Resilience and family marina values

Mieke Vleugels and her daughter Catherine Kosters – Jachthaven Wetterwille

When TransEurope Marinas was first created, (as Transmanche Marinas), the aim was to support smaller and often family-owned marinas, creating a home-from-home network to facilitate cruising to new destinations.

As the association has grown, this group of family-owned marinas, each with a highly motivated second or even third generation at the helm, remains amongst the most emblematic; engaging actively with other managers and the industry community, and keen to share the benefits of their accumulative experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, each marina flies the Blue Flag and most have held the award for over 25 years.

As we embrace the moral and civic imperative to include good governance, social, environmental and climate considerations as pillars of future resilience and sustainability, it is perhaps particularly here, with their inherently long-term perspective, that multigenerational marinas have some particularly sage advice.

On this occasion, members from Jachthaven Wetterwille (Loosdrecht, Netherlands), Marina del Cavallino (Venice, Italy), Puerto Calero (Lanzarote, Spain), Jachthaven Waterland, (Monnickendam, Netherlands), and VY Nieuwpoort (Belgium) contributed with their impressions.

Mieke Vleugels and Catherine Kosters (CK) (Jachthaven Wetterwille): With a minimal background in the nautical field, Mieke took over the family marina, (owned since 1960 but established over a century ago in 1912), and boat-building company first owned by her father-in-law, after the untimely passing of her husband. Despite her lack of experience, she made the marina flourish through a combination of hard work and pioneer spirit, selling the Dutch sloop business and investing in many innovations in the marina such as a heated hangar with dry-stack system, the first in the region, and visitor accommodation including a green roof with room for tents. A firm believer in the power of global cooperation, she is part of various associations and is a highly-regarded assesor for the prestigious Gold Anchor Scheme and is one of the most inspirational female role models in this sector. Her daughter Catherine, the eldest of three, combines her job as a freelance journalist with a position at the marina, where she assists her mother in the day-to-day management.

Roberto Perocchio (RP) (Marina del Cavallino), is another very well-known figure in the industry, having held successful leadership roles in his national federation and ICOMIA, amongst other positions. Marina del Cavallino, also situated on private land, has been in his family since 1971. “My family prepared me as a second-generation representative with a degree in law, inviting me to attend all the relevant sector-related congresses from an early age to help me understand the rules and trends of our business environment.”

José Juan Calero (JJC) (Puerto Calero) is currently managing director of a group of three (soon to be four) marinas in the Canary Islands. He inherited the role from his father, who built Lanzarote’s first marina village, Puerto Calero, (founded in 1983), based on an inspired vision after visiting marinas in the US. As keen sailors and water-sports enthusiasts, José Juan and his brother Daniel share their father’s energy and determination, bringing top-level racing and cruising events to the islands, and creating a luxury nautical brand.

Nienke Zetzema (NZ) (Jachthaven Waterland). Nienke is TransEurope’s regional representative for the Netherlands. She co-owns the two-site marina with her husband after taking over from her parents, who bought the marina in 2002. This followed the success of her mother, Trees Zetzema’s charter company, which, founded in 1985 had become a prosperous business with a fleet of over 18 yachts. At university at the time of the marina purchase, Nienke then spent 10 years as a management consultant before stepping into the role.

Steven and Maarten Desloovere (MD) (VY Nieuwpoort). The Club was founded 50 years ago, where Steven held the role of general manager for 32 years and will retire in 2023. Reluctant to shoehorn his son Maarten into the management role despite recognising his suitability, he carried out a series of external interviews to find a new manager. Struggling to find the right candidate, he passed the decision on to the board of directors, who proceeded to both propose and agree on Maarten’s appointment. Since then, the 1000-berth marina has continued to grow in stature, resonating particularly in customer-focussed, youth-oriented, and environmental areas.

Q.: What does comprising a family-run marina destination mean to you, compared perhaps with more commercially run marinas?  Have these circumstances helped develop a stronger company purpose and company culture, for example?

CK: As a family-run marina, we have a more personal approach than most commercially run marinas. We know the names of almost all of our 350 berth holders by heart and are on a first-name basis with many of them. Some customers have had a berth in the marina for decades and have known me since I was a child. Older berth holders often come into the office with stories about my father and grandfather from the good old days. This adds a specific sort of charm. As a family business, we also adhere to a different management style. Issues with staff or customers are met head-on and discussed openly, without the intermediaries you will find in commercial companies. Although we are a small family business, we do strive for the highest standards of service and continue to improve our facilities. We believe that a personal approach and a high level of professionalism can go hand in hand.

RP: The family atmosphere of the marina helps foment customer loyalty in our guests, who are mainly residential, and who have become family friends over the years. This long-term relationship led us find a good balance between the needs of the company (surviving the terrible crisis we suffered for many years due to a combination of the global financial crisis and the luxury taxation on boats) and the needs of the customers, who on the average have become less wealthy than in the past.

Being a family-run marina destination means having a more direct relationship with the customer, who desires a round-the-clock and personalised service; a business environment where you have to be customer-oriented, with a strong daily commitment in improving your marina because it’s not only a business but your home and life.

On the other hand, the customers feel that they are in a well-kept paradise, a miracle connecting sea and land, and they count on the owners to protect and maintain the precious site in which they, too, as customers have also invested

JJC: I feel that there is a sense of personal commitment and passion in the company, affecting customers, employees, and service-providers that you perhaps don’t see in more commercially run enterprises. Not perhaps subject to the same market pressure, I recognise that we have made significant investments with a very long-term perspective, anticipating emerging trends and since these projects don’t provide an immediate return and they might not be as considered as attractive or viable under other circumstances.  My parents invested a huge effort in building personal relationships and as the second generation, many customers that continue to visit the marina, first arrived to be greeted by my father. This longevity and sense of continuity is clearly appreciated and having a positive track-record is a benefit when it comes to working with the local authorities on new projects.

NZ: For me it means focussing on the long term. We have employees who have been working for us for 15+ years, charter clients with us since the beginning and berth holders who basically grew up here at the harbour. We want to offer a full service to our clients, with a focus on customer satisfaction. Being a new business also inspired us to engage in topical innovations, such as our work with electric sloops 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the batteries of 2002 are not the same those available in 2022 and the start-up was very problematic.

We are also very keen on seeking collaboration with other companies, such as Dutch Charter Association. We are also one of the founders of the IJsselmeerhavens network which promotes boating between member harbours. We received our ninth Green Pennant this season, together with the Blue Flag as a reward for our corporate responsibility.

MD: People are very happy to with a warm welcome and a friendly atmosphere; they want to feel at home in their marina or yacht club. I think this is the most important difference between the two.

 

Q.: How does the family working dynamic enrich the overall quality of services offered at marina? What do you bring to the table as separate individuals with different life experiences? How do you manage internal conflicts?

CK: “The fact that we have different generations working at our marina gives us a great advantage in my opinion. My mother brings her vast experience and know-how to the table, while I try to bring a level of digital innovation to the marina. We both have different, yet complementary visions for the company. Whilst my mother has the final say in everything that goes on in the marina and oversees structural improvements including the gradual refurbishment and replacement of our pontoons, I manage our website, social media, and newsletter, as well as our digital booking systems and applications. We are in constant debate about possible improvements but face any conflicts head-on. These situations sometimes lead to heated discussions – as in any family – but, more often than not, to good solutions.

RP: As individual owning a marina, I try to ignite passion and long-term commitment in the business, acting not only inside the marina, but in national and international marina owners’ organisations, to exchange best ideas and practices, lower taxes and concession fees when possible; making pleasure boating more accessible via better regulations. In a family-run business the only big threat can be internal conflicts, but if decisions are careful and deeply discussed among family members, good sense prevails. We are now working on our third generation; involving the children so as to garner their interest and passion for the company and have a vision for its future opportunities of modification and growth.

JJC: Rather than a change in leadership, I think this is more a question of an evolution. We share my father’s values and vision, and so our final choices are aligned. I gratefully acknowledge and appreciate the level of trust and commitment our parents invested in us, allowing us to make crucial decisions independently and, in consequence, gain key understanding quickly.

NZ: My parents were the entrepreneurs who started the charter company and bought the harbour. They saw the opportunities that made our company flourish. My husband’s and my roles focus more on specific segments and ensuring that it all contributes to the whole picture. In terms of responsibilities, I run operations with my team of 17 staff, and my husband Kees does strategy, acquisitions, and contracts.

Being a family and focusing on the long term we can make decisions quite rapidly. The environment we work is in dynamic, just like sailing. Each day is new, and each client is different – but inherently with the same end goal – to be able to go out and enjoy boating. Our job then is to try and make that happen.

When we have internal conflicts, I want to solve them asap. The business we are in is dynamic and if we don’t talk about it or avoid it, it will implode. But this is the style my family practices: we don’t avoid conflict and are used to talking about it.

MD: Over the last 32 years Steven was able to undertake a considerable amount of development due to the spirit of the age. I am now faced with another reality so there are new and other challenges in the business. We share a common standards and values. Conflicts are handled very discretely; familiarity and mutual respect are key to being able to listen to each other and find good solutions.

Resilience and family marina values

Nienke Zetzema with her mother Trees – Jachthaven Waterland.

 

Q.: These last couple of years have delivered a remarkable volley of major challenges. How have you managed?

CK: The pandemic was a challenging time to say the least. While marinas in many parts of the world had to shut down, the Dutch government adopted a laissez-faire attitude and left this decision up to the different regions and municipalities. We were allowed to stay open, but our facilities (including the office and sanitary blocks) were not. With airports, restaurants, bars and other places of leisure closed, the marina became the only get-away for the Dutch. This presented many problems. With the lavatories closed by government rule, we quickly built an outdoor toilet and water tap to foresee in the basic needs of our customers. With the office closed (except for a window through which we communicated), digital communication became more important. We posted regular updates on our website and social media about the ever-changing covid guidelines. We trained our staff to work with social distancing in place and we lowered the rent for our restaurant tenants by 50%, thus helping them to stay afloat during lockdown.

At our marina, the biggest trend is the influx of new boating customers since the start of the pandemic. The Dutch are a sea-faring people, and the few of them that did not own a boat yet, do now! Our waiting list is longer than ever, so long in fact that we had to stop new applications altogether. While this is a welcome evolution, we still face many challenges including dealing with the world-wide price surge of both material and labour, which makes bridging the gap of income lost during the pandemic all the more difficult. Sustainability has always been a priority for us. We have been a Blue Flag marina since 1995 and have been awarded the Green Pennant as one of the most environmentally friendly marinas in the country. When it comes to trends like boat-sharing, we embrace these while staying slightly wary because they may also lead to overcrowding and an influx of boaters with little experience. We try to educate our customers as best we can, both in terms of marina rules and boating etiquette. Social media are a part of our communication strategy, but in recent years, we have noticed that our customers – both young and old – mostly come to the water front to disconnect. We believe that our family marina, that has been here for more than a century but has far from stood still, is the perfect place to do just that.

RP: All marinas have been required to modify their business model in the last 10 years, according to a new generation of customers, some of which are more interested in chartering boats, while others ask for dry storage services, and a good number have less money to spend on boating than their parents.

Competition among marinas has become stronger because of a quickly growing offer (42 new marinas have been built in the Mediterranean in the last 10 years, in the middle of a financial crisis that reduced the number of actual and potential customers), but paradoxically, COVID-19 has proven that boating is still one of the safest and healthiest vacations, providing social distancing, freedom and fun. Even the youngest generation, who seemed to be only interested in long distance travelling by plane, has rediscovered the pleasure of boating, and that makes us more confident about the future.

JJC: I won’t disagree that recent years have been very complicated. We have had to adapt quickly to a changing market and modernise accordingly. Having strong and aligned core values however has helped the process and our customers have remained loyal throughout, which is much appreciated. The qualities of this destination for boating, means luckily, that it is the gift that keeps on giving and so the pleasure that our customers derive from visiting the islands is always a fantastic boost.

NZ: We worked hard during Covid to keep spirits up by sending out clear and frequent bulletins to our customers about the changing situation – this received positive feedback.  In terms of trends, we’re seeing shared boats (two friends buying a boat) and a number of boats planning to make a grand tour this season or the next.

MD: One of the biggest problems we encountered was the extent and complexity of the matter of abandoned yachts. With a lot of work and investigation we were able to generate some good solutions in this area. This experience has led us to take part in an international working group on the topic, where we can contribute our knowledge to the problem of end-of-life boats.

On a personal level, given that we can talk very directly with each other, we can also make fast decisions. Facing a decrease in boat owners after 2008, we resorted to building up a young and dynamic team which meant that we were better able to address the needs of today and communicate with a changing market.

 

Times of crisis imply effective innovation, which needs to serve customers, the sector, the local environment, and the immediate and local economy. The positive impacts of these marinas are clear, and they have all proven to be agile and resilient in light of the wave of shocks that have passed through over the last 15 years. Models in their industry, we congratulate them on their success and wish them well for the future.

Many thanks to all who took part for their valuable and frank contributions to this article.