– Freedom Boat Club Helps Members Take a Mental Health Break –
By Keith Landry
As the COVID-19 pandemic restricted activities and raised stress levels in 2020, many people in Central Florida found freedom by escaping on the water. They set sail, fished or simply basked in the isolation of a sandbar.
For some, this Florida-style social distancing was made possible by boat reservations through the Freedom Boat Club Central Florida. The company’s owner and president, Bobby Parker, marveled at how the pandemic’s constraints opened a new world of possibilities for his clients and his business.
“When the pandemic took hold in Florida, it’s crazy that some businesses thrived — boating, RVs and pet shops, to name a few,” Parker said. “Our new members started pouring in. We had to find another location and buy as many boats as we could to keep up with demand. Our existing members who used to go out once a month went out two times a week. The usage went up sharply. Folks were grateful to have the chance to escape and get out of their houses while things were shut down.”
Throughout 2020, Central Floridians continued to seek refuge on alluring, wide-open waterways. “It is the whole social distancing factor,” Parker said. “You can take your family out for the day and be by yourself on the boat or on a sandbar. You get out of the house and enjoy some quality time for the day without worrying about whatever else is going on in the world. The boating industry is skyrocketing during the pandemic. It’s a way to recreate in a safe way.”
Parker is no stranger to the water or the boating business. His grandfather started Parker Boat Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1927 and moved the family business to Orlando in 1939. MarineMax bought Parker Boat Co. in 2013. That’s when Bobby Parker bought Freedom Boat Club Central Florida.
His franchise locations offer club members their choice of 70 boats, anchored at marinas in Palm Coast, Daytona Beach, Ponce Inlet, New Smyrna Beach and Sanford. Most years, Parker said, club members have enjoyed 7,000 boat outings a year, but the numbers climbed last year.
The club offers boat reservations from coast to coast, Parker said. “Our members can use more than 250 locations across the United States and Canada. That allows them to enjoy different waterways and places of the country they could not see if they had their own boat. They get to experience different places.”
New club members pay an initiation fee and $329 per month to use the boats seven days a week. There are also memberships for taking the boats out less frequently. Newbies get two hours of training in the classroom and then two hours of training on a boat with a captain. Navigating the waters of Ponce Inlet and some other waterways can be challenging, so the captain helps make sure boaters are ready to have safe outings.
Parker says members find peace on the water in different ways. “Many of our members take the boat out for a day of fishing. Some members will take the boat for an hour for lunch or take their dog out to a sandbar for an hour. Others will take a boat up to St. Augustine and stay the night and come back the next day.”
Many of the club members used to own boats, but they joined the club for its convenience. They can escape for a few hours without the worries of maintaining a boat or paying to repair a broken engine.
“It’s a shared boating experience,” Parker said. “We find our members boat four or five times more now than when they owned a boat because of the simplicity our club offers.”
The club also caters to individuals who are thinking about buying a boat. By joining for a year, they can try out a variety of vessels to make sure they buy the right boat for them.
Even during the holiday season, demand for days on the water did not go down, Parker said. To keep up with customer requests, the company opened its Ponce Inlet location in November 2020 and is working to build a new marina in New Smyrna Beach this year.
Parker is setting his company’s course for 2021 with a plan that includes adding many more boats. And on a personal note, he intends to enjoy some rest and relaxation himself. “I am going to enjoy spending some time with my children and having fun with them and just enjoy life as best I can.”
Parker hopes Central Florida residents will find tranquil waters in their lives as they navigate the new year, and he invites people to make time to escape on the water.
“We don’t know what the future will bring,” he said. “It’s like making an investment in yourself and your family — and in good quality time. Getting out on the water is always great for your mental health.”
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in January | February edition of i4 Business Magazine