Friday, January 23, 2009


WTF? I know, what the heck is that boat in the picture? That's a bad photoshop job, mostly. But it represents what this post is about: towers towing for more than one network. Now, before you get all freaked out and begin your mental list of all the reasons why that will never work, just hear me out.

Exhibit One: It is no secret that Safe/Sea is the contract tower for Boat/US, and they also sell their own towing membership throughout their state of Rhode Island. Contrary to what your intuition might think, this arrangement has been wildly successful for all parties: for Safe/Sea, for Boat/US, and for all their customers and members. Safe/Sea gets a reliable stream of assistance jobs that are paid for by Boat/US, thus keeping their boats and captains working and making money. They also benefit from direct calls to Boat/US that result in a salvage case.

This extra income streams has helped Safe/Sea build and maintain what is arguably one of the fasted and most up-to-date fleet of towboats in the business. This fleet of towboats helps Safe/Sea market their local membership, and contributes to their ability to retain qualified captains. Safe/Sea has had the same core group of 3 staff captains (4 if you count me) since I started there in 2003. Safe/Sea members get great service at extremely competitive annual dues. What they give up is nationwide coverage. Members who boat exclusively within state waters don't care about nationwide service, so they can save a few bucks on joining a local company.

Boat/US members in Rhode Island have access to this fast, modern fleet that is manned by well paid and experienced captains; this fleet is subsidized, however, by the Safe/Sea membership program. I don't believe that you could maintain this level of service if it was based on Boat/US income alone. This is not a minor point. Having a fleet of modern, clean and well maintained boats is a mark of excellence in this industry that both increases the marketability of your program and also leaves a lasting impression on members who actually receive service.

Customer service is the nexus of this symbiotic relationship. The reason both companies endure this situation is that it allows each company to exceed the level of service it could otherwise muster on its own.

Exhibit Two: Block Island, a small summer cruising destination in New England, about 12 miles from the nearest mainland port. Safe/Sea has had a seasonal presence there for many years (which means that Boat/US has too). Block Island is within the SeaTow RI area, but the short season and expensive cost of living out there has remained an obstacle to SeaTow's ability to station a yellow boat out there. I'm not trying to disparage SeaTow here; the brands could easily be switched around in other markets. The point is that I could probably handle all of the SeaTow member cases that happen within 5 miles of the island. Indeed, many of the assistance jobs at Block Island actually happen inside the Great Salt Pond, where 1500 boats are anchored, moored or at a marina every summer weekend. Most of the time, SeaTow members have to wait for a towboat to come over from the mainland, even for a simple jump start. Now, put aside all your issues of payment and contract rates and just think about this from the customer's point of view. He has to wait a couple of hours because the market he broke down in is too small to support more than one towboat, and his brand is the odd man out on Block Island.

Well, what I say is too small is not the market, but the pettiness of the networks and their adherence to contractor exclusivity. It's time to develop some policies that will allow more cross pollination in markets that can't support all these differently painted boats. You can't create a membership franchise on an island that only has about 100 registered boats. But how can you service your transient members who show up every summer by the thousands?

Lets figure out a way to build strong, sustainable towing companies that can flourish outside the traditional big coastal markets like Florida. As the economy gets really tight, the small market towers are going to suffer enough without having to endure having the local assistance pie chopped up into two, or even three pieces.

I purposely bring this up now, just a week before C-PORT, in an effort to stir the pot and promote further discussion while we're there.