<strong>Creagh Tucker, member services director for Branson Boat Club, pilots co-owner Jay Finley III in one of the club's SeaRays on Table Rock Lake.</strong><hr />
Creagh Tucker, member services director for Branson Boat Club, pilots co-owner Jay Finley III in one of the club's SeaRays on Table Rock Lake.
Branson Boat Club was born out of the topsy-turvy Great Recession, of all things.

The recipe involved three parts: a Branson marina resort owner, a veteran salesman and former boat owner, and a St. Louis accountant. The business partners came together to launch Branson Boat Club in June 2010, after researching the idea of a club to sell memberships for use of a fleet of boats.

They knew the investment would be steep – it amounted to nearly $500,000 spent on acquiring the club’s six boats and outfitting the dock slips – but the economic conditions were ripe.

“An overriding factor was looking at what was occurring with the economy,” says Jay Finley III, the salesman who relocated to Branson from New York 21 years ago.

As a former boat owner, Finley says he and the group identified an untapped local market segment.

“There were two choices, you either owned a boat or you rented a boat – so this provided a third, the ‘tweener.’ You got all the benefits of ownership without any of the hassle,” he says.

The partners connected with Nautical Toys International LLC, an 18-year-old licensor of boat clubs in Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The Branson Club is the first in Missouri affiliated with Nautical Toys International.

The boat club concept was appealing to partner Jim Heckman, and he was able to provide the waterfront property to make it happen. Heckman owns Rock Lane Resort on Indian Point. The marina at the Table Rock Lake resort already had 140 slips occupied by boat owners, and Heckman added slips for the Branson Boat Club idea with permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors the lake.

“I’m always looking for something to add to the resort concept,” Heckman says, noting he also leases space to a MarineMax boat dealership. “They sell boats, we rent boats and now we have a club for the people who don’t want to have the type of boat typically available in a rental fleet.”

Heckman, Finley and Chuck Frey, the St. Louis CPA, pooled their resources in June 2010 to purchase six boats: three Veranda pontoons and three SeaRays – two runabouts and a deck boat. Their plan got off to a slow start, though, due to delays in boat delivery. The vessels didn’t arrive until August, cutting short their first season of business by two months. “There was nobody selling boats and nobody buying boats, but you couldn’t get a boat, so I’m really not sure why that was,” Heckman recalls.

Now in its second full boating season, Branson Boat Club claims 45 members.

Those members have unlimited use of the boats based on availability, as well as access to the club’s lounge and Rock Lane Resort’s amenities such as Charlie’s Steak Ribs & Ale restaurant, a swimming pool, athletic courts and the Parrots Pavilion outdoor bar. “There is a social side to this, if you’re interested,” Finley says.

Though the partners declined to disclose revenues, Member Services Director Creagh Tucker says initial club fees start at $1,295 and go up to $1,995, based on the level of membership, such as a weekday only or by boat types. Monthly membership dues are $225 to $333, though Tucker says 65 percent of members pay the annual lump sum up front.

Platinum members Dan and Heather Clark, of Springfield, were introduced to Branson Boat Club two years ago through a postcard in the mail.

“We were toying with the idea of buying a boat. Then we got this big postcard that said, ‘Don’t buy a boat – join the boat club.’ We were instantly intrigued,” Dan Clark says.

From the Clarks’ research to buy a boat, Dan Clark determined his family of five would spend slightly more than the boat membership costs to buy a boat, plus they’d have to cover any imminent repairs.

“The fact that you are not responsible for any surprises is a wonderful thing,” Clark says.

He estimates payments for a SeaRay comparable to what he often reserves through the club would cost him nearly $300 a month in a long-term financing plan, up to $500 for insurance and a couple thousand dollars for slip rental, plus winterization, oil changes and other maintenance costs.

“It gets expensive. And that’s assuming that nothing real big happens,” says Clark, a director of corporate relations for Convoy of Hope.

The Clarks had rented boats on Table Rock twice a summer, but with the Branson Boat Club membership, Dan Clark says the family is now on the lake once a week.

The average member takes a boat on the water 17 times a year, and the club record is 18 times in one month, Finley says. “The boats are there to be used. It’s not doing any of us any good sitting there,” he adds.

As one of six Nautical Toys boat club licensees, Branson Boat Club pays 2 percent royalties. The club uses Nautical Toys operations software and support, and its members have reciprocal rights to visit the other clubs.