A Marina's Guide to Backfilling

Post by - Published on 05/18/21 13:21 PM

We are in a time of growth for boating.  Boat sales in the United States hit a 13 year high in 2020 according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Here at Dockwa we've seen more than 100% year-over-year growth in the number of active boaters booking through our system. A lot of this growth can be attributed to first-time boat owners.  As David Foulkes, CEO of Brunswick Boats recently told CNBC, Boat buyers have become more ethnically diverse and the average age dropped from the low 50s into the high 40s this year. Sales also have risen among women.”

However this boom isn't just isolated to "starter boats", we're also seeing increases in bookings and activity from large yacht owners across Dockwa.  What all this growth points to is that as a marina operator, your demand and occupancy this year may be higher than ever before.  How can marinas ride this wave and not be crushed by it? One marina marketing approach that deserves a deeper look is getting your marina organized around the practice of backfills. 

The Art (and Strategy) of Backfills.

Backfills can happen anytime a long-term customer decides to leave their slip or mooring for a period of time and take to the sea. Perhaps they're headed up the eastern coast for the Great Loop. Maybe they're just taking a weekend away or pulling their boat for some repairs. Regardless of the motivation, the result is a slip left vacant in a time of heightened demand. If your marina can become skilled at filling these vacancies on the fly you can turn a 90% occupancy rate into 100% or even a 100% occupancy rate into 110%.  

The Impact of Increasing Your Occupancy

You may look around at your docks and think you're pretty full, but even slight changes in occupancy - moving from 95% to 100% for example - can translate to thousands or even tens of thousands at the end of the year in revenue.  We put together a Marina Occupancy Calculator that you can use to see the potential impact of a few more percentage points in occupancy on your bottom line. (Click the image below to open the calculator in a new window.)  

occupancy calculator screenshot

How to Structure a Backfill Practice

There are two main ways to set up your backfill practice with your boaters, either as an unstructured arrangement or a formal partnership.

Unstructured Backfill Arrangements
In an unstructured backfill arrangement, the Marina is solely responsible and solely incentivized to fill empty spaces as they see them. Even in an unstructured backfill arrangement it's a good idea to work language into your contract with long-term boaters that states that you, as the marina, have the right to backfill empty slips rented by the boater when they are away. This adds transparency to the process and protects you in the case of boater disagreements. 

Use your Dockwalk tool to denote when a boater has left their slip vacant. (For Dockwa customers, the Dockwalk tool can be found via the mobile app). As boaters leave or return to their assigned moorings/slips you can mark them as "vacant". Then use your messaging tools inside Dockwa (or phone/email if you aren't a Dockwa customer) to connect with your boaters to understand how long they'll be away.  

Once you have the vacancy mapped, you can tap your waitlist or run a flash promotion to help fill the spot with transient demand. Just ensure that you are cognizant of the specific departure and arrival dates to avoid overlap. We highly suggest that you use software and digital communication to track this rather than pen and paper as it keeps all activity in one central place for all dock staff.

Formal Backfill Partnerships

While unstructured arrangements are a good way to try out a backfill strategy and may work for many marinas as a lasting approach, some marinas opt to create a more formal partnership with their long-term boaters and an incentive model for heading out to sea and opening the vacancy.  

When you secure a long-term boater, you can ask if they'd like to take part in your backfill program which rewards slip-holders when a backfill is placed.  The incentive could either be a flat benefit or payment - say $100 back on your reservation if you participate - or it could be a percentage of the revenue earned through backfilling their slot. Regardless of how you structure the incentive, we suggest translating all "earnings" into discounts on their long-term reservation rather than payments to keep things simple. As part of the arrangement, the boater must agree to specific departure and return times to make managing your backfills easier and more predictable.  

Service Yards and Backfills

One of the best situations in which we've seen a backfill strategy employed is in service yards. Service yards work great for backfills because your team has greater control over the time during which a boat is onsite.  You know when you have a light service day and can create openings for transient boaters.  What's more, using backfills to house transient boaters can act as a form of marketing for your service yard, raising awareness that you exist and provide services every boat eventually needs. 

MacDougalls' Cape Cod Marine Service started to employ this strategy years ago when it signed on with Dockwa. While their revenue focus had traditionally been seasonal slip holders and services, MacDougalls' communicates directly with their boaters through the Dockwa app, making it easy to know customers' arrival and departure times, so they can fill their inventory with transient guests when it's available. Through better inventory management and increased communication with boaters, MacDougalls' increased their transient slip revenue by a whopping 525% since 2015.  Read their story.

Getting Started with Backfills

If you've never run a backfill strategy before, it may help to start small. Focus on a portion of your open dockage or moorings, leaving some open to protect against scheduling errors. Once you have your strategy down to a reliable process you can expand to backfilling all openings. Deciding what approach to take is a decision best made with the context of your own marina and customers in mind. Unstructured approaches leave all of the profit with your marina, but striking a partnership with your boaters could incentivize more trips and better communication. How you pursue it is up to you, but in a time when boater demand is spiking, backfills may be the key to a record year of revenue for your business and more boaters enjoying the water, which is a win-win if you ask us. 


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