By John Gillette


The key concern people have about boat clubs is, on weekends (the high demand times), how far in advance do you need to plan in order to reserve a boat?

During weekdays, boats are widely available. So weekend availability is the big question.

The member-to-boat ratio is the most commonly used measurement because it is easy to quantify. However, here are other important factors that can significantly affect a club’s boat availability beyond the member-to-boat ratio:

Rapid club growth. Just like a new boat owner uses their new boat a lot the first year or two, so new boat club members boat the most their first year or two, then less the following years. Therefore, if a club is growing rapidly, it MUST keep an extra-low member-to-boat ratio to provide reasonable availability for their very active members. A more mature boat club that has steady growth over a number of years has a smaller percent of new boaters, and therefore can provide very satisfactory availability with a higher member-to-boat ratio.

Renting to non-members boats that are included in the advertised member-to-boat ratio. Typically an operation that rents many of their boats in the fleet will logically be the least expensive boat clubs. The reason is that if a boat is sitting there, they will rent it for additional revenue. That’s great for the business, but not so great for a member.

The structure of membership plans. The number of advance reservations a member is allowed to book at any one point in time will affect availability. If all members are allowed four, or if all members only have one, that will substantially affect availability.

The structure of reservation segments. Reservations in half-day segments double the number of reservations available to members. This model doesn’t mean a member can’t use a boat all day, it just means it takes two reservations to do so. More established national clubs have found the half-day segment model provides the best overall customer satisfaction.

More than one household sharing a membership. Two households sharing a membership will likely use boats more than one household. Some clubs allow this, and if they do, club management should factor it in to their member-to-boat ratio.

Seasonality. In climates where there is a “season,” typically at the break of nice weather the club should have its lowest member-to-boat ratio. This is because:

• The club has sold memberships through the winter and boat show season, and now all these new members are eager to start boating.

• Existing members are eager to get boating after months of cold, snow, etc.

A low ratio at this very active boating time will help ease the crunch and make happy members.

A club culture of serving others.

• A waitlist can be used so if a member cancels a reservation, a wait-listed member is offered the boat.

• If a member returns a boat early, the staff can offer it to a member who has interest in using it for the remaining portion of the reservation segment.

• When thoughtful members know they are only going to use a boat for part of the reservation segment, they can alert the staff that it will be available for other members to use.

• When (not if) a boat breaks down (and even brand new boats break down), having the people, tools, facility, knowledge and determination to get a boat quickly repaired can rescue boat availability.

Member’s varying schedules and the varying number of members and boats. A club’s ratio is not static. It may be low now, but does the club have a written agreement stating a ratio it will never exceed?

There are many factors that affect boat availability beyond the “X:Y” ratio, many of them fall into “grey” areas that are hard to quantify. So, how can you know if a club will have satisfactory availability? Here are some things you can do:

• Ask the club and current members how far in advance you need to plan to reserve a boat on weekends.

• Ask to view the club’s online reservation system so you can see live, in real-time, their boat availability.

• Find out the club’s reputation for customer satisfaction and boat availability.

Boat clubs are not the right fit for everyone. It is important to understand a club’s boat availability, then decide if that availability works for your schedule and lifestyle.


John Gillette works as membership director for the Carefree Boat Club. The Carefree Boat Club is in its fifth season on Lake Norman and affiliated with 29 other Carefree Boat Clubs in the eastern US. Details: or 704-557-0848.