Freedom Boat Club was first founded in 1989 in Sarasota, Florida, making it the oldest and largest boat club in the nation. The business model was simple: For members without boats to be able to access recreational boating experiences for a one-time entry fee and monthly dues.
The club came to Rhode Island in 2009, and expanded in North Kingstown and Wakefield this month just to keep up with its growing membership base in the state. Cecil Cohn, the president of the Freedom Boat Club’s network, said they are planning “many more” locations throughout the northeast, including in the Ocean State.
Q: From a consumer standpoint, what is Freedom Boat Club and how does it work?
Cohn: We are a subscription boating service. For a one-time, initial entry fee ($7,500 or $3,500 depending if it’s a year-round or seasonal membership) and then ongoing monthly dues (which range from about $250 to $400) you get unlimited access to a diverse fleet of boats at your home club in addition to any Freedom Boat club worldwide (there are more than 350 clubs).
Who are your members?
This business model allows for broad appeal. There are a number of folks that are either prior or very recent boat owners. We have a lot of members in the baby boomer generation that are no longer interested in keeping up with what it takes to own their own boat, but they don’t want to exit the boating lifestyle altogether.
Also, we have unlimited training programs that members can take part of after their new member orientation (which is required), which is appealing to those who do not have any boating experience. We are seeing bumps in membership among younger generations, more diverse demographics, and more women. In the last year or two, about one-third of our new members are women, which is significantly higher than the boating industry trends.
Where in Rhode Island are you located?
We already had four franchises (Newport, Barrington, Portsmouth, and Warwick), and we recently purchased the locations to be corporate-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 be able to offer enough boats for 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 that people could do safely outside while social distancing. Initially, like everything, there was a brief moment of pause back in the spring of 2020. But then the floodgates just opened. When you look at the number of locations since spring 2019, we had 170 clubs and now we have more than 350. In May 2019, we had around 22,0000 members and now we have more than 48,000. When we look at the fleets to satisfy the members, that has also grown leaps and bounds. We have over 4,000 boats now and expect to have over 5,000 by the summer’s peak.
What do the fleets in Rhode Island look like?
We have a combination of saltwater fishing boats, sport boats, and pontoons. Each location is tailored to what the owner or operator of the club and what the members ask for. For example, in our Newport club, we just put in an electric boat that’s like a picnic boat in the fleet that allows people to go around the harbor and explore without going out into choppier, open waters. We have other offerings as well, but most of our boats are between 18 to 25 feet.
Some of our clubs do have them. But we find that sailboats require a whole different set of training. We are forming partnerships with local sailing organizations, but we tend to shy away from putting sailboats into our fleets.
Not everyone in Rhode Island has a boating license. What does training look like?
All of our trainings are conducted by a US Coast Guard certified captain that has their own captain’s license. In most states, one of the first steps to training is to show up with your boating license (which you can typically do online). In our new member orientation, we teach you how to read all of the markers, the ins and outs of our reservation 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, pulling away from the marina, where the no waves zones are, for example.
In case something happens out on the water, are you covered by insurance?
As a member, you’re covered up to $1 million for claims made against you. That’s all included in the membership.
What else is included?
Dock managers help you load your belongings into the boat and when you return, you hand in your keys, and then only pay for the fuel that you used that day. The dock manager unloads your gear but the club’s team handles all cleaning and maintenance. Also, you can bring (non-member) family members and friends on the boats anytime.
What goals does Freedom Boat Club have for the next year in the northeast?
Globally speaking, in any market where people want to go boating and there’s access to a body of water that allows it, we want to have a Freedom Boat Club. Right now, we’re on a path to unrivaled scale. Specifically for the northeast, there are a few new markets lined up in New Hampshire and upstate New York where we are really looking to build a presence and see opportunities for expansion. In Rhode Island, we don’t think that the end-state for our clubs stops at six locations. We know it will be many more than that.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.