The Spring Charter Yacht Show held May 6 to 8 at American Yacht Harbor Marina, on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, proved to be the biggest in attending brokers and boats on record. This is good news for an industry that faces its share of economic challenges from a host of global influences.
Pamela Wilson, general manager of the Virgin Islands Charteryacht League (VICL), based in St. Thomas, says, “We had 37 yachts showing and 50-plus brokers. It’s the largest spring show ever.”
“The Spring is certainly better for the brokers,” says Ed Hamilton, who owns the Wiscasset, Maine-based brokerage, Ed Hamilton & Co. “By November-December, much of the season is already booked, based on the way boats looked a year earlier. One problem, though, is that the show coincides with some shows in the Mediterranean, so not all brokers can attend.”
In addition to number, says Dennis Vollmer, who owns the St. Thomas-based brokerage, 1 st Class Yacht Charters, “the average size of the yacht showing is definitely on the rise.”
What this means, says Dick Schoonover, at the Road Town, Tortola-based clearinghouse, CharterPort BVI, “is fewer owner/operators. And with this, crews are getting younger. The lifespan of a crew still seems to be around five years, unless they want to move up into larger yachts.”
Suzanne Maki, at the St. Thomas-based clearinghouse, Flagship, agrees. “ I think a lot of owners are finding it difficult to find competent, hard working, knowledgeable and loyal crew. There seems to be more crew playing ‘musical boats’ than ever before. It seems as though they think there are just a million jobs (one after another) out there waiting for them. And in fact, with less and less owner operated vessels, and more new yacht being built than ever, this could be quite true.”
Hamilton adds, “I have noticed an increase in past crews starting to buy/manage small fleets of boats or becoming brokers.”
As for type of vessel, “for a while it seemed that the multi-hull was ‘taking over’,” says Flagship’s Maki. “However lately, it seems mono-hulls are really coming back into the picture, especially for people who want the ‘true-sailing experience’. Needless to say, I think the multi-hulls are most popular with the more novice charterer.”
“From my perspective,” says CharterPort’s Schoonover, “this season hasn’t ended on a high note. It’s been a weak year for folks that are new to the fleet too. Summer bookings seem weak to me. And that’s on top of what seemed like a curious winter season. It doesn’t seem to be a function of price either. I get the impression that folks in North America are reticent to travel this year, not so much from economic hardship as much as I think there is a sense of impending trouble. There’s a war on that is looking every day more and more like Vietnam-revisited; gas prices don’t seemed to want to stop spiking upwards; CNN preaches the real estate-housing bubble must soon burst; Ford, GM, and a host of airlines are troubled, fuel costs are rising, and its just a pain to deal with airports…”
The VICL’s Wilson adds, “The desire for all countries to increase the protection at their borders is also a factor. People are becoming more reluctant to travel internationally.”
“Homeland Security, a.k.a. Immigration, Customs & Border Protection,” says Flagship’s Maki, “is also not making entering and departing the US a pleasant experience. We have the NOA/D (Electronic Notice of Arrival & Departure) down to a science. However, it is the officials at the ports of entry that are often quite rude and intimidating to our yachts that come and go on a regular basis and their charter guests, who are most often US citizens. Also, Customs & Immigration officials seem to interpret the laws and regulations as they please from time to time. Our yachts can never be sure if they’re following the rules (as they’ve been explained) or not, it seems they change on a daily basis or from Officer to Officer. Quite confusing, embarrassing and frustrating!”
The VICL’s Wilson adds, “We are also, in my opinion, suffering from the fears generated by the dire predictions that this hurricane season will be worse than last year. While we do not anticipate more storms than ever this year, the publicity generated by the storms in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana last year heightened the average tourist’s awareness of hurricanes.”
In the future, however, says Hamilton, “The season looks promising. Each year we seem to increase bookings slightly and are getting closer to pre 9/11 figures.”
The VICL’s Wilson agrees. “The ‘high’ season is looking great. However, the holidays – Christmas and New Years – are not booked as fully as we normally see them at this time of year.”
Flagship’s Maki adds, “There really aren’t as many far ahead (long range) bookings as we’re used to seeing by this time of year. It seems either they are booking only one to three months out, or way out, like one to one-and-a-half years ahead. Anyway, the seasonal outlook for bookings appears pretty good, but it could always be better.”
A CHARTER YACHT SUCCESS STORY
Two years ago, Bernd and Ruth Bohmfalk, lived and worked on a Guest & Cattle Ranch in British Columbia. After a decade in this profession, Bernd’s yearning for the sea and sailing enticed he and Ruth to sell the ranch, buy a beautiful 54-foot Irwin, they named Paradise, and sail for the Virgin Islands to charter. They arrived just before the holidays.
“We had just arrived and signed up with CharterPort when we met Gail Hartman, a broker with Virgin Islands Sailing, Ltd. She had a cancellation and was desperate to find a book to take guests that were booked to come New Year’s Day. We agreed on the spot. It turned out to be a very successful charter for us and Gail booked us six more times. So, in our first four months, we’ve already done seven weeks of charter,” says Bernd, who, along with Ruth, hold 100-ton captain licenses.
The key to the Bohmfalk’s success is marketing, says Bernd.
For example, he says, “We pick up our guests at the airport and take them back. We don’t wait for them to lug their stuff to the end of our dock.”
Other signature touches the Bohmfalk’s have initiated include a photo CD of 200 to 300 images taken of the client’s charter, hand painted map of the Virgin Islands with the client’s specific route drawn in, a survival bag with freshly baked banana bread to take on departure and follow-up calls on clients birthdays.
“We’ll stay through July to do a charter, then head south for hurricane season,” says Bernd. “Then, its back the first week of November. We’re picking up charters for Christmas all ready.”