Rising demand lifts all boat charters

Private yacht and barge charters, once largely the purview of the wealthy, have gained wider popularity thanks to the requirements of Covid-era travel.

A Sunsail charter vessel on the Ionian Sea. (Courtesy of Sunsail Yacht Charters)

A Sunsail charter vessel on the Ionian Sea. (Courtesy of Sunsail Yacht Charters)

A Sunsail charter vessel on the Ionian Sea. (Courtesy of Sunsail Yacht Charters)

Private yacht charters are having a moment in pandemic-era travel.

Exclusivity, space, fresh air and the freedom to do what one wants to do when one wants to do it are among the key trends that travel advisors say have driven up demand for what has traditionally been considered an elite way to vacation.

“A yacht charter vacation is the ideal socially distanced vacation,” said Ian Pedersen, senior marketing manager for a pair of private charter companies, the Moorings and Sunsail. Both companies offer yachts, sailboats and catamarans.

“We are trading nearly 40% ahead of our 2019 pre-pandemic numbers to begin 2022,” he said. “A yacht charter, as opposed to a cruise or a stay at a hotel or resort, is a highly secluded, intimate experience with only close friends and family, allowing guests to vacation in a sort of ‘bubble.’”

Resorts that offer villas may dispute Pedersen’s assessment about their opportunities to offer seclusion, but there’s no denying that the growth in the private yacht and boat charter sector rose sharply after the pandemic was declared.

“Our yacht business soared 235% in 2022 versus 2019, despite the ... disparity in costs” between chartering a yacht versus booking a cruise, said Embark Beyond founder Jack Ezon. “While a great suite on a cruise may cost $40,000 a couple, a great yacht would average out to more like $75,000 for a couple” when a group of six couples are booking the vessel.

When Europe’s borders closed for much of 2020 and 2021, budget-friendly yacht charter company Le Boat, based in London, aggressively pivoted its marketing efforts to its only other base available where people could still travel within the country at the height of the pandemic: Canada. 

And it worked.

“When we first opened, 70% of our business came from the European and U.S. markets and only 30% from Canadians,” said Le Boat marketing manager Lisa McLean of how the company targeted Canadian media, bloggers and even made local television appearances to get the word out about its offerings. “100% of our customers for the last two seasons, from a Covid perspective, were people coming from Ontario and then some people coming from Quebec when Quebec borders opened.”

Guests fishing off a Le Boat charter vessel. (Courtesy of Le Boat)

Guests fishing off a Le Boat charter vessel. (Courtesy of Le Boat)

Guests fishing off a Le Boat charter vessel. (Courtesy of Le Boat)

Le Boat’s market today is 70% Canadian and 30% “other.” McLean said the company is now expanding its fleet to meet the demands of the changing market conditions as they prepare to welcome back more international visitors now that Canada’s borders have reopened.

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A personal watercraft launched off the Moka yacht in the Mediterranean. (Photo by Stuart Pearce)

A personal watercraft launched off the Moka yacht in the Mediterranean. (Photo by Stuart Pearce)

A personal watercraft launched off the Moka yacht in the Mediterranean. (Photo by Stuart Pearce)

A personal watercraft launched off the Moka yacht in the Mediterranean. (Photo by Stuart Pearce)

Barging in 

Yachts aren’t the only mode of private, water-based travel in the spotlight. Canal barge charters in Europe for private group or individual cabin bookings saw stellar growth during the pandemic for some advisors and suppliers after international borders reopened and travel restrictions eased.

France, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany all offer opportunities for barging.

“We are receiving bookings well into 2023 for private barge charters,” Abercrombie & Kent’s product development director Beth Sherer said of the company’s offerings in Europe. “Our barge products safely operated in the 2021 season, and we anticipate they will continue to operate in 2022. Requests from travel advisors for exclusive barge charters have doubled when compared to the same time pre-Covid.”

The luxury tour operator said interest rose in its canal barge charters in 2021 for many of the same reasons advisors and other operators have identified: People are seeking alternative ways to travel safely at their own pace in smaller groups on trips that offer outdoor experiences at a relatively affordable price.

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The pool on Belmond’s six-passenger, ultraluxe Fleur de Lys barge in Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Frontiers International Travel)

The pool on Belmond’s six-passenger, ultraluxe Fleur de Lys barge in Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Frontiers International Travel)

The pool on Belmond’s six-passenger, ultraluxe Fleur de Lys barge in Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Frontiers International Travel)

The pool on Belmond’s six-passenger, ultraluxe Fleur de Lys barge in Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Frontiers International Travel)

High demand soaks up supply

At this point, it may take some persistence and luck to find a yacht or canal barge to charter in 2023, let alone in 2022.

The issue for private canal barge charters in 2022 is that there are precious few weeks available during its seven-month season, said Jill Jergel of Frontiers International Travel, a barge broker that wholesales curated canal barge trips operated by independent barge owners plus the fleets of companies including European Waterways and Belmond, among others.

She painted a picture of just how grim 2021 turned out to be: Only three months of Frontiers’ barging season was operational in 2021 because the European countries where most barge cruises operate — France and the U.K. — were closed to Americans or imposed quarantine entry requirements until around mid-July. The bookings that didn’t operate over the other four months rolled over to 2022, for the same week that had originally been purchased.

That was, in fact, the second year of major rollovers. 

“2020 was shaping up to be the best year ever in European canal barging” Jergel said. But once the pandemic was declared, “nothing operated. Because payments were nonrefundable, all monies simply slid to the same week in 2021.”

The backlog of canceled trips now rolling over to 2022 means there is significantly less inventory available for private charters of barges and, in some cases, even yachts.

“We have continuously been rebooking guests in an attempt to accommodate them over the past few years,” Pedersen said of The Moorings and Sunsail. “New bookings have remained surprisingly strong, and as a result we’re selling out, in certain time frames, months earlier than usual as we head into 2022. Demand is soaring, but combined with the rebookings from 2020 and 2021, availability over the next few months is becoming limited.”

Although, long term, it’s good news that demand is so high for both yachts and barge charters, advisors and suppliers also report that some clients are beginning to feel fatigue from supply continually falling short of demand. Sometimes, the interest in rebooking when more space is available — a moving target, recently -— gets tiresome.

The imbalance of supply and demand  and impatient consumers has led some suppliers to become more flexible and accommodating with their booking policies. In addition to rebooking at later dates or issuing future travel credits, some have modified refund policies, either offering full refunds for trips that have been twice canceled or providing refunds right up to the last minute, should a client test positive for Covid immediately before departure.

“If you need to change the flight to your boat or your departure date or your destination, we have no change fees,” McLean said of Le Boat’s flexible booking policy. 

“We’re not just offering future travel credits — we are giving them 100% refunds on their Le Boat trip if for any reason they can’t travel. We do have the confidence that they’ll appreciate this, and when it is time to rebook, they’ll come back to Le Boat.”

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An aerial view of the Moorings’ flagship marina in the British Virgin Islands. (Courtesy of The Moorings)

An aerial view of the Moorings’ flagship marina in the British Virgin Islands. (Courtesy of The Moorings)

An aerial view of the Moorings’ flagship marina in the British Virgin Islands. (Courtesy of The Moorings)

An aerial view of the Moorings’ flagship marina in the British Virgin Islands. (Courtesy of The Moorings)

Affordable and available

So just what is available? There are still options.

Fancy a daytrip with the family on a catamaran sailing through the British Virgin Islands? “Yachts or catamarans can accommodate many size groups. Megayachts can handle groups of 25 or more,” said Becky Powell, chief strategy officer of Internova’s Global Travel Collection. “They are perfect for family celebrations like milestone birthdays or anniversaries.”

“There is a yacht out there for everyone,” Pedersen said of his company’s packages in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and South Pacific. “A three-cabin monohull in the Caribbean could cost roughly $4,000 for a seven-day bareboat charter (a self-driving yacht or catamaran cruise without crew or meals), while our larger all-inclusive, crewed catamarans cost roughly $25,000 for the same time period.”

Pining for a slow cruise along the Canal du Midi in the south of France? There may be a barge available for that.

“That’s probably the second most popular route. The canal itself is an incredible feat of engineering,” Jergel said.

Feeling adventurous? Longing to be the captain of your own ship? Le Boat can put you behind the wheel.

“It’s very similar to renting a car,” said McLean, adding that some boats start as low as $1,200 a week in Europe and, in Canada, $2,500 a week aboard a newer model ship sailing along the Rideau Canal in Ontario.

“You have the boat for seven days, and you just have to have it back on day seven. Our boats are easy to drive; you don’t need a license. We teach you everything you need to know,” McLean sad.

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The Rendez-Vous barge navigating a lock in southern Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)

The Rendez-Vous barge navigating a lock in southern Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)

The Rendez-Vous barge navigating a lock in southern Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)

The Rendez-Vous barge navigating a lock in southern Burgundy, France. (Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)

Yes to yachts

While McLean likened some of Le Boat’s products to rental cars, “private yachts are becoming like private jets,” Powell said. “Once you experience it, you want to do it multiple times.”

“Chartering a yacht is like a drug,” Embark Beyond’s Ezon echoed. “It gets addictive. Once people experience it, they almost always come back for more, despite the price. I think it is only going to continue to grow.”

If there has been a silver lining from the pandemic, it may be that a product that was once viewed as a niche market reserved for the elite is now in the consideration set of a much wider audience.

“Yacht charter vacations have been a best-kept secret of the sailing community for decades,” Pedersen said. “About 80% of the visitors to our website in 2021 were new visitors. I expect this increased demand to continue well into the future.”

Villas, recreational vehicles and now yachts have benefited from a global catastrophe that led people to seek isolation, whether on land, on the road or on water. For an increasing number of people, it’s perhaps never been truer: The best things in life come in small packages.

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