Q: From a consumer perspective, what is the Freedom Boat Club and how does it work?
Cohn: We are a subscription navigation service. For a one-time initial entry fee ($7,500 or $3,500 depending on whether it’s a year-round or seasonal program) membership) and then ongoing monthly dues (which range from around $250 to $400), you get unlimited access to a diverse fleet of boats in your home club in addition to any Freedom Boat club in the world (there are more than 350 clubs).
Who are your members?
This business model allows for broad appeal. There are a number of people who are owners of earlier or very recent boats. We have plenty of baby boomers who are no longer interested in following what it takes to own their own boat, but they don’t want to completely leave the boating lifestyle behind.
Additionally, we have unlimited training programs that members can participate in after their new member orientation (which is mandatory), which is appealing to those with no boating experience. We are seeing an increase in membership among younger generations, more diverse demographics and more women. Over the past two years, approximately one-third of our new members have been women, which is significantly higher than boating industry trends.
Where are you located in Rhode Island?
We already had four franchises (Newport, barrington, Portsmouthand Warwick), and we recently purchased the locations to be corporately owned (by Freedom Boat Club’s parent company, Brunswick). We found that we needed to open additional locations in order to keep up with demand and to be able to offer enough boats to our members. This month we are officially opening clubs in Wakefield and North Kingstown.
How has the pandemic shaped demand in New England?
Boating was one of the few things people could safely do outdoors while social distancing. Initially, as with everything, there was a brief moment of pause in the spring of 2020. But then the floodgates opened. When you look at the number of locations since spring 2019 we had 170 clubs and now we have over 350. In May 2019 we had around 22,0000 members and now we have over 48,000. When we look at the fleets to satisfy members, this has also grown by leaps and bounds. We have over 4,000 boats now and expect to have over 5,000 by the peak of summer.
What are Rhode Island’s fleets like?
We have a combination of saltwater fishing boats, sport boats and pontoons. Each location is tailored to what the club owner or operator and members request. For example, in our club in Newport, we have simply installed an electric boat that looks like a picnic boat in the fleet that allows people to go around the harbor and explore without going out into rougher open waters . We also have other offers, but most of our boats are between 18 and 25 feet.
Some of our clubs have them. But we find that sailboats require a whole different set of training. We form partnerships with local sailing organizations, but we tend to be hesitant to put sailboats in our fleets.
Not everyone in Rhode Island has a boating license. What does the training look like?
All our courses are taught by a captain certified by the US Coast Guard who has his own captain’s license. In most states, one of the first steps in training is to show up with your boating license (which you can usually do online). In our new member orientation, we teach you how to read all the markers, ins and outs of our booking system, among other things. After the classroom training for beginners, we take you out on the water where you learn how to operate the boat; Docking at the marina, moving away from the marina, where there are areas without waves, for example.
In the event of an incident on the water, are you covered by insurance?
As a member, you are covered for up to $1 million for claims made against you. Everything is included in the membership.
What else is included?
The dock managers help you load your things onto the boat and when you return you hand over your keys and then pay only for the fuel you used that day. The dock manager unloads your equipment but the club team takes care of all the cleaning and maintenance. Additionally, you can bring family members and friends (non-members) on the boats at any time.
What are the Freedom Boat Club’s goals for next year in the North East?
Overall, in any market where people want to go boating and there is access to a body of water that allows it, we want to have a Freedom Boat Club. Right now, we are on the path to unparalleled scale. Specifically for the Northeast, there are a few new markets lined up in New Hampshire and upstate New York where we’re really looking to establish a presence and see opportunities for expansion. In Rhode Island, we don’t believe the end state of our clubs stops at six places. We know it will be much more than that.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are building new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to journalist Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].