How to combine the best of land and sea with customized private charters for your clients.
It sounds like a Lotto winner’s dream: cruising the Mediterranean in a private yacht, seeing and doing whatever you want while dining on food prepared especially to your taste. But exploring Europe by private boat charter, one of the best kept secrets in cruising, is within reach for many clients and an excellent fit for modern travelers.
The June 2019 TrekkSoft Travel Trends report revealed that tourism companies’ sales focus is shifting to respond to increasingly exclusive and customized trip requests. And the 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report indicated that client requests show a desire for a deeper level of personalization and one-of-a-kind experiences, noting that highly personalized travel is in high demand, “inspired primarily by a desire to experience destinations in unusual ways.”
What may come as more of a surprise to clients and even advisors is that a private charter doesn’t have to break the bank; in fact, it can be a great value for the right travelers. A New York Times article titled “Not Just for the Rich” points out that when the charter fee is split among friends or family members, it can be a very affordable travel option.
And when it comes to European travel in particular, the perks of a private charter are nearly boundless: the ability to visit less-traveled areas with fewer crowds; flexible itineraries tailored to clients’ unique tastes; access to unique, experiential opportunities; and more. Read on for a look at how to navigate the private charter market to best combine land and sea for your clients in Europe.
The Private Charter Basics
Charter rates vary by season, kind and size of boat, length of cruise and individual choices among a large list of amenities and inclusions. Everything is customized down to the provision list, and travelers have their choice of options like liquor packages, special meals on shore, the number of crew members and more to build a cruise that satisfies their dreams and stays within financial reach.
Zvonimir Androic, owner and president of Via Tours Croatia, explains that a week on a sailboat that accommodates four to six passengers can be booked for as little as $5,000; with four people (and accounting for some extras), this translates to around $1,500 per person for a week’s custom cruising.
The advantages of charter are impressive. As Androic points out, “On a scheduled cruise, the route is set in stone. If you see a wonderful beach and you’d love to swim there, all you can do is wish. On a charter, you can have your wish then and there.”
Another big plus is avoiding the crowds that clog popular ports available to large cruise ships. Charters are scheduled around typical saturation periods and give guests more time in port with access to authentic experiences unavailable to most travelers, including visits to villages and interaction with local people. And individual interests shape the itinerary: If your clients want to scuba and snorkel, explore history or religion, seek out local culture or just about anything else, the charter cruise delivers.
Alison Ramirez, a luxury travel advisor at Protravel International in Chicago, Illinois, has seen firsthand the kinds of benefits her travelers enjoy. For example, feedback from a family of two adults and two teenagers she booked on a sailing boat in Croatia told her that among the perks they most enjoyed were the ability to feel more like locals, onboard pampering and care from the crew, and docking right in port, giving them easy access to land-based amenities like restaurants.
Private charters can take the form of a luxury yacht, luxury catamaran or gulet (a wooden sailing vessel). Androic explains that sailboats are entry-level choices. Those who want private bathrooms for each cabin and additional onboard space may want to book catamarans, while motor yachts provide luxury travel for couples, families and friends traveling together, particularly those who want to cover more ground. Gulets, the region’s traditional two- and three-masted wooden sailing vessels, are fully crewed for groups, with four to 15 cabins.
Travelers with sailing experience can arrange to charter a yacht and crew it themselves (licensing is required), but most charters sail with a skipper and/or crew. Itineraries vary from short cruises paired with land tours and stays to weeks of sailing the region.
When it comes to pitching private charters, Richard Engle, CTC, a luxury travel agent at Protravel International in Chicago, Illinois, recommends this style of travel for the more adventurous, independent client—a seasoned traveler not tied to a schedule of activities.
“One of the ideal configurations is two families traveling together who know each another well,” Engle says. “You have two sets of parents and plenty of other kids to play with. Charters are really great for family bonding and reunions; travelers talk or play cards at night, have dinners together, explore together.”
Engle also suggests charter for active clients, groups of couples, people who like boutique hotels, gay travelers, small special interest groups and yacht owners who are not going to sail across the Atlantic but want to cruise privately in Europe. He finds potential clients among veteran travelers looking for the next special experience, people celebrating landmark occasions and those who have enjoyed scheduled cruises under sail.
Within Europe, Engle sees Croatia and Greece as particularly well suited to charters because so much of their culture revolves around their many islands, some of the best with a very limited tourism infrastructure.
Mark Simoes, vice president, leisure and global hotel partnerships for Balboa Travel in Austin, Texas recently chartered a gulet for a group of 18 that included four families. He points out that a really resourceful 24/7 concierge is key to a good charter, for setting up the initial elements and responding to changes. He also suggests that charter bookings be made well in advance. “The charter market is highly competitive,” says Simoes. “A boat may be listed by multiple companies, and you usually need to book early to be sure to get what the client really wants.”
It’s also very important to partner with a company that has ample experience and either a base or a long history in the destination, along with a solid relationship with advisors. When vetting potential partners, it’s wise to look carefully at past guest reviews and confirm that there is enough variety of product to give clients a range of possibilities within their tastes and budgets, being very clear about what is included and what is an add-on.
Traditionally, much private charter business comes from word of mouth, but experienced travel advisors say that there is a far bigger potential client pool once travelers know how affordable it can be. Images on social media can help to stimulate interest, and introducing the idea for honeymoons and special events can be very fruitful. Most companies will even negotiate special rates for travel advisors leading groups, another selling point.
Qualifying Clients for Charters
When it comes to private charters, the advisor’s role—qualifying the prospective traveler and communicating clearly to the supplier and client—is even more important than usual.
“Most important is very intense qualification,” says Ramirez. “You need to understand what they are after, and you have to ask 20 or 30 questions to help them arrive at what they want. Do they get seasick? Have they done this before? Do they want to visit popular or undiscovered destinations? What type of yacht do they want? What’s their budget? You need to probe.”
Peggy Honore, a travel advisor at Ridgefield Travel and Cruise Planners in Ridgefield, Connecticut, agrees that private charters require extensive planning and preparation. “When clients charter for the first time, they don’t know a lot of things—and they don’t even know what those things are. You aren’t just deciding what time you will have dinner; you are shaping the whole trip. You really need to hold their hand throughout the whole process, and over-communicate so they have no surprises and are properly prepared.”
But the extra work for both client and advisor pay off in a big way. “My clients say the feeling of privacy is amazing,” Honore says. “They felt alone all the time, but never abandoned. Whatever they needed just appeared.”
Honore also points out that sometimes charter clients don’t start out that way—in some cases, the choice of destination within Europe and the client’s unique wishes may lead to private charter as a way to provide the best overall experience. “My process is to get to know clients, ask them about a destination like Croatia, sell the location and then suggest that this is the way to do it,” she explains. “In my opinion, Croatia, for example, is most beautiful from the water.”
In the end, the work that goes into a custom charter brings long-term benefits for the travel advisor. The very strong satisfaction rate and high repeat factor are only the beginning—many clients who charter once will bring friends or family together for the next cruise, and those clients do the same, so that the successful advisor is expanding their client list with every charter booking. What’s more, with the travel market increasingly focused on individualized, authentic travel, private charters and other customizable options are poised to grow significantly in the very near future.