The past few decades have seen an unprecedented number of new technologies impact our daily lives. Especially for those of us who grew up without the internet, it feels like the world is moving very fast.
The marina industry is notoriously behind in technology adoption. Part of the reason is it’s hard to deliver software enabled technology in the marina environment. Good wifi, the infrastructure for delivering most new technologies, is really hard and expensive to provide in a marina. Another reason is boaters and the people running marinas tend to be dominated by an older demographic who do not live “digital lives.”
Automation is central to any discussion about emerging technologies. The automation of everything from cars, to investment decisions, to manufacturing, to business processes is well underway. This sea of change will impact us all, for better and for worse. Whatever automated marinas look like, and they are coming sooner than we think, marina automation will involve leveraging some or all of these technologies within a management framework.
General automation in society might not be a bad thing for marinas. It’s not hard to imagine that automation will allow people to have significantly more free time. Sailing is an activity that might experience a huge rebirth as people look for fun, eco-friendly, non-digital activities to fill their free time.
To help marina and boat club professionals navigate what solutions will work best for, or impact, your marina, here are some of the key emerging technologies that are, or will soon be, part of your day-to-day. The technologies and new technology-enabled business models that we touch on are algorithms, chatbots, language translation, customer-relationship-management, artificial intelligence and machine learning, autonomous boats, mobile apps, cloud hosting, software-as-a-service, and marketplaces.
Algorithms are math based frameworks that manage complexity. They can include multiple data sets or lists, and apply if-then reasoning to provide optimal outcomes. They’re all around us and are used for everything from deciding traffic signal locations and timing, to managing what you see on social media sites. Algorithms have been around for hundreds of years but it has been the marriage of algorithms and computing that enables a lot of our modern lives.
Applying algorithms to marinas is a natural fit. Marinas are inherently complex with different sized boats, different sized slips, different uses for those boats, and different types of customers. All of this in a dynamic environment where slips turn over and people want their boats in different places in the marina. Algorithms can play a continual game of Tetris or chess with the boats in the marina to provide optimal outcomes that consider all of the complexity and preferences inherent in a marina’s management. At Swell, our “secret sauce” is an algorithmic based framework for efficient marina management.
Chatbots are algorithm driven chat tools that have been designed to handle basic, repetitive communications. Currently, they can’t handle complex interactions like organizing a poker run but could be used to schedule something like a pump out. They’re predominantly text or e-mail based but auditory chatbots are coming soon. Chatbots will be a central piece of automating the customer service side of marinas and boat clubs.
Language translation is another technology that’s in the process of breaking through. At Swell, we’re implementing Google Translateinto our product. Soon you’ll be able to communicate through e-mail or text with your customers and have it translated in real time. Language translation is a prime example of a benefit of cloud-based hosting and the value that a SaaS-based product delivers. Recently, early stage earbud sized speech translation tools have been released which will allow in-person verbal communication in any language, in person. For those of us who love traveling this will literally open up a whole new world when visiting different cultures.
Customer Relationship Management Platforms (CRM)
A CRM is a communication tracking tool that allows one central location for customer interactions to be stored and quickly retrieved. Modern CRM’s like Swell’s allow people to send and receive customer communications as well. The sales industry and hospitality industry have spearheaded the evolution of CRM’s. The biggest CRM in the world is the enterprise sales CRM Salesforce.
Currently, there is significant consolidation and professionalization in the marina industry. Previously, this was mostly focused on mega yacht marinas. Companies like Safe Harbor are leading this trend for traditional marinas. We're also seeing a new generation of marina managers enter the sector from other industries where they previously used CRMs. They're demanding comparable tools to help them do their jobs at the marina or club.
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Although technically machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are slightly different things, for the non-technical like myself, and probably you, there’s little difference. People are working on some very deep AI that can do things like mimic human logic and learning, but these systems are still a ways away and aren’t the best fit for marinas. Marinas are better suited for more basic forms of AI applied to day-to-day operations and the massive amounts of data inherent in any marina or club.
I think there are two ways that AI and ML will change the marina environment. The first is how it will impact almost every industry, through automated communications. As AI gets better at natural language processing it will be able to replace more and more complex interactions between the boater and marina. It’s hard to think of many situations in a marina that aren’t routine in nature, which is where this kind of AI thrives. It will start with the basic chatbots as explained above. They will quickly evolve to replace more and more customer interactions in the marina as the technology evolves.
The second way AI and ML will be applied in a marina is by leveraging the huge amounts of data a marina produces to better understand boater preferences and behavior. To give some examples, marinas will be able to tell when a boater will churn out before they do, when they will be looking to buy a new boat and what that boat will be. A smart, observant and engaged marina manager can tell these things intuitively. ML will give that ability to every marina.
At Swell we work with our customers to help organize their existing data, and give marinas tools to collect cleaner data, in part so we can apply ML to marina operations in the future.
Autonomous cars and transport trucks are going to have a significant impact on our economies very soon. Most of any flight, and the trip your consumer goods took from Asia, are autonomous today. Autonomous boats could have a serious impact on marinas.
If people are able to call up an autonomous boat like they will an autonomous car a lot of people could forgo owning a boat. One of my favorite uses for a boat is to access remote surf. For those of us who like using a boat for task-based exercises like sport fishing and surf access, there might be a lot less incentive to own your own. As mentioned in the intro, general automation could lead to a big upswing in sailing so it might be a case of a little bad, but a lot of good in the long run for marinas.
Mobile apps have been around for a while now, but they have very low adoption in the marina sector. At first, we thought mobile apps would be a whole new economy providing stand-alone value, but most apps out there have become an extension of existing businesses and services. As a customer service focused business, marinas are perfect for leveraging the power of mobile devices and the apps that run them.
Currently, the mobile apps offered by marina software companies are pretty rudimentary. They generally show the boater their account details and provide little value beyond that. At Swell, we’re working on Maxswell: The Marina Butler. A mobile app for your boaters that will help you add a new layer of customer service and provide marinas with extensive customer information. I can’t get into detail here about how I think mobile apps with impact marinas without giving away product details before we launch it, but mobile apps have the potential to be a powerful force in marina operations.
Cloud hosting is where software “lives” on computers owned by companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Before, software would be hosted on your marina’s servers, now it’s hosted on massive server farms and you access the software through the internet. It’s a sort of timeshare for computing storage and processing power.
Cloud-hosted software removes a significant cost as the marina no longer needs traditional servers to run their operations. The software is accessible anywhere on or off-site allowing it to be continuously improved by the provider. Bugs or issues are fixed easier and cloud-hosted software allows these tools to incorporate technologies from other software providers. The vast majority of software that we use today is cloud hosted.
The downside to cloud-hosted software is that you need to have a good internet connection in the office to use it, and good wifi to take advantage of all of the potential features and tools. If your marina is in an area with intermittent internet connections this might not be the solution for you unless you have a cheap satellite data provider.
With the new delivery mechanism of cloud hosting vs locally hosted software, a new business model has been developed to fit the nature of cloud software products. Before, you’d purchase your marina software once and potentially pay a monthly or annual service fee for continued support and updates. You purchased a product. Now, with software “living” somewhere else and accessed from anywhere, it is a service provided to the marina for an annual or monthly fee.
Modern software includes multiple software products from other software companies bundled with the main product, and exchanges information with other software companies through API's to enhance functionality. For example, in the Swell Advantage marina management solution, we use Google for cloud hosting, language translation, and some machine learning tools. We also use Twilio to enable different types of communications like texting and fax.
API adoption in the marina software industry is incredibly low and this is holding back the whole marina industry. I expect that as transient boater platforms like Dockwa and Snag-A-Slip (demand) offer more and more economic incentive for marinas to seamlessly show available slips (supply), there will be more pressure on the marina software industry to adoption API's. Another reason for the SaaS model is technology is moving so fast that off-the-shelf product software tends to be out of date when you purchase it.
As SaaS products are based on cloud hosting there are the same issues with internet connectivity. If you’re in a remote area with intermittent or rudimentary internet connections SaaS probably isn’t a great solution for you. Also, because you’re paying each year (or month) it tends to be more expensive over the long term. This increase in cost is balanced against increased utility, functionality and the ability to integrate with other products to provide more value to your boaters.
Marketplaces & Platforms
Marketplaces and platforms are a technology-enabled business model that allow one group of value creators to connect with another group of value consumers. Their power comes from increased distribution (connections) between one group and another which grows exponentially as more people and/or businesses join the platform. Almost all of the powerful technology companies that have emerged in the past few decades like Apple, Google, Ebay, and Facebook are marketplaces and platforms.
There is a significant opportunity in recreational boating to create or leverage value through marketplaces and platforms. Airbnb currently allows you to spend a few nights on someone’s boat while it’s in the marina and their new Experiences feature is perfect for boat owners. Marketplaces Dockwa and Snag-A-Slip are growing quickly to connect transient boaters with available berths. Boat Setter seems to be leading “Airbnb for boats.” There’s a huge amount of value to be created in connecting boat sales, boat services, boat insurance and marinas. Someone will crack that nut eventually and it could fundamentally change the whole recreational boating industry.
The marina industry is going through a significant period of change. We’re seeing extensive consolidation and demographic turnover in boaters and marina managers. These changes are and will accelerate the adoption of new technologies in marina and club management. Latent technology adoption in the industry isn’t necessarily a bad thing as most marinas and clubs have avoided many of the time consuming and expensive processes and technologies that it took to get to this point. It’s going to be fun to see how the industry adapts and evolves to emerging and existing technologies over the next five to ten years.