Interview: Oasis Marinas
Earlier this year we had the pleasure of sitting down with Founder and CEO of Oasis Marinas, Dan Cowens. Dan has over 25 years of experience in hospitality management services and is the architect of Oasis Marinas’ vision to provide high-quality marina management services in Annapolis and around the world. We discuss the foundation of Oasis and how the company strives to provide premier marina management services to every property, the current marina environment and operational outlooks for 2021.
Brett Murphy: Dan, thank you for taking the time to share the story of Oasis and how your company can benefit owners worldwide. To open the conversation, tell us how Oasis Marinas got started.
Dan Cowens: Oasis was created because I was a frustrated customer! As a boater and having grown up in the hospitality industry there seemed to be an opportunity in the space. After some initial research with friends and some of my cohort mates from UMD Smith School of Business we realized that the industry was widely fragmented and there was no clear “Marriott” brand leader. We bet our life savings that if we built our business model around the customer experience and made it scalable, we could create something amazing with people we love and respect. Out of that modeling both Oasis Marinas and Snag-A-Slip were born.
Murphy: Very cool! When you thought about becoming the “Marriott” in the marina industry, what experience and general services did you set out to offer guests?
Cowens: Peace of Mind. We are a fully integrated tech-enabled service offering which sounds awesome, but what it means is Oasis offers marina owners many options which may include Consulting, Design-Build, or Turnkey Marina Management. We offer marina owners an opportunity to own the real estate and enjoy the benefits of ownership without having the headache of day-to-day operations. As Bob on our team says, “We pay you to run your marina. You get your time back and we send you checks”. The line of our logo is more than a tag line, we mean it. Your Marina, Our Systems, Everyone’s Oasis!
Murphy: I know many owners who currently work with your team, as well as many who should! So, you started out in MD, highly concentrated around the Chesapeake but now you have seriously grown the company to several dozen marinas under management. Can you talk about how that footprint looks like and how you plan to continue growing?
Cowens: Yes, we are currently entrusted to operate more than 40 marinas from the Great Lakes to Florida with the highest concentration around the Mid-Atlantic like you mentioned – again, that is where we were founded. During the Pandemic we were fortunate to continue to growth by adding two new markets, Florida and the Great Lakes. We have to remind ourselves of that from time to time because we now are entrusted with half a dozen locations in those markets, and we only just started doing business there! Moving forward, I would expect we are going to focus not only on new markets but additional locations in the markets we currently serve. But we will always prioritize quality over quantity and ensure that each marina owner is getting the best service and best product.
Murphy: That’s great! And has technology affected your business and overall platform?
Cowens: It has, and we have been early adopters of technology as well as developers of an aggregator (Snag-A-Slip). This has always been to assist in creating a frictionless way for boaters to connect with available slips and have a seamless transaction. The marina industry was behind many other industries like hotels and parking just five years ago. It has been exciting to see the number of new technologies that have been in attendance at B2B industry shows like MRA, Docks Expo and AMI. I remember when these technologies were in the “other” category. One of the first dock masters to use our aggregator said it best, “Snag-A-Slip is the staff member that I don’t have to pay benefits and never sleeps”.
Murphy: Staying on the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic, in what other ways was Oasis affected? You mentioned growth in new markets, but did you see any adverse results?
Cowens: I can fortunately say that we did not see any adverse effects due to the pandemic, very lucky in that regard. Like much of the marine industry we thrived as marinas were kept open and boaters (new and existing) rushed to the water. Like I mentioned before, we added almost 20 locations to the portfolio during COVID while expanding our product offerings with products like “Oasis Delivers” and “Oasis Amplified”. We also renewed several of our existing relationships. Our customers have loved the new offerings and we are always looking for new ways to benefit them and earn their trust.
Murphy: That is fantastic – adapt and expand. As boat sales and boating activity dramatically increased in 2020, how have you seen marina operations reacting when it comes to day-to-day management?
Cowens: We have one chance to make a first impression, especially with new boaters so we better make it remarkable. According to NMMA reports, first time boat buyers make up over 11% of the segment. Day to day operations is focused on creating those remarkable experiences so they have a great time and tell others to buy boats. The entire industry wins the more we do that.
Murphy: Yes, I also saw where 2020 had over one hundred thousand first-time boaters purchase new boats. That’s incredible. With so many new boaters and high demand across the board, what challenges did you come across throughout 2020?
Cowens: We see most challenges as simply opportunities that we have yet to overcome. The largest opportunities we find consistently are significant deferred maintenance and undercapitalized locations. These are not location or geographically exclusive, but the idea of that type of marina is something we often encounter and while it is certainly an opportunity, it represents a different “need” from the marina owner than a marina that is fully occupied and in need of us so they can simply be a passive owner.
Murphy: And on the topic of boater demand, what are your thoughts on marina occupancies in the coming years after seeing a strong increase in 2020?
Cowens: They are going to continue to increase as many brands of boats have orders that have yet to be fulfilled. There will also be new methods of boat storage, new ramps and increased demand for convenient ways to store and access your boat. This will be a trend that absolutely persists, and we are excited to be there and ensure boaters have the ultimate marina experience at our properties.
Murphy: Now, while restrictions due to COVID are loosening, depending on the state, there are still Covid government restrictions, I can only imagine Oasis has taken a number of steps to ensure guest and staff member safety while boating as well.
Cowens: Absolutely. We started by surveying thousands of boaters to understand what was important to them. From the information we collected we were able to enact a COVID specific safety plan at our locations as well as offering Oasis Delivers and Oasis amplified, our entertainment YouTube channel was established so that our customers can continue to enjoy live entertainment when their locations may be locked down and don’t allow groups to gather to enjoy live acoustic music from anywhere they may be. My vision for this was that people would be on their boats watching live performances from local artists and experience it virtually with a boater that may be in the slip next to them, across the marina or the world.
Murphy: That is an amazing idea! So with your boaters having a great experience at marinas all around the US, let’s talk about your customers – the marina owners. First, what type of marina is typical for Oasis to sign on?
Cowens: While no two marinas are the same and that included Oasis locations as well, we have thrived in locations that have transient boater opportunities as well as upland offerings that allow us to showcase our marketing prowess. That being said, we successfully operate many family-owned locations, municipal locations, developer owned marinas as well as Clubs and HOA marinas too. Each provides a unique opportunity for us to activate the waterfront assisting in getting more people having an awesome time out on the water. We love most things that activate the waterfront. We have wet slips, dry stacks, Boatels, campgrounds, beaches, pools, cottages, buildings, boat clubs, brokerages, bars and restaurants to name a few. I do find this question to be tricky as we love a challenge; however, we like to find great partners to operate restaurants.
Murphy: That’s good to know. Like you mentioned, no two marinas are alike so for marina owners reading this interview, they may now see Oasis as being a potential option for future management. What would you suggest they do in preparation for hiring a third-party management team like Oasis?
Cowens: I would suggest outlining what’s important to you as the owner and writing it down. Ask, why are you looking to sell or outsource? If you have this prepared it will help to weigh options and makes the choice that you believe is best for you and your family. At Oasis we build our deals so that we win when the marina owner wins. We are not afraid to bet on ourselves. Believe it or not, we find that is not normal!
I would also say to make sure that you are engaging with a “partner” that buys into your vision and you have confidence they will be able to deliver on it, not all third-party management is the same. I equate hiring a third-party management team as getting married. Not every day will be perfect, but you must have confidence we will wake up tomorrow and strive to be remarkable. This isn’t just trust in the on-site team but the support they receive from the company. I often hear from owners that had poor experiences with other groups that the manager was left on an island and had no support. Everyone on our support team has worn out luggage and has the philosophy of managing by walking around. To illustrate this belief, our Chief Operating Officer doesn’t have an office because our expectation is we are customer facing.
Murphy: Really good advice. For the most effective management and overall ownership success, owners need to view their third-party management as a partnership, a marriage of sorts. Based on that, what final piece of advice would you give marina owners as they think about their own management strategy and day-to-day operations?
Cowens: Boating is a hospitality / customer service business and boat storage is more like the hotel business than storage. Gone are the days of dock masters with “Captain” in their title barking out orders as we need more people that love to serve others. New boaters are a bad boat season away from a vacation home or taking up golf. We need to be giving them more positive experiences so we can all win together. Like Ram Charan would say, businesses rarely fail due to not having great ideas, they fail because of poor execution. It’s not for lack of effort, there are simply only so many minutes in the day to get stuff done. Having a third-party management company give you a team of Ninjas (subject matter experts) to execute on the amazing ideas and vision you have had in your head since you became the owner. We are here to assist in making those dreams a reality. Owning a marina and serving others is an awesome responsibility and should be fun. Its ok to ask for help, I do. We stand ready to serve.