a drone – to make a sustained deep murmuring, humming, or buzzing sound.

What are your boaters going to think of a noisy airborne drone invading their privacy bubble aboard their boat?  Boaters use their boats as their sanctuary to get away from the everyday grind.  

On June 20th of 2014, the U.S. National Park Service banned the use of unmanned aircraft throughout the national park system.  One month later, an individual operated an unmanned aircraft over the marina at Lake Yellowstone on July 18 of 2014.  The drone crashed shortly after takeoff after appearing to lose power.  Recognizing the issue at hand, the U.S. National Park Service pro-actively addressed the drone issue.  Yet, someone defiantly flew an unmanned drone in their park system with the ban in place.  The marina industry is known to be a reactionary industry.  Marinas now have the opportunity to be proactive on how drones of the future will be operated in and above our marinas.

The existing rules pertaining to the operations and use of aerial drones are unclear and ambiguous at best.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working on a set of rules governing the future operations of unmanned drones in our airspace.  For now, commercial use of aerial drones is extremely restricted by the FAA, although the aerial drone fleet within the U.S. continues to grow exponentially. 

How are you going to handle the first drone that comes to your marina?  Will it be a boat dealer wanting to video a boat that has just been listed in your marina?  Overall, the privacy of your boaters has to be your primary concern.   Whether you like it or not, the drones are coming.  The question is, will you be ready?  I believe marinas need to strive for a delicate balance between customer privacy and positive potential applications that drones can play as the drone industry grows and matures.  

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