France: Marina services make the difference

Article by Jean-Michel Gaigné CMM

This is a translation of an article originally published in the French corporate tourism magazine ‘Juristourisme’ in 2018.

The marinas in France are characterized by three main factors, which makes them unique, and which alone explains why their service offering still shows a preoccupant deficiency in many yacht harbours.

Most of them, developed between the 1970s and 1990s, were built with public funds, then granted as concessions to public bodies ranging from direct municipal management to Chambers of Commerce and Industry, including public or semi-public corporations, and more recently local public companies, with the notable exception of the ports of the French Riviera, often managed by private businesses, and a few rare examples on the Atlantic coast.

Thanks to moderate tariffs maintained over a period, these ports have experienced fairly rapid success, culminating in a lack of berths, leading to waiting lists, and many disgruntled would-be customers in recent years.

And finally, apart from the marinas on the Mediterranean coast which have always had a certain percentage of foreign customers, French marinas are mainly used by French citizens, often local inhabitants living near their home port …

Hassle-free operations

Without wanting to caricature the situation, nor to neglect the goodwill shown by many municipal employees assigned to a marina, the culture of service has never been the prerogative of the public service, whose employees are neither trained in customer relations, nor made aware of the levers of customer satisfaction. The ease with which many ports filled up and the pressure on demand led to a widespread belief that the loss of a customer didn’t matter much, as there were plenty more waiting in the queue. There was also no great pressure to boost the attractiveness of marinas and with customers living close by or in possession of a holiday home in the vicinity, the low level of competition between them reduced the need for improved services. What is the point of offering real bathrooms in the sanitary facilities, a fitness room, a swimming pool, a television lounge in the harbour master’s office and high-speed WiFi when most customers have all the comforts at home, half an hour away?

Service means business

Conversely, most Australian, American, British, Spanish, Italian, Turkish or Slovenian marinas are managed by private companies, making customer service the basis of their offering, because it guarantees the development of their turnover and the profitability that their shareholders expect. It is also the differentiating factor between competitors because these marinas do not all have a 100% occupancy rate and are constantly looking for new customers.

The berthing rates are often higher tending to attract wealthier customers who are not only local or regional, but come from all over Europe and particularly northern and continental Europe. They are not linked, like in French marinas, to a place of residence or to family origins. A German customer would therefore decide to moor his vessel in France, Spain or Turkey, a Hungarian owner in Croatia, Slovenia or Italy, and it is mainly the level of service that will make the difference.

By quality of service, I mean several parameters. First of all, the accessibility of the marina. It’s all well and good to claim that there is an airport nearby but it needs efficient air links with many destinations, and that a shuttle is provided between the airport and the marina … Then there are the opening hours of the marina office, staff on duty 7 days a week, a reception manned 24 hours a day, personnel able to speak in the language of the customer, reliable technical, maintenance and repair services, good level of equipment, assistance to meet any request, and above all the motivation of marina employees to try harder to satisfy the customer…

Integrated services, thus coordinated

French marinas tend to present a discontinuous level of service with uncoordinated sub-contractors, while most international yacht harbours offer totally integrated services. Most of the time in France, the marina operator manages the berths, often also lifting services and hard standing, but this is not always the case. The marinas do not manage the maintenance or repair of boats (provided by private boatyards), nor the sale of chandlery and boat equipment by independent retailers, nor the bars and restaurants located in the port, nor the clubhouse in the hands of a local yacht club, or even a small supermarket …

As a consequence, yachtsmen stopping over in a marina may find themselves caught out by the fact that it is the engineer’s day off, the restaurant on the marina is on vacation, the yacht club is open only on weekends, the marina office does not offer bike rental and there is no shop within less than 15 minutes on foot… In the United Kingdom, in Belgium, in the Netherlands or in Scandinavia, the yacht harbours offer bars-restaurants supervised by the marina, and their operation is naturally coordinated with the activity of the latter … In Spain, Portugal, Croatia, and the UK, there are many marinas providing all maintenance and repair services for customers’ boats, a chandlery, the repair of sails, and running a small grocery store, counting if necessary on sub- contractors or by granting services to tenants over which they have authority. Finally, in the United States, most of the large marinas offer boat rentals, and membership boat clubs.

Things are moving forward in French marinas!

The most dynamic and best structured marinas have been able to overcome this situation. The others must follow. Of course, the dominant model at the international level cannot be transposed to France, as our history, our practice and our management methods are different. But changes in consumption habits, slowing demand and ageing customers have triggered an electric shock that has stimulated creativity, and generated innovative responses.

Thus, the marinas of the “Compagnie des Ports du Morbihan”, whose dynamics have long been based on coordinated management at French “Departement” level and which have adopted the status of a Local Public Company, gives them an agility to introduce innovation. With “à la carte” contracts that combine hard standing and wet berthing according to the customer’s wishes, the company has made it possible to meet demand in a particularly sought-after navigation area. The berth holder is systematically cared for, since all handling and technical operations are addressed by the marina staff.

With “Morbi’Embark”, these same marinas can also offer boat owners the opportunity to find crew, by offering opportunities to enthusiasts wishing to sail. An approach based on sharing, which allows those who do not have a boat to navigate and enrich their knowledge … with the secret hope that they will become the customers of tomorrow.

“Sellor”, a semi-public company which manages several ports around Lorient, has also seized upon the changes in customer expectations. This operator did not hesitate to create, in partnership with local professionals, the “Breizh Boat Club”. This subscription option allows you to navigate without constraint on a motorboat or sailboat while paying in monthly instalments and whilst boat clubs are starting to flourish all along the French coastline, very few marinas involve themselves to promote such ‘pay and play’ offers. “Sellor” goes even further by offering its customers boating coaching courses, likely to secure and empower its berth holders, as well as coastal license training for those who are just starting out. And a few years ago, they installed a sauna for their customers in the marina of Lorient …

In “Saint-Quay Port d’Armor”, the public marina authority has focused on customer service by developing a concierge service, with a staff 100% dedicated to this task, during the season. With its “Smart Attitude” formula, boaters are offered all kinds of services ranging from bicycle and car rental to restaurant reservations, management of repairs and technical services, deliveries on board, or offered other leisure activities. For its part, La Rochelle marina authority offers its customers, permanent berth holders and visitors, free access to more than 200 titles from the digital press, French and European newspapers and magazines, only accessible only through the marina’s WiFi portal. The Nice-Côte d’Azur Chamber of Commerce promotes boat rentals in the yacht harbours of Nice, Antibes, Golfe-Juan and Cannes, by offering its clients to look after the rental management of their boat, when they are not using it, to a partner company of the marina. The marina of Gruissan, on the western Med coast, at the forefront of the E.U “Odyssea” program, has set up a cultural and multimedia space in its marina office, as well as a store selling regional products, and has created an eco-station, offering electric vehicle rentals. The seaside resort is further promoted to visiting boats via a digital itinerary accessible from a buoy transmitter in the outer harbour using two GPS waypoints, and all local nautical service providers are associated to this initiative.

A personalised customer relationship

These few, non-exhaustive examples show that there are fortunately marinas that have acknowledged the changes affecting consumer expectations and behaviour. I deliberately did not address the issue of the collaborative economy which also affects the marina industry and which like a few marinas such as La Rochelle have intelligently embraced, but it is all about customer service.

An American newsletter called “The Marina Minute” recently recalled: “When a customer arrives at the harbourmaster’s office, and asks you a question, if you are not able to satisfy him, you deserve no credit. If you are just responding positively to his request, then you have done no more and no less than your job. If however, in addition to having responded to his wishes, you took the opportunity to offer him advice or offer him another service, then you can consider that you have succeeded”. You always have to go beyond the customer’s expectations.