Yacht brokers are the sales force of the crewed charter industry. Kathleen Mullen, yacht broker and charter consultant at Tortola, BVI-based Regency Yacht Vacations Ltd., is one of the most respected. Why? Experience. Mullen has worked as charter crew, run her own company for over 30 years, years that have seen huge changes in communications, yacht types and client desires, and has successfully navigated her business through major hurricanes and recovery. What’s more, from this vantage point, she can offer invaluable tips for new brokers as well as insights into the future of the industry.
Born in New York, Mullen attended high school in Detroit and later graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts in History. Her parent’s purchase of a 40-foot sailboat to cruise the Great Lakes, launched Mullen into what would ultimately be a lifelong career. A chance meeting with the owner of a ten-meter wooden racing yacht led to an assistant crew manager position to take the vessel east to Boston. It was aboard this boat, named Choice, Mullen sailed as crew to the Caribbean, making her first landfall at The Baths, in Virgin Gorda. Over the next eight years, she crewed and cheffed on several yachts throughout the Caribbean, Pacific and U.S.
“I moved ashore and worked in other businesses, but I learned that I enjoyed working for myself. My college education was part of an experimental program that instead of focusing on rote instruction, taught that you could do anything you want and be successful if you researched it well and made a commitment. I knew I enjoyed boats. I had an option to captain and run my own boat, but I didn’t feel like that was where my strengths lay. What I really enjoyed was selling charters and managing calendars,” says Mullen.
She bought the former Charter Services, in St. Thomas, in 1983. In 1987, Mullen expanded into charter brokerage managing Regency Yacht Vacations, and later teamed up with Northrop and Johnson as their Caribbean representative for the sale of large yachts. Today, Mullen represents yachts from 65- to 300-feet located worldwide.
Basic sales skills are the foundation for a good charter yacht broker, says Mullen, who is currently president of the American Yacht Charter Association (AYCA) and treasurer of the Charter Yacht Brokers Association (CYBA). So too is the ability to listen to what clients want without preconceived notions. Knowledge of boats and the natural daily rhythm of this type of trip is also a plus.
“The challenge today with instant communications is that some don’t see the value of a broker. However, clients don’t see beyond a photo on a website. We’re here. We see how the boats are maintained and meet the crews. We know immediately when there are changes in the fleet. What crews don’t realize is that we talk with, educate and answer questions for 15 to 20 potential clients before one books. The fiduciary role, maintaining escrow accounts for charter deposits, is another important broker role. For example, we lost a third of our fleet in last year’s hurricanes. We had deposits back to clients who had booked these vessels within ten days after the storms,” Mullen said.
The future of the charter yacht industry contrasts the past. Years ago, notes Mullen, this vacation was an adventure. Sharing one head and shower with other guests was the norm. So was a lack of air-conditioning. Canned cream of mushroom soup and Bisquick biscuit mix were staple galley ingredients. Today’s clients want a fully staffed villa on the water. Vessels have become larger and more expensive. It’s almost impossible to find two person ‘honeymoon’ charters, or yachts in the 40- to- 50-foot range, or yachts run by owner-operators. Instead, it’s six to eight client charters on 50- to 60-footers with licensed and professionally trained captains and chefs. The charter yacht has evolved from a middle class to vacation for the well-to-do.
What is Mullen’s dream charter yacht vacation?
“It would be a different boat every time – a classic J-boat, a catamaran for comfort, a large luxurious Perini Navi. That’s the beauty of chartering.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.