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Charter deals abound

Some of the “tweets” going out to prospective charter clients on Twitter in August tell the story of yacht chartering in 2009, the year of The Great Recession.

The economic downturn has charter firms attracting customers with some of the best deals ever offered.“60m SOLEMAR offers 30% discount for Mediterranean yacht charter in Sept. or Oct. EU 225k/wk. 12 guests,” one ad tweets. “170’ LATITUDE drops rate by 60% for yacht charter in Panama! Discounted rate is $49,500/wk.,” shouts another.

As with real estate, boats, designer clothes and most consumer items, it’s a buyer’s market for yacht charters — bareboat and crewed, high end and low. “There are a lot of good deals out there,” says Jim Gilbert, U.S. operations director for LateSail.com, a brokerage firm that ferrets out best prices for bareboat charters, much like Expedia and Priceline do for airfare and hotels.

After a slow start, Gilbert and other brokers say bookings accelerated in August for fall, a traditionally slow season, and also for spring and summer 2010. “There is an awful lot of chartering still going on out there, especially among Europeans in the Med and in the Caribbean,” says Gilbert, of Palm Coast, Fla.

Charter broker Ed Hamilton & Co. of Wiscasset, Maine, says a January survey of its clients revealed 24 percent had decided not to charter in 2009. However, 26 percent planned to look for deals and get a better boat for the same amount they normally spend, and 50 percent say they would charter a less expensive boat. That’s three-quarters of his clients still planning to charter.

“We are seeing that in broad, anecdotal terms,” says Steve McCrea, an Ed Hamilton broker. As summer wound down, he saw clients scarfing up deals. “We’re seeing lower prices, we’re seeing discounts, but half price? No,” he says.

In bareboats, the big discounts were in the “meat and potatoes” 39- to 43-foot monohulls. “Those are being discounted — lots of them,” some up to 35 percent, depending on the time of the charter, McCrea says.


Deals and discounts

During August, Footloose Sailing Charters, the Clearwater, Fla.-based budget bareboat provider, was offering 35 percent off for October bookings of its 47-, 50- and 52-foot monohulls, and 25 percent off on any charter booked for August and September.

Sunsail was offering Reef Week Discounts of 15 to 25 percent in August and September; 25 percent off all its Caribbean bareboats during some weeks in October, November, December, January and February; and 15 percent off during three weeks in March. The Moorings was offering a 20 percent discount on some of its Club Line Yachts for September charters from Tortola, St. Martin, St. Lucia, Canouan, Belize and the Bahamas; a 30 percent discount on September and October charters in Belize; 25 percent off Moorings 47 power catamaran charters out of Tortola and Canouan during parts of October and November; and a 15 percent discount on winter 2010 charters in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico.

“Bookings [in August] are up, probably because there are discounts to be had,” says Gilbert. “People who have the money are tired of sitting around. They are booking their vacations.” LateSail helped them find the best price — or value.

Brokers stress that there’s something out there for just about every taste and pocketbook. “With bareboats, there are so many options,” says Melody Delgado, charter specialist for Virgin Islands Sailing Ltd., in Nokomis, Fla. “Age, size, amenities. When someone calls with a low budget, we can work with it.”

Gilbert negotiates for his clients. They tell him how much they’re willing to pay for a bareboat charter, and he floats the figure out there — if it’s within reason — to see if a company will nibble. He says a handful of the 100 or so firms he deals with have adopted a policy of matching or bettering the lowest quotes he gets. “People are definitely dealing,” he says, both clients and charter companies.

LateSail.com’s database was quoting a discounted rate of $1,855 for a seven-day charter out of Corfu, Greece, on a Dufour 385; $1,852 for a seven-day charter in the British Virgin Islands on a Harmony 42; $1,953 for a 10-day charter out of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean; $3,126 for a seven-day Catana 471 catamaran charter out of Guadeloupe; and $2,803 (regular rate $4,004) for a seven-day Catana 41 OC catamaran charter from Martinique. All were August bookings — that is, late and deeply discounted bookings — for October charters.

“Yacht chartering is something that people want to do, but they also want to deal, so they’re waiting and booking at the last minute,” when rates fall, says Tom Virden, founder of Boatbookings.com, an online charter brokerage for higher-end crewed yachts and bareboats. Even his clients are “dropping down in size, but they’re booking. We had a very strong end of July, which makes people like me breathe easier. It was a white-knuckle ride this year.”

Some regional operators such as Bareboat Sailing Charters in Newport, R.I., have benefited from consumers’ cost-conscious decisions to charter closer to home. “We got rid of two of our boats after the market crashed,” says owner Brian Blank, a 21-year charter veteran whose charterers set sail from moorings off Newport’s scenic Fort Adams State Park. Since then, he has added a 40-foot and two 48-foot cats, and Jeanneau 45 and 54 monohulls. “It totally caught us by surprise. This was our busiest year in 21 years.” Some families doubled up to cut costs. Others who were within driving distance were just happy to save on airfare. Still others told him it was cheaper for them to charter than own a boat.


Following the Dow

Virden of Boatbookings.com says his business volume has tracked the uptick in the stock market. Charters in the Mediterranean strengthened at summer’s end as the Dow Jones Industrial Average trended up. “We’re hoping that will spill over into the Caribbean this winter,” he says. He also has seen more bookings for the Indian Ocean (Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and Madagascar) and Thailand.

“We saw some good discounts in the early part of summer — very, very good discounts — 20 percent,” says Jim Araiza, one of the owners of Sailaway Yacht Charter Consultants, of Miami. “We’re seeing huge discounts for September — 30 to 35 percent.”

He says megayachts were holding the line for winter charters in the Caribbean, still offering a 10 percent discount or 10 days for the price of seven. “That’s wishful thinking,” he says. “I don’t think they can get what they want.” He expects another round of price-slashing late in the fall. “As the dates get closer,” he says, “discounts will start surfacing again.”

Araiza says prudence would dictate waiting for winter prices to come down. “There’s plenty of inventory,” he says. “Wait and see, unless there’s a boat you’re really in love with and you want to make sure you get it.”

He says the bareboat companies are continuing to offer deals into 2010, and charter clients are continuing to shop around for the best deals. “You can pretty much name your price,” Araiza says. “You can get anything you want in a bareboat right now. I’ve never seen so many [bargain hunters].”


Mono or multi?

Across the board, industry veterans remain enthusiastic about catamarans as platforms for chartering. More clients are asking for them. Cats are more in evidence every day in the charter fleets, especially in the Caribbean.

Sunsail plans to have its first Sunsail 384 cat at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Md., this fall, and introduce it to its charter fleets in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Thailand. Designed by Morelli and Melvin and built by the South African yard Robertson & Caine, the 384 is smaller than the cats first brought into the fleets. It’s entry-level, more affordable, easier to handle, yet big enough for four double cabins, two heads and two forepeak berths. “We’ll have over 30 of them in the next six months,” says Sunsail brand manager Josie Tucci. “It’s great news for us.”

“There are a tremendous number of people moving to cats,” says Virden. With four double cabins and spacious deck and cockpit, the cats comfortably accommodate four couples or two families. “It’s a fantastic product,” he says. “Everyone’s happy on it, including those who love to sail. You can combine your love of sailing with comfort for the family. We see great growth in them.”

Despite tough times, The Moorings announced plans to introduce $40 million in new yachts into its fleet this year, including a new two-cabin Moorings 37.2 monohull built by Beneteau; a new three-cabin, three-head Moorings 43.3; and a Moorings 51.5, with four double cabins and forepeak bunks. The Moorings finished its $15 million Moorings Village in Tortola, which houses the BVI bases for TUI Travel PLC’s three charter companies — Footloose, Sunsail and Moorings. The Village has a bar and restaurant, new oceanfront hotel rooms, spa, retail shops, swimming pool, showers, business center, and new marina. The Moorings opened charter bases in Ohaniye, Turkey, and Phuket, Thailand, in January, the latter offering Moorings 474 and 372 power catamarans and Moorings 4600 sailing catamarans, the Turkish base monohulls and cats from 40 to 44 feet. Sunsail opened a base in Pula, Croatia, with yachts from 39 to 47 feet.

Online charter brokerages with databases updated daily, weekly and monthly are the new standard of service in the industry, says Virden, of Boatbookings.com. He says he and his charter specialists connect with their clients through the online database; blogs about boats, destinations and charter matters; Skype; e-mail; Twitter messages updating yachts’ status and rate offers; iPhone; and old-fashioned landline and fax. That’s 21st century yacht charter brokerage.

“Five years ago, people were saying no one’s going to charter a boat over the Internet,” Virden says. “Now it’s their first choice. If they’re thinking about chartering a boat, the first thing they do is check it out on the Internet.”

 

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This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.



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