May 5, 2002 – Quality, not quantity, defined the Virgin Islands Charteryacht League's 11th annual spring boat show, held Friday through Sunday at Crown Bay Marina.
Charter officials said the more intimate group of 24 yachts and 40 brokers — compared to two and three times these numbers at last fall's boat show — doesn't mean the charter business is shrinking. It's just the opposite, they said. In addition, there are major marketing outreach efforts under way.
"We originally expected 29 boats, but five are on charter," Susan Chandler, VICL executive director, said. "So that's good and bad news."
Chandler said the more laid-back nature of the spring show "gives the yachts and brokers the opportunity to spend quality, one-on-one, time getting to know the crews and the traits that are unique to each yacht." Brokers, mainly from the mainland, are the sales force for charter yacht vacations.
Ellen Stewart, a broker with Stewart Yacht Charters on St. Thomas, agreed. "The spring show is the best," she said. "It's a good opportunity to see new boats and changes in crews. Plus the pace is slower. There's more time to really get to know the boats — and that's essential in making the match between potential guests and a boat when booking a charter yacht vacation."
Stewart added, "In the fall, between the BVI show and here, you're looking at perhaps 140 to 160 boats in five to six days, and that's a lot to see."
The quieter pace of the spring show is especially good for first-time visiting brokers, one veteran said. "I know half of the boats here, and I've had a good time getting to know the rest," Mike Johnson of Nesconset, New York-based Cruising in Paradise, said. "But for the new broker with us, it's a great time to really get to know all the boats well."
The spring show is an opportunity for both yachts and brokers to get a jump-start on next season's bookings. "That was the whole idea for the start of the spring show," David Kummerle, captain of the 37-foot Glory of Christiansted, said. "By November, potential guests may have already made their winter holiday plans." Kummerle, who specializes in learn-to-sail charters, has participated in every spring show since the first one, in 1992.
Since the Sept.11 terrorist attacks on the mainland, Steward said, charter bookings have been much more spontaneous. "It used to be that short-term bookings were considered six months, then three months," she said. "In the last year, it's become even shorter, more spontaneous, like 'next week.'" She added, "People are a bit more cautious in the current economic climate."
But a return to normalcy may be in the making. "We've already had inquiries for Christmas and New Years," Lisa Lundt said. She and her husband, Bob Brokow, charter their 102-foot motor yacht Our Delight.
The local fleet offers considerable diversity in charter-yacht vacations, Chandler said: "We have a good mix. There's a range of mid-size motor yachts and monohulls, and catamarans are strong."
About half of the boats in the spring show are based in the British Virgin Islands, including several catamarans. "We're happy they want to see what St. Thomas has to offer in terms of shopping, provisioning and activities here, and to consider us as a pickup point for their guests," Chandler says. There is no spring boat show in the BVI.
Over the last year, the VICL has been working with the U.S. Coast Guard on developing a means for larger member yachts that until now have been limited to six passengers to be certified to carry more.
"We have a way to go in working with the Coast Guard on modified certificates of inspection for those boats capable of carrying more than six guests," Chandler said. "It's a road we've gone down many times, but this is the farthest we've ever gone.
She continued, "A working paper has reached the 7th district of the Coast Guard in Miami, and a couple of our boats have started to go through the process and had out-of-water inspections. Realistically, it will still take some time — more than six months. But we're not giving up."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, seven yachts took part in a local program offering free one-week charter vacations for New York firefighters and their families. Capt. Jack Feiereisen of the St. Thomas-based Dreamwalker came up with the idea. "There was no if's, and's, or but's that we'd participate," Laddie Woods, who charters Sea Nymph with his wife, DJ, said. "It was incredible and something we were very happy to support as members of the community."
Chandler was recently elected the first marine industry representative on the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce board. She said the is considering suggesting that a chamber meeting be held aboard a sampling of charter yachts to let members get a first hand look at the industry's tourism potential.
Over the next few months, Chandler said, she will be working on three key marketing initiatives:
– The VICL web site has been revamped to include information about daysails, fishing charters and the Virgin Islands as a destination, and now includes a sign-up for an e-mail newsletter.
– Two one-week VICL charter vacations will be given away on national television sweepstakes programs to air this summer, in a promotion coordinated by Martin Public Relations, the territory's mainland publicity agency. "Drumbeat I will be featured on 'Wheel of Fortune' and Cantamar will be on 'Live with Regis and Kelly,'" Chandler said. Drumbeat I is a 72-foot ketch, and Cantamar is a 60-foot schooner.
– Charter yacht vacations will be featured along with hotels in the Tourism Department's "gold coin" program targeting cruise ship passengers. "The percentage of cruise ship passengers that return to the island as overnight guests is very low," Chandler said, "so the program is geared toward getting these visitors to come back."
Cruise ship passengers are given a golden coin as they disembark in the Virgin Islands. The coin has a web address where they can check out deals on hotels and charter yachts on the Internet when they get back home. Chandler said 18 yachts have signed up so far for the program, which she said is to kick off this summer.
The marketing outreach is an effort to revitalize the territory's once-booming charter industry, Chandler said. Currently, charters contribute "less than $30 million from about 90 yachts" to the local economy, she said. "It used to be $100 million when we had 250 yachts based here during the early 1980s."
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