V.I. Charter Yacht Industry on a Fast Recovery Course

Luxury charter yachts line the pier at Yacht Haven Grande in preparation for the VIPCA Charter Yacht Show, Sunday through Tuesday. (Photo by Melisa Kirby)
Luxury charter yachts line the pier at Yacht Haven Grande in preparation for the VIPCA Charter Yacht Show, Sunday through Tuesday. (Photo by Melisa Kirby)

A little more than a year after two Category 5 hurricanes ravaged the USVI landscape and economy, the charter yacht industry is taking on the 2018-2019 season with renewed vigor, including new luxury yachts, more flexible itineraries and creative cost-cutting strategies.

Much of the territory’s term charter fleet – boats that take passengers on multi-night island-hopping sails – will be on display Nov. 11 to 13 at Yacht Haven Grande on St. Thomas, at the annual charter boat show sponsored by the Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association.

VIPCA’s Executive Director, Oriel Blake, said the message at this year’s show reflects upbeat optimism throughout the industry.

“Come, relax and enjoy. The V.I. is open for business,” Blake said.

Blake said the show will feature 64 yachts, including 56 sailing catamarans, eight monohulls, two luxury power yachts and a 30-foot floating pink flamingo water toy.

“Last season, the focus was on volunteerism, whereby charter guests were given the opportunity to give back by participating in beach clean-ups and rebuilding schools,” Blake said. “This coming season, the focus is on showing guests the V.I. is back up and running.”

Blake added that while donations to hurricane relief and rebuilding are still encouraged, the yacht industry wants the world to know the V.I. is open for tourism.

Charter catamaran owner-captain Brian Saupe agreed, saying storm losses present an opportunity for the USVI to reclaim its role in an industry that had begun to lose steam to its BVI competition.

Saupe, who operates a three-cabin, six-passenger catamaran called Altitude Adjustment, said, “We have a hotel shortage right now so I’ve been contacting my past and future guests to offer a free night at the beginning or end of their charter.”

“This gives them a place to stay that fits their flight itineraries and helps set me apart from other options,” Saupe said.

Saupe’s plan seems to be working. With only days before the boat show, Saupe said his upcoming season is 85 percent booked, with several 2019-2020 bookings already reserved.

“There’s a huge untapped market of average folks who can’t afford a high-priced luxury charter boat vacation. I’m letting that audience know the Virgin Islands are just as amazing as ever and that they can afford to visit,” Saupe said.

Saupe said he is tapping into that market with affordable captain-only charters, new U.S.-based itineraries to avoid BVI customs fees, and a no-fuss approach that appeals to average people.

Kerry Hucul, who owns a charter boat broker service called H20 Trips, said Saupe has the right idea for tackling the down economy.

“With so many hotels still closed, the yachts are a perfect alternative to staying on land,” she said. “Owners who come up with creative ways to control costs and custom itineraries to show the best of the V.I. are booking fast.”

Hucul also said boat losses after the storms created a supply and demand win for the V.I.

“With fewer luxury yachts available and many yachts offering special pricing and cost-cutting initiatives, we are going strong into the new season,” Hucul said.

Hucul said her company, which specializes in luxury charter yacht vacations for a global audience, is embracing the V.I.’s post-storm economy by making investments in website upgrades, better yacht information sheets and user-friendlier technologies to improve self-booking from mobile devices.

Keagan Steyn, a 23-year-old Royal Yacht Association coastal skipper from Boulder, Colorado, said Charter House Yacht Club recruited him to St Thomas in order to help with increased demand this season.

Steyn said he will be solo-captaining an affordably priced sailing catamaran called 3 Sisters.

“I won’t have a chef or stew on my charters,” Steyn said. “This gives travelers a low-cost way to see the Virgin Islands,” he said.

Steyn said a captain-only charter doesn’t necessarily mean bare bones.

“3 Sisters has air conditioning, electric-flush toilets, an ice maker, fishing equipment, water toys and high-end linens for a luxury feel without a high price,” Steyn said.

“We are very positive about the future of the charter yacht market,” said Charter House CEO Collin Steyn.

“We had high losses last year because so many people decided to vacation at resorts instead of on a boat. Our airport couldn’t handle volume and our supply chain was affected because we lost one of the best provisioning sources, Cost U Less. Prices went up on food by at least 10 to 15 percent, and that hurt,” Steyn said.

According to Steyn, this year will be a different story.

“If we look at the leading indicators, like recent boat sales and early bookings, every indication is that the number of people desiring this vacation is growing. We believe there are many more people choosing charter yachting for their vacation,” Steyn said.

Steyn said Charter House is so bullish on the future of the Virgin Islands charter yacht market, it have increased its fleet to 20 yachts from seven to capitalize on the post-storm market opportunity.

Jade Lech, first mate on a 50-foot luxury catamaran called Xenia, said the post-storm market has pluses and challenges.

“On the plus side,” Lech said, “everyone seems to be anticipating a busy season and the islands have recovered in leaps and bounds. The word is getting out that this is still a great place to charter,” she said.

However, Lech said certain realities have made the crew’s job harder to perform.

“Provisioning has become noticeably more expensive and services like cleaners, laundry services and provisioners are limited,” Lech said. “This adds up to more work, stress and responsibility for the crew as we are still expected to provide a luxury charter experience,” she added.

Deb Crowe Schlosser, who owns a food supply business called Sunrise Provisions, said, “We are scaling up for this charter season. We’ve added two new shoppers and have partnered with Time Savers V.I. for large deliveries.”

Schlosser said her company also is working with area businesses to help the local economy by relying less on offshore suppliers and unpredictable container ship deliveries.

Faye Auerbach, a private chef and owner of Love City Lunchbox Gourmet Meal Delivery Service, said her business is up this year thanks to Schlosser and others like her who are looking for high-quality locally sourced products for the charter yachts.

“They know they can count on me to deliver exactly what they want, exactly when they want it,” Auerbach said. “The new economy is turning out to be very good for my business,” she said.

“Maybe that’s one of the good things that came from the storms,” Schlosser said. “It brought us all closer and made us realize how much we depend on each other as well as our customers.”

Melisa Kirby is a freelance copywriter, editor and digital marketing specialist.