Even if money is tight, yacht charters can get you on a boat for less than you think
"Let's Make a Deal" is the name of the game for many yacht charterers as they try to get the best price they can for the best boat at the best time of the year.
"People are looking for deals all the time," but they look harder in tough times, says Michel Benarrosh, whose Sailonline.com website ferrets out discounted charters for clients. Bargain hunting is flourishing. "It's what people are doing in this economy, whether it's for charters or houses," he says.
Using the Internet, businesses are helping bargain hunters canvass the charter fleets and find deals - usually for late or offseason bookings.
"We sell discounts for all the major charter companies worldwide, smaller ones and larger ones" - more than 90 companies altogether, says Dan Lockyer, managing director of London-based LateSail.com. The site lists boats available at discounted rates for last-minute, offseason and one-way charters.
"A boat that's sitting at the dock generates no fares at all for a company," says Lockyer. "Better to get some revenue than no revenue - absolutely nothing."
At August's end, LateSail was offering a 40 percent discount on a Sun Odyssey 42 chartering out of Antigua in the October 2010 offseason; a 50 percent discount on a Lagoon 500 chartering out of Grenada/Union during the same time; and a 64 percent discount on a Hanse 54 chartering out of Bodrum, Turkey, if a client was willing to book less than a week in advance of the Sept. 4-11 charter dates.
LateSail also offers one-way charters discounted as much as 60 to 80 percent for literally last-minute bookings, usually for boats the charter company wants to deliver to another charter base. Lockyer says companies would rather generate even a very small charter fee on the delivery than pay for a delivery crew.
LateSail.com and Sailonline.com also accept bids on charters. Clients submit bids, along with information about the type of boat they want to charter, when they want to charter it and where, and the Web brokers submit the bids to participating charter companies.
Benarrosh has seen bids win discounts of 35 to 45 percent, but outcomes depend on the season, the flexibility of the offer (Will the bidder accept another boat, location and/or charter dates?), its timing (Is it a last-minute booking?), and general economic conditions when the bid is submitted, he says.
Benarrosh offers another discount service. His Sailonline.com lists yachts for owners who charter their boats out through companies such as The Moorings or Sunsail but use Sailonline.com's listings to sell some of the six to eight weeks of charter time reserved for themselves in their contract with the charter company.
"Very few owners are able to use so many weeks themselves," he says.
Usually they can sell two of their weeks themselves under the contract as long as the charter dates they offer aren't during the Dec. 15-to-April 15 high season.
Owner listings in August offered boats for charter at 30 to 50 percent discounts.
"It's very good for the owner," he says. "It's good for the charterer."
LateSail.com has grown 50 percent during each of the last several years, Lockyer says, reflecting a growing appetite for discounting among charterers and charter companies.
Yet charter broker Ed Hamilton, president of Ed Hamilton & Co. of Wiscasset, Maine, says bookings have held up well enough that waiting to book so you can get a deal can be risky. "You might get a better price, but you might not get what you want," he says. "You're stuck with the leftovers. ...You're not looking for the best deal. You're looking for the best value."
Hamilton's opinion appears to be well-founded. Five months into the April-through-October Mediterranean charter season, bookings were picking up. "We've seen a huge uplift in the numbers," Lockyer says. "People are booking, but they're booking late."
He was waiting to see whether the trend would hold for winter charters in the Caribbean, where the falloff in business has not been as great as in the Mediterranean and discounting has not been nearly as deep.
"We had a very strong [2009-10] Caribbean season," Hamilton says. Charter reservations slumped when the recession hit in 2008, he says, but overall the charter business has weathered the economic storm pretty well.
"Everyone held back a little initially [and deferred their charter plans], but people who have done charters for years finally said enough is enough and went ahead and booked," he says. "They are a hardy bunch - and they like their chartering," an assessment shared by Annie Dufour, charter boat administrator for The Catamaran Co. in Fort Lauderdale.
"People are still wanting to go on vacation," she says. "They're looking for discounts, but they're still booking."
Reflecting the charter market's resilience, major companies are investing in new boats and new destinations. "It certainly hasn't been an easy year, although we have seen continued improvement throughout the year," says Van Perry, brand manager for Clearwater, Fla.- based The Moorings, which has charter bases at more than 25 locations. "People still want to take their sailing vacations and charters and recognize what a unique experience we provide."
They also want new product, so The Moorings is investing $65 million in 2010-11 in new yachts and a new base in St. George's, Grenada. The year-round base at Camper & Nicholson's Port Louis Marina in St. George's was scheduled to open Oct. 1 with a fleet of catamarans and monohulls from 35 to 51 feet built by Robertson & Caine and Beneteau.
The Moorings planned to run bareboat and crewed charters out of St. George's, as well as one-way charters to Grenada from bases in St. Lucia and Canouan, with stops en route in the Tobago Cays, Mayreau, Mustique, Bequia and St. Vincent. The St. George's base follows 2009 base openings in Orhaniye, Turkey, and Phuket, Thailand.
The company also is introducing a new monohull - the Moorings 50.5, a big five-cabin, five-head yacht that Beneteau custom-designed to be comfortable, easy-to-handle and roomy, with accommodations for 11. The 50.5 is equipped with electric genoa and halyard winches, a bow thruster, dual helms, a generator and air conditioning. The boat was to debut Oct. 7-11 at the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis.
"We'll have a number of these throughout the Caribbean," Perry says. Designed for those who want to combine the comfort of a big boat with the performance of a monohull, the 50.5 "handles like a 35-footer," Perry says.
Sunsail, another leading charter company, also is adding bases, one in Procida, Italy, on the Bay of Naples, another in Grenada and a third in Belize, along with 230 boats. The new boats include more Jeanneau-made "i" series 36s, 39s, 42s and 44s, and two brand-new "i" series designs, the Sunsail 41 and 53.
"We'll have over 30 of the 41s and 53s," says Sunsail brand manager Simon Conder.
The five-cabin, four-head 53-footer will be Sunsail's biggest monohull, with accommodations for nine. It, too, has electric winches and a bow thruster for ease of handling. It will be available at Sunsail's Whitsunday base in Australia and in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
The 41-footer has three cabins and two heads, a big cockpit, a dual helm and strong sailing performance, Conder says. This boat will be available in the BVI, St. Martin, Australia, Greece, Turkey and Croatia.
Sunsail's new Grenada base was scheduled to begin chartering 36- to 44-foot monohulls and catamarans Nov. 2. Sunsail's Belize base in Placencia is next to the posh Laru Beya Resort, and is a good jumping-off spot for exploring the 185-mile Belize coast and snorkeling and diving on Belize's barrier reef - the longest unbroken reef in the Western Hemisphere, according to Conder.
The third new base, on the volcanic island of Procida, is an hour from Naples and a gateway to the Pontine Islands on Italy's Amalfi Coast. The fleet there ranges from Sunsail 384 cats to 50-foot monohulls.
Another major company, TMM Yacht Charters, based in Lake Geneva, Wis., was promoting four new boats, a Salina 48, Saga 409, Orana 44 and Beneteau 43, and was advertising specials - 10 days for the price of seven through Nov. 1 - for its three bases in Tortola, Belize and the Grenadines. It also was offering 10 percent off for a Lagoon 470, Nautitech 47 and two powercats - all in Tortola.
Most of the majors were offering some discounts, mainly for late bookings or offseason charters. The Moorings was offering as much as 15 percent off charters of six days or more in the BVI, Belize, Grenada, St. Martin, St. Lucia, Canouan and the Bahamas when departing during specified periods from October 2010 to February 2011. Sunsail was offering 20 percent off flotilla charters - in which boats charter together as a group - in the BVI and St. Vincent on select dates through December, and 25 percent "Double Reef Week" discounts on monohulls under 48 feet on select weeks through January in the Caribbean.
Footloose Sailing Charters was strengthening its position as the discount charter company with its fleet of older, well-maintained boats based in the BVI by offering $500 off monohulls under 50 feet and $750 off monohulls 50 feet and over for August and September charters. It was also offering three free days for charters from Tortola before Dec. 15 and a promise to beat any competitor's rate by $100 at the time the reservation is made on a BVI charter, also for charters before Dec. 15.
Footloose "is a good solid value," says marketing manager Shannan Brennan. "If you're shopping for price - and a well-maintained older boat is fine and you're only interested in chartering in the BVI - then Footloose is the place to go."
Most charter companies, being in the business of yacht management, charter out boats that other people buy and own. Sales of yachts into charter have held up pretty well in the recession even though other new-boat sales have not, says Steve Long, The Moorings' yacht sales marketing manager (www.mooringsyachtownership.com).
"The reality is that in a very tough economic climate we were still able to sell close to 200 boats worldwide into the program," Long says, and that's because owning a charter yacht is not as costly to buyers as owning a yacht just for their own personal use.
Moorings owners buy their yacht from The Moorings and put it into charter with the company for five years, Long says. During that time, owners get to use the boat for as much as 12 weeks a year - or use their time sailing another Moorings owner's yacht from any of The Moorings' charter bases.
Meanwhile, the boat's charter revenue covers monthly loan payments, and The Moorings takes care of all ownership headaches, such as maintenance, insurance and dockage. After five years, owners can either trade the boat in at The Moorings for a new charter boat, ask the company to broker the boat for them or sail off into the sunset in it.
"In this kind of economy, the benefits of a [charter] yacht ownership program really shine," Long says. "You have a piece of paradise and still own a boat, but you have someone else pay for it for the first five years while you get to use it."
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.