Resilience, long-term vision and personal approach

Melanie Symes speaks to representatives from five family-owned marinas within the TransEurope Marinas network to gain insight into how they survive and thrive.

Puerto Calero, the first marina village in Lanzarote, is a luxury nautical brand thanks to José Juan and Daniel Calero. Photo: James Mitchell

Puerto Calero, the first marina village in Lanzarote, is a luxury nautical brand thanks to José Juan and Daniel Calero. Photo: James Mitchell

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, multi-generational marinas, with their inherently long-term perspective, have some particularly sage advice.
Family representatives from Jachthaven Wetterwille (Loosdrecht, Netherlands), Marina del Cavallino (Venice, Italy), Puerto Calero (Lanzarote, Spain), Jachthaven Waterland, (Monnickendam, Netherlands), and VY Nieuwpoort (Belgium) share their thoughts.
Q: What does a family-run marina destination mean to you, compared perhaps with more commercially run marinas? Is there a stronger company purpose and company culture, for example?
Jachthaven Wetterwille in the Netherlands is expertly run by Mieke Vleugels with the day-to-day assistance of her daughter Catherine Kosters.

Jachthaven Wetterwille in the Netherlands is expertly run by Mieke Vleugels with the day-to-day assistance of her daughter Catherine Kosters.

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 might 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 to 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 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 to 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.
The management of VY Nieuwpoort in Belgium passes from father to son as Steven Desloovere retires this year leaving Maarten fully at the helm.

The management of VY Nieuwpoort in Belgium passes from father to son as Steven Desloovere retires this year leaving Maarten fully at the helm.

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. Since these projects don’t provide an immediate return, they might not be considered as attractive or viable under other circumstances.
My parents invested a huge effort in building personal relationships, and as the second generation, there’s a great sense of continuity since many customers that continue to visit the marina first arrived to be greeted by my father. This longevity is clearly appreciated and the level of trust generated over the decades is also a benefit when it comes to working with the local authorities on new projects.

NZ: For me it means focusing on the long term. We have employees who have been working for us for over 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 as those available in 2022 and the start-up was very problematic.
We are also very keen on seeking collaboration with other companies, such as the 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 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 the 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.
Jachthaven Waterland is a two-site marina in the Netherlands run by Nienke Zetzema and her husband Kees.

Jachthaven Waterland is a two-site marina in the Netherlands run by Nienke Zetzema and her husband Kees.

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 an 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 carefully 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.
Marina del Cavallino in Italy, in Roberto Perocchio’s family since 1971, enjoys tremendous customer loyalty with many berth holders now family friends.

Marina del Cavallino in Italy, in Roberto Perocchio’s family since 1971, enjoys tremendous customer loyalty with many berth holders now family friends.

Being a family and focusing on the long term we can make decisions quite rapidly. The environment we work in is 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 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.

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 meet 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 didn’t own a boat 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 worldwide 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 waterfront 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 ten years, according to a new generation of customers, some of whom 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 ten 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 travel 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 that, luckily, 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.
The above article is reproduced by kind permission of TransEurope Marinas and first appeared in the association’s newsletter.


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