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by John Curnow, Global Editor, Powerboat.World 11 Feb 21:00 UTC
On the water your way with FBC, no matter where you are in the world © Freedom Boat Club

Freedom. Best of all, you won't need to put blue paint all over your face to attain it, either. Equally, you won't have to go too far to find it, for there are a little more than 400 Freedom Boat Club locales the world over with 5,000 boats in the combined fleet. Some nearly 60,000 members just completed in excess of 600,000 trips during the course of 2023, as well, so it kind of looks like freedom is alive and kicking. Oorah!

No one else comes close, BTW, and with the backing of the mighty Brunswick Corporation, I reckon they're unlikely to just allow anyone else to walk up to their preeminent position. So now if the boating demographic has to change to meet the brave new world, a closer look at the Freedom Boat Club is a really good way to see what the future may use as constituent parts.

To do this, we spoke at length with Cecil Cohn, the President of the Freedom Boat Club Network. As it turns out, and apart from being the man at the helm, he indeed spearheaded a very special team inside Brunswick that firstly scoped out Freedom, and then went on to acquire the club back in May of 2019. That makes him super qualified to speak to the subject at hand, and with a keen sense of humour to boot, you also get to see what he sees if you just Zen into it a bit.

Now, as Powerboat.World is indeed also global, hence the name, it seemed like a great fit to talk with another brand known the world over. One that also understands that boating in the USA is different to Europe, as too Australia, for instance, all the while registering that there are many common elements too, just like the very 'freedom' we started out with.

Look and Feel

Having that global view is, "absolutely not easy", as Cohn puts it. "Firstly, Freedom Boat Club is really kind of two businesses within the one name. There are a series of clubs that are company owned and operated. Here we're buying the boats, we're securing the slips, we're selling the memberships, we're hiring the dock staff to provide that premium experience, and everything else that goes into delivering on our core premise.

"Then there's a series of franchise clubs in markets where we don't run the clubs ourselves. Here we have a really strong network of franchise operators that are doing exactly the same as above, but for themselves. Their reward is that they collect most of the revenue and the profits associated with their efforts. It is very much an owner/operator style of business, not a purchase, step back, view it all passively, and do something else kind of affair.

"So in each of the markets that we operate in in Europe, North America, and now Australia, you'll find that there is at least one corporate club, and in some cases multiples thereof, and then there's a whole series of franchise clubs. The reason is that the franchise model is a really effective one to scale up quickly and get you moving when your strategy is to go everywhere, and offer a Freedom Boat Club for people that want to go boating.

"Our corporate locations serve as a bit of a role model for the entire business, and also as a place to train new franchisees. The two models are complementary to one another, and we have also acquired back about ten former franchise locations since 2020. This is all about scale and operational efficiencies where the clubs are relatively adjacent. We can also maximise the outcome for both us and our members."

Indeed those franchisees are very crucial to the overall outcome, for at the time of acquisition, Freedom Boat Club owned venues were something in the order of a little over 20%, whether that's boats in the fleet, number of memberships, or number of locations, sometimes a little bit different. Today, the corporate footprint is maybe more like 40%, but also remember just how much the overall club has grown in that time. What was once maybe 170 clubs is now 400 plus.

Cohn obviously travels a lot in his role overseeing the business and gathering that crucial helicopter view of a global enterprise, but also quickly unlocks one of the core elements to success. "The way to win in the business is to win locally. You win in every market individually, and then you leverage scale in order to unlock yet more opportunities, which have enabled us to win locally and globally.

"Clearly, our franchisees are a critical element here, for they typically live in market and are very aware of the local waterways - all of the places to go and help generate leads and sales for memberships, which locations they should expand into, and other local market knowledge. Naturally our corporate club directors are and do the same things, as well."

Direct Offering

Typically, you may find that any operation with a large and diverse footprint, no matter whether it is corporate owned or a franchise style of organisation, can become a bit cookie cutter-ish. It works if you are a supermarket, or fast-food outlet, where familiarity breeds repeat purchase, but boating is a bit different, and if you are not at your local Freedom Boat Club, then waterways, weather, laws, and a raft of other elements are certainly not going to be identical.

Cohn and the team are acutely aware of this, "So much of the Freedom Boat Club experience at each individual location is predicated based on the layout and the amenities offered at that local marina. Whether or not we can offer a clubhouse or a restaurant on site, or office space to run things smoothly, for instance. There's a lot to it, and so every one of the Freedom Boat Club locations is a bit of a snowflake."

Offering even more detail on the end users Cohn added, "Equally, there are some distinct unilateral visual markers, because our members love to use the reciprocity inherent in their membership. This is crucial when they're traveling outside of their home market, as our locations often look very different from one another in a holistic sense."

Given that members are typically of younger age, and newer to boating, what they use for their precious relaxation time does have a learned behaviour or muscle memory aspect to it. Remembering that the entire fleet is all under say 27 feet, and definitely less than five years of age, someone used to a Quicksilver product at their local club would naturally favour the same vessel elsewhere.

Yet the questions come up. Is it there by way of that brand having any penetration at all in that market? Is it fit for purpose given the waterway? Has that boating style got global appeal? Take to the pontoon, for instance. They are a dime a dozen in continental USA, and you can find a smattering in certain locations on the East Coast of Australia, but in Europe they are the proverbial rocking horse exhaust.

For sure you are Brunswick, and can bring so many brands to bear, like Sea Ray, Bayliner, Harris, Boston Whaler, Quicksilver and Mercury Marine to name but a few, but can you get them far and wide, and will people accept them?

"The decisions regarding the fleet and which boats to offer at each of the physical location should always be predicated based on what's best for the member experience. We're in business to serve our members, and we strive every day to provide an absolutely remarkable experience in a really consistent manner. To that end, we not only offer products from Brunswick, but also those from partner brands," stated Cohn.

Sharing the Wealth, Future Focus and Land of Opportunity

"We all kind of work for our members. The fleet decisions are all made locally. Brunswick and a series of OEM external partners do a really good job of tailoring products to meet that with boat club use in mind. We all benefit from the product feedback on a regular basis, and over the years everyone has made a number of enhancements that serve club users and boat purchasers alike.

"We're driving a lot more usage of the boat over the two to three years that it stays in the Freedom Fleet, and so it is a great outcome for both Brunswick and the OEM, as they can get a lot of consumer insights and data relative to enhancements or a design opportunity that might appeal not only to boat club members but also to retail boat buyers.

"If you were to look across our whole network, about a half of the boats are typically offshore centre console boats, a quarter of them are all fibreglass sport boats, bow riders and deck boats, with the remaining quarter being pontoon boats."

Clearly, and as highlighted earlier, this varies from country to country, location to location, so it shows just how many pontoons for instance are inside the US fleet to skew the data this much. So expect some locales to be almost purely wake, sport and deck boats, and others heavily biased to offshore centre console fish masters. No aisle one contains these items, aisle two those ones, and so forth.

One thing has got more global penetration than any other, however. "We've had really strong adoption of Mercury Marine from an engine standpoint. And we're excited about that because over time having a relatively common engine platform will start to unlock opportunities around the engine talking to the iPad that the dock staff are using, and other similar efficiencies that could be gained, let alone the spare parts shelves."

Also consider that a fleet of over 5,000 craft that gets swapped out between 24 to 36 months means that some 2,000 vessels hit the second-hand market each year, and you do not want to be putting all of one brand, let alone model/colour/variant, out to pasture like that. Not good for business. Anyone's business...

So if 90 percent of the fleet tops out at 25 feet, and probably the most popular item is a 24-foot centre console, is Freedom Boat Club also seeing the worldwide trend for yet larger LOA? They are the premium boat club, after all, with unlimited training options, dock staff taking your gear down to the boat, and so forth.

"The fleet has been also entirely single screw, but a number of us have been experimenting with offering a slightly larger boat, like a twin engine centre console, or maybe a small cruiser. It just unlocks a new set of member experiences that they can go after."

This is important, for it is those experiences that may unlock the entire boating world. 30 to 40-year-olds comprise the lion's share of the club, and they presently favour joining over outright purchase. Time and funds may be part of it, but unlimited, free of charge training is critical to them, so that outlines the previous experience aspect, and shows that barriers to entry can be reduced.

Go get your Freedom by starting with this video -

So if they are the left hand side of a typical bell curve, then the right is older folk who want out of the maintenance and rigmarole, but do not want to exit boating all together. In this way, Freedom Boat Club is not so much about the bulk in the middle, but rather a two-humped camel, where the two polar opposites comprise the overall membership.

Get out of town

Like all boating, Freedom saw an uptick from Covid. Cohn describes it as three eras, if you will. Pre, Peak, and Post. "The demand levels were somewhat unprecedented within the Covid era, but what we're finding is in this post Covid era, that the demand still remains a lot stronger now than it was pre Covid."

Yes it might have been some 20,000 members when Brunswick came along, and that's now three times bigger, but here's the thing. It was 'just' 2,000 boats back then and now it is more than 5,000. No one makes an investment in two and a half times the fleet without any sort of return. No one, not even a Brunswick.

More members, more vessels, and more locations not only drives awareness of Freedom Boat Club, but of the category itself, too. "We see a continued growth where our demand post Covid is much stronger than it was pre Covid, even if it's not quite what it was during Covid. Broader trends, like working remotely, or flexible work schedules has also allowed people to access the fleet on weekdays, where there is greater availability, and less traffic. This is especially so in the afternoons, where families can collect the kids and get a few hours of fishing or entertainment in before going to bed. It can even be a spur of the moment type thing."

So if usage has changed over the time of Brunswick's ownership, then the products most definitely have. There were no 600hp outboards back then, Toons did not look as sporty as they do now, there's the rise and rise of the RIB, the crossover vessels, the axe bow, all manner of electronic wizardry, and some very cool things almost about to be real, and other more future oriented items for a bit further on.

"Obviously, Freedom Boat Club brings scale and volume to the table. We very much view Freedom as a future platform to test some of these technologies in a safe manner, and it unlocks yet more, often very exclusive member opportunities/experiences that early adopters can gravitate towards. By way of example, a member may normally take a certain boat out, but would love to try an electric craft this time. The proportions of the fleet offering new experiences will only increase as we move forward."

Cohn finished by saying, "I know you are Australian, and we are very excited by what we have been able to do there in just 12 months. We have a corporate club in Sydney, and five franchisees, which have helped us get to ten locations now from Lake Macquarie and Bobbin Head to the Gold Coast and Brisbane. They have all done a really good job in a short time frame."

Marketers used to find locales that had a reasonable resemblance the entire market as a whole and then use them as test markets to explore effectiveness of all manner of variables from product to comms before a national rollout, and hopefully away from too many prying eyes.

Times have changed markedly, but I see Freedom Boat Club as a great way to peer into the future of boating. Knowledge about the attributes and usage of products, along with the tailoring of future developments to meet so many stakeholder's expectations and requirements is definitely the core offering in that way. Incredible efficiencies and ways to keep boat builders alive somehow seems like a handy by-product, even if it was not intended that way...

OK. Today you will find that the website has an abundance of material from right across the globe, and if you cannot find something, just try the search button right up the top of the landing page, above our logo. If you cannot find what you want or wish to want to add to that, then please make contact with us via email.

Finally. Please look after yourselves.

How Freedom Boat Club works -

John Curnow

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