Mike Melillo, CEO of The Wanderlust Group

A letter to our customers upon raising $30M for The Wanderlust Group's next phase

This week marked a milestone for our company, one that would not have been possible without the trust that all of you put into us over the years. The $30  million investment we announced today will not just shape our future as a company, it is our plan to invest it in ways that will help grow the industry as a whole. We are here because of you, our customers, so we wanted to share with you some of our perspective on the opportunity ahead.

A new age of adventure

Something fundamental has shifted in the last two years about the way people want to spend their time. Somewhere amid all the zooming and streaming and scrolling and quarantining, people started to long for the outdoors again. As remote work became more permanent, America’s largest cities saw sharp population declines, while towns and smaller cities like Newport, Myrtle Beach, and Sarasota all saw influxes. The number of people describing themselves as digital nomads rose 49% to 10.9 million in 2020. In the boating world this all translated to a surge in interest and activity. According to the NMMA, U.S Boat Sales hit a 13 year high in 2020, a trend that has continued in 2021 as Q1 boat sales were up another 30% from the prior year. Heading into the summer busy season Dockwa marina bookings were up 300% this year over last. These are not short-term trends. You don’t buy a boat, or move your primary residence, only to revert a year later. These are early signals of a larger shift in the way we live our lives that could span decades or longer. 

We’re not only seeing spikes in the number of people interested in outdoor recreation, we’re seeing rising standards for what they expect out of that experience. In a time when 73% of boaters prefer booking online to calling by phone and 35% plan their travel outside of typical office hours, most marinas still don’t take online reservations. In a time when 80% of consumers say they prefer card payments over cash, many marinas are still entirely cash-based for both bookings and onsite purchases. The marine industry has been one of the last to truly digitize, but that time has arrived. And it’s good news for all because when you digitize the boater experience, barriers fall, demand goes up, boaters spend more and the whole industry rises.  

An industry mired in complexity

It’s not resistance to change that has historically kept this industry from digitizing, rather it has been the lack of a technology platform that could truly match the unique demands that marina owners and operators face. There are few businesses that have the level of operational complexity that marinas do. The people at the helm of marinas, yacht clubs and service yards have to adapt to everything from unpredictable storm paths, to staffing shortages, to demand fluctuations with a frequency that is severely underappreciated by the outside world. Unlike hotels or even campgrounds, the inventory available at marinas changes continuously. When you have 4,200 linear feet of dockage, for example, your available inventory changes radically based on boaters’ arrival/departure times, draft, beam, and a whole slew of other variables. To match that moving target, you’d need a technology platform that could essentially play giant games of Tetris, with millions and millions of dollars at stake. 

We set out to build that platform. We started with a simple free booking app, the first of its kind really, that made boaters’ lives easier and helped us amass a network in the hundreds of thousands. From there, we expanded to offer essential long-term booking functionality like contract management, automated invoicing and reporting. We added a point of sale for onsite purchases like fuel, messaging for one-to-one communication with approaching guests, and a dockwalk tool for surveying the property for occupancy and repair work. We have built the marina side and boater side functionality in concert with each other so that the experience improves for all. 

The tricky thing about building for the marine industry is that no two operations are exactly the same.  Some features we build may sing for one marina and fall flat for others. We haven’t always been perfect at our first at-bat, but throughout all of it we’ve relied heavily on the input of our customers and innovated. You have each made us smarter and helped us build better solutions every step of the way.  I love this industry because our customers never hesitate to tell us when we’re off-base. I love it because they hold the bar high. And because they give trust only when it is truly earned. Over the years we’ve worked to earn that trust and pay it back ten-fold. 

An underestimated economic impact  

The AMI estimates that 11,500 U.S. marina businesses had an $18 billion economic impact and supported an estimated 105,000 full or part-time/seasonal employees. This impact extends beyond the marina to the restaurants, shops, and service providers nearby.  Boaters arriving at marinas spend an average of $300 in their destination towns, in mass this amounts to a major difference for small town economies.  And it’s nowhere near its capacity.  

As more marinas move from cash-only, pen-and-paper operations to digital platforms, the levers behind growth and the missed opportunities will become demystified.  Standards will emerge in how to measure the value of a property and its potential. And boaters will be able to have a wallet-less, frictionless experience with personalized benefits and discounts. 

Today, the average boater spends just 19 days a year — 29 days for motorized boats and 12 days for human-powered boats -- on the water.  Imagine the impact that reducing barriers in the boater experience could have on the frequency of those trips and the experience of those boaters.

Where we’re headed (together)

The average marina on Dockwa increases its net operating income by 20% and its property value by $800,000. So far this year, hundreds of thousands of boaters booked more than 5 million nights at slips, moorings and storage racks across the country on Dockwa. 

That bar is high, but it’s not nearly high enough.  

We started off trying to reduce barriers for boaters and friction for marina operators.  Along the way, we discovered a chronically underestimated industry with no a true technology leader or data standards. That is the challenge that motivates us most today.  Because when you build the digital infrastructure of an industry for the first time an enormous amount of value and predictability is unlocked, for boaters, for the marine industry and for the economies and careers that circulate around them.  

There has never been greater opportunity for our industry than what lay before us today. With growing standardization, more intelligent tools, and record-breaking boater demand, the wind is at our backs. 

Investing in more than technology

Technology can only bring us so far. To really work towards a better future for our industry and the people that surround it, we need clean oceans and protected forests. We need a reversal of climate change and a generation of new adventurers dedicated to the outdoors. Without that, none of this matters.  So we’re launching The Wanderfund, a philanthropic initiative to help fund organizations working to save our environment and bring a love for the outdoors and environmentalism to new generations and groups. We care deeply about these causes, but we don’t see this as charity alone. On the contrary, investing in these causes is as central to the long-term success of our business as investing in technology.  We’d love your ideas and recommendations for environmental organizations to support in the future. You can nominate a cause you care about by emailing us at info@thewanderlustgroup.com.

Thank you for all you’ve taught us, for the trust you’ve given us, and for charting the next course together with us.