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At the opening breakfast of the Ft Lauderdale International Boat Show (FLIBS) last Monday, a panel of marina developers and operators discussed the current state of US marinas, particularly in the South Florida area.

Soundings Trade Only editor in chief Bill Sisson, who moderated the event, asked panellists about the growing trend of updating marinas. “We’re finding that when a boat owner or charter guests goes to a destination, they just don’t go to sit on the boat,” said Mehmet Bayraktar, chairman and CEO of Flagstone Property Group, which is developing the Deep Harbour marina for the superyacht segment. “So we decided to create a village and destination and our primary inspiration.”

Bert Fowles, vice president of marketing for IGY Marinas, said that his company focuses on specific needs for the individual marinas, which are located in eight countries in the Caribbean and USA. “In some marinas the boat owners want to get out real quick, so we design them around easy access,” said Fowles. “In others, we make a priority of amenities like a pool, private dining and entertainment. What you put there needs to benefit the end user.”

Beyond upscale developments, the panel of experts said that they also focus heavily on customer service, particularly with finding the right employees in the marinas. “This part of the industry has always been very informal without much longevity for the workers,” said Fowles, “but we’re looking to provide careers for our staff.”

Another panellist, Raymond Graziotto, president of Seven Kings Holdings and Loggerhead Marinas, said his company was “slow to hire, and quick to fire” staff because they realised that strong employees will have a direct impact on the customer’s experience.

All panellists said they think about years ahead when designing their marinas because of recent hurricanes and superstorms as well as rising ocean levels. “As we upgrade the facilities, we raise the base levels for flooding,” said Robert Christoph, president of operations for RCI group. “We monitor where we see the boating industry trending and design facilities for boats 25 years from now. If we build it for today, the marina will be outdated in 15 years.”

Christoph said that power-band needs will more than double during that time, while he forecasts the average yacht beam will increase by 50% going forward. “The number of slips is going down in new configurations,” he said.

“When designing a new facility, we have to consider making a face pier that could handle five 70ft boats or one 400ft superyacht,” said Steve Ryder, manager of product development for Bellingham Marine. “The physical structure of the facility is critical to its success. You really have to be adaptable.”

Christoph also said that marinas are attempting to connect with surrounding facilities. “In our marinas in Boston and Miami Beach, we’ve made an effort to connect our marina with the general public by including restaurants, retail properties and bay walks,” he said. “We think it makes the marina more of a part of the community.”

Several of the panellists complained about the permitting process for marina expansion and dredging, saying that the years-long process was onerous and full of red tape. Bayraktar said that his new marina in Miami Beach spent 10 years gaining the right permits for dredging and has gone US$4m over budget in moving sea grass and building a special curtain for tidal flows. “Permitting is getting difficult if not impossible in Miami Dade County,” he said.

Christoph said that “challenges in permitting” is also his number one issue. “We have three projects that we’re working on, and I don’t expect them to start for three years,” he said. “We’d like to see some solutions to this time problem.”