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Several yacht clubs in the area are navigating higher-than-normal member numbers

Many contribute the growth to the safety that the clubs provided during the pandemic. Now they're exploring ways to expand without diminishing the elegance.

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 9, 2021
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Wemple. Karen Harmon, COO and general manager, and Member Relations Director Stephania Feltz have noticed groups of members inviting their friends to join the Sarasota Yacht Club during the recent growth in membership.
Wemple. Karen Harmon, COO and general manager, and Member Relations Director Stephania Feltz have noticed groups of members inviting their friends to join the Sarasota Yacht Club during the recent growth in membership.
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During the pandemic lots of people turned to learning new crafts and hobbies to keep busy.

One of the biggest benefits of this trend? Yacht clubs. Multiple yacht clubs in the region are setting membership records and have waitlists longer than ever before for new members. One key to the dramatic increase lies in safety: people, say several yacht club officials, feel safe amid the pandemic in a bubble of known friends they can socialize and engage with.  

Take the Sarasota Yacht Club, which has been growing since long before the pandemic, having almost doubled in size since 2010. “The biggest change we’ve seen is groups of people bringing their friends,” says Karen Harmon, COO and general manager. 

A membership with the SYC is by invitation only. Yet the club currently has a waitlist of 51 applicants. Member Relations Director Stephania Feltz says it’s the largest waitlist the club has ever seen. The SYC has a membership limit of 700 members with a 2% buffer that allows the club to accept 714 members if needed. 

The club has a rich history. It is one of 10 in the U.S. to be awarded the Distinguished Elite Club award, which recognized the club for providing a high-level member experience. It was organized in 1907 on the north end of Siesta Key before moving in 1913 to downtown Sarasota. 

There it was known as the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club until 1917. The current SYC was incorporated in 1926. The SYC headquartered the Sarasota Naval Militia during World War I. The U.S. government then leased the Club property in 1943 for use as an Air Force Crash Boat Rescue Base. The club regained control of its property in January 1946. A new clubhouse was built in 1958 and the current 23,000-square-foot clubhouse opened in 2010. 

SYC was selected as a Platinum Club of America for 2019-20 and 2021-22. The club claimed Platinum Club of the World status for 2020-21 as well. More than bragging rights, Commodore Brian Will says the accolades are an important aspect of the yacht club. “The club has been evolving,” he says. “We’ve proven ourselves adaptable to modern times. These accolades mirror this evolution.”

The club became a safe place for members to resort to during the pandemic. “Over the last year we focused on bringing members to the marina and onto the water,” Harmon says. “You can be home and safe.” 

The club also received a seal of commitment for hospitality safety and sanitation standards set by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The team stayed long hours to ensure everyone’s safety,” Will says.

It was this dedication that led to a growth in membership and a shift in demographics. Now, the club is seeing 8% more full-time residents as members than part-time residents. “They have found their permanent home in Sarasota,” Feltz says. 

Popular trend

The yacht club membership growth trend is contagious. The Bradenton Yacht Club, for example, saw 50 new members join just within the last four months. The club currently has a waitlist of 40 members who are expected to remain there for the next year or two. 

One bonus the Bradenton Yacht Club is offering to waitlisted potential members is locking them into the current membership rate. The club has room for 625 members. The sudden growth, says Jenifer Gordon, membership and marketing manager, stems from a special amenity: privacy. "My speculation is that they're new to the area," says Gordon, "and we have a private ramp." 

Bruce Furman, Venice Yacht Club general manager, says his club has seen membership growth unlike this type in the past. Generally when the club experiences year-over-year growth in membership it's only a handful at a time. 

But from July 2020 to June 2021, the Venice Yacht Club welcomed 51 members. "It's a safe and secure place for people to come, especially during COVID-19," Furman says. The club adds members through invite only. 

Furman also contributes the club's "unique and fun" programming to the recent growth. "We show value in membership," he says. 

Bird Key Yacht Club in Sarasota, a mile or so away from Sarasota Yacht Club, has also been growing. In June 2020, the club reported 270 members. Last month, membership was up to 336, an increase of 24.4%. "Members feel safe in the club," says Scott Brynski, general manager. That feeling is by design. 

The yacht club houses a health care official who brought forth a multitude of changes during the pandemic to ensure members felt safe. It added air handlers to regulate and circulate air while also making use out of UV lights to further clean the air. Brynski notes the club uses the same air flow system hospitals use. "We're just as safe as an operating room," he says. 

The club has been on the up-and-up in recent years. Members saw upgrades ranging from new couches and chairs in the lobby to a $325,000 project to redo the back outdoor dining area, the Aft Deck, in 2019. Bird Key also invested $15,000 in a new sound system and $50,000 on locker room enhancements. This came after a $2.5 million marina renovation project completed in 2016.

Physical changes

In order to accommodate the surge, SYC is one of the yacht clubs planning to make some physical changes. 

“We look to adapt to our growing community,” Will says. That’s why the club is planning to add a fourth dock, which will increase the current marina by 25%. The fourth dock addition will be a multi-year, multimillion dollar project, he says.  

The club also has started offering complimentary valet parking on Fridays. Additionally, there are plans to add a sailing facility to provide dedicated space for the waterfront activities the club provides. 

The SYC is also considering expanding operations to add members eventually. There’s green space the club could be physically expanded onto, but Will says that would take away from the facility's elegance. Harmon notes club leadership has even thrown around the idea of a second club and are working on a possible expansion plan. 

The club is looking at every possibility, with Will noting there might be a strategic partnership with another club to offer members more amenities somewhere down the line. “If the right opportunity came along…,” Harmon says. 

Currently, the club is fully operational with all staff members working even though summers tend to be slower. Harmon notes this year has been different. “Every day is busy,” she says.

The Venice Yacht Club also made a few adjustments, including offering more seating outside. If the club continues to grow past it's 850-member capacity, Furman says it would look into changing it to allow for more members. 

On the list

The membership waitlist isn’t the only one at SYC. Even with 110 boat slips, there’s a waitlist, backed up a year, of members looking to upgrade their membership to include a place to keep their boat. 

The children's summer camp has also grown. Typically, it stays between 10-15 sailors. Now, it’s up to 35-40 sailors. Harmon says they had to increase the number of coaches, from two to five, to accommodate the extra campers. Six of the club’s sailors are on the regional sailing team and one is on the national sailing team. “We have a waitlist for each team now,” Harmon says. 

An important part of the club's waitlist strategy is to regularly connect with members-in-waiting.  “We’re working to ensure those waitlist persons stay engaged by allowing limited use on a monthly basis,” Feltz says. The applicants are allowed to visit for occasional dining. 

Will adds that while other clubs have a “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” mantra, that’s not the environment at the SYC. “We want to make sure they stay connected,” he says. “We consider them family.” 

The family approach carries through the club's something for everyone activities list. That includes teen parties, events for Mother’s and Father’s Days, back-to-school parties and a Studio 54-like event. Feltz says they recently hosted a bingo night that did really well at bringing all ages together. 

“Members with philanthropic backgrounds are coming here and we provide that outlet, too,” she says. The club hosts a pooch parade with proceeds benefiting various organizations like supporting Tuttle Elementary School in Sarasota. 

Even with all that, Will and others say SYC's why remains the water.  “We’re all boaters,” he says, noting that even if you have never boated you’re still considered a boater at SYC. This demonstrates how welcoming the club strives to be. “You join a yacht club for the magic." 


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