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Try Before You Buy

Florida is prime territory for luxury yacht charters. Eight local charter brokers give us a peek into the business.

What could be finer than sipping an exotic cocktail surrounded by loving family and friends, cruising the blue waters of the Caribbean or Mediterranean on your own gleaming, 200-foot yacht?

Well, for many people, it’s doing just that, but on somebody else’s yacht. Yacht chartering has become an increasingly big business, and like all things nautical, it is an important part of South Florida’s economy. It is also something of a secret to most people.

“It amazes me how many local people know very little about boating – and they know nothing about charters.” That’s Pam Barlow of Luke Brown Yachts speaking. She’s been involved in boating all her life, since growing up on Long Island. She is now in her 70s and has been a yacht broker for decades – the last 23 with Fort Lauderdale-based Luke Brown, where owner Andrew Cilla made her his charter specialist. She describes a regular customer:

“I have a client who could afford a 200-foot boat, but he prefers to charter. He gets on the boat and they love him, and he gets off and they love him, and he doesn’t have to worry about anything after that.”

You could hear much the same rhapsody from almost any charter specialist, and there is an increasing number based in Florida. We profile some of the leading charter specialists, most of whom have one thing in common – they worked on boats and learned about charters from the galley up before they donned their sales hats.

Jennifer Saia

Bartram & Brakenhoff Yacht Charters

Although she grew up in Florida (mostly in Delray Beach) and was around boats most of her life, Jennifer Saia planned a career in aviation. After attending Florida Atlantic and Lynn universities, she was going for a master’s degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. That changed around 1994, when a friend was working on a yacht. It seemed like fun.

“I said, ‘I can do that,’” Saia remembers. She sure could. She became a chief stewardess with The Sacks Group. The charm required on that job was matched by a talent for organization. She wound up owning The Sacks Group for 17 years, running three offices with a staff of 28. She sold to International Yacht Collection in 2010. Along the way she was credited with coining the slogan, “try before you buy.”

“I found I loved being an entrepreneur,” she says, proving it last year by becoming president of Bartram & Brakenhoff Yacht Charters and opening an office in Newport, Rhode Island. “I’m back to ground zero in 1994. It’s just me and a part-time assistant, growing my fleet.” She plans to spend five months in the Northeast and seven in Florida.

“This is still a cottage industry,” she says. “The Internet has taken over, but actually it is still a transaction-customized business. It’s one-on-one, planning details. Every charter is a little event. It’s an incredibly detailed job. Boats keep changing; crews change. It’s always what’s new, what’s different. It’s fun, and it’s supposed to be fun.”

Barbara Stork Landeweer

International Yacht Collection

Aside from the fact that she is pretty tall and exceptionally pretty, this woman has a typical charter specialist background. First, she’s a woman. Most charter people are, usually because they had been stewardesses before brokers. Second, she came to the business almost by accident. She came to Florida from New York. “I knew nothing about boating,” she says. “I took the first job I could find, as a waitress.” There she met a man in the boating industry who suggested she explore that field. She began as the secretary to a yacht broker.

Today, she is a charter agent for International Yacht Collection on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale – the heart of the local boating industry. Her job keeps her busy seven days a week, handling a range of boats around the world.

“You can spend $25,000 a week or a million-plus, depending on your budget,” she says.

“There’s no school for this,” she explains. “You just learn as you go.” She learned enough to go for her broker’s license. That was 27 years ago, and along the way she met her husband of 24 years. Along with her friend Jennifer Saia, she is one of the top charter specialists. “They call them the two queens of charter,” says another broker.

Leslie Adams

Denison Yacht Sales

Denison Yacht is the granddaddy of local boat companies, tracing its origins to the 1940s, and now involving a third generation of the Denison family. It formerly built boats but now sells them. Kit Denison heads its new Superyacht Division, which two years ago expanded into the charter business, headed by Leslie Adams. One of her first jobs was with Dutch superyacht builder Feadship, and she later worked for Allied Marine (now part of the Ferretti family) before joining Denison.

“A typical charter is a boat when the owner is not using it,” she says. “They are paying a crew to be there; most have a full-time staff. And although chartering for most doesn’t make money, it helps pay their costs. And for the crew there’s usually a nice gratuity.”

Denison charters yachts in the 70to 270-foot range.

An essential part of Adams’ work is getting to know the many yachts available, as well as those who run the show.

“Next to a boat being clean, it’s the crew which is most important,” she says. “Some people charter to see if they like it, or check out a particular type of boat, and it can lead to buying their own boat. But whether they buy or not, most people have a really good time.”

7 things you might not know about yacht Charters

1. Most charters are for a week to 10 days, usually for vacations or special family occasions.

2. Typically, the boats don’t cruise very much. Three hours is the average duration before the boat stops to visit interesting places.

3. Although the cost for a week’s charter on a superyacht may seem expensive, a typical yacht offers six staterooms. The cost may be split between several parties, making it more affordable, especially when one considers hotel and travel costs if various locations were visited by air.

4. Favorite cruise locations are the Caribbean, especially during the Christmas season, the Mediterranean and, increasingly, Alaska. New England is also busy in the summer. Surprisingly, summer is almost as busy as winter for Florida charters out of this area.

5. A frequent path to becoming a charter specialist is actually working on yachts. That experience helps in the dual duties of pleasing clients and keeping a happy and efficient crew – the latter is key to keeping happy customers.

6. Florida is a favorite location for charter specialists, although they often arrange trips to far-off places. An estimated 30 to 40 charter boats are homeported here, with slightly more in the winter.

7. The average crew is six for a 75to 112-foot vessel. That’s the tip of the economic iceberg. Numerous support staff work marinas, and lately developers have been attracted to locations near marine facilities.

HMY Yachts

35 years and growing

HMY Yachts, headed by Steve Moynihan, has a 35-year history and 10 offices, eight of them in Florida. Its most recent office is in Monaco. With more than 100 employees, it ranks among the major yacht brokers.

Moynihan was 19 when he arrived from Birmingham, Ala.

“I got a job at the Miami Boat Show, selling multiple listing services to brokers,” he says. “Then I got into boat sales and worked for two groups.”

He lived on a house boat at Fort Lauderdale’s Marina Bay when he decided, at the tender age of 24, to start his own company.

“I wasn’t nervous about going on my own,” he quips. “I didn’t know any better.”

He soon knew enough to see the boating business, like many enterprises in Florida, heading north. His company opened several offices before buying its own space in prime markets. Moynihan moved to Jupiter in 1995 and works out of a spacious office at Soverel Harbour Marina on PGA Boulevard. In 1999 another major expansion took the company to the Waterway Marina in Stuart.

Palm Harbor Marina in Palm Beach is the location of its superyacht sales and brokerage showcase, as well as its yacht charter division.

Moynihan also owns the Pirate’s Cove in Port Salerno, which is run by his wife. Not surprisingly, HMY has an office there.


HMY Yachts

Established boat companies have been trending toward the high end in recent years, launching superyacht divisions. Chartering is a natural companion to that business, for prospective buyers often try a boat on a charter before spending big bucks. Thus, Kim Vickery joined 35-year-old HMY Yachts to develop its charter division last year. Working out of Harbour Towne Marina in Dania Beach, she brings two decades of experience in the travel business to her assignment.

The Tampa native began her career in aviation in 1994, booking private air charters for a Hollywood company. She later worked for Rikki Davis Yacht, a highly regarded charter company that specialized in megayacht holidays. In 2000, she established a charter division for Koch, Newton & Partners.

“I was lucky to be mentored by some of the individual greats in the industry,” she says. In the past, HMY specialized in smaller boats, but that is changing.

“We’ve positioned ourselves to grow with our clients when they move up to large boats,” she says.

A favorite charter is Primetime, an 82-foot Horizon based at Palm Harbor Marina. “It’s a very popular boat – the best thing going in West Palm Beach – with a really good captain,” she says. “It can handle six guests for longer trips and 12 for day charters.”

Pam Barlow

Luke Brown Yachts

This woman has been involved with yacht charters ever since she became a yacht broker. That was 1979. But her boating experience goes back to growing up sailing on Long Island Sound, and in 1971 she learned chartering firsthand as a mate/cook on a sailboat that worked mostly in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She joined Luke Brown in Fort Lauderdale in 1989 and is that firm’s charter specialist.

“I’m a full sales broker,” she says. “I do more sales than charters. I do about six charters a year. It’s mostly very good repeat clients and referrals.”

She has been around long enough to see extraordinary changes in the business.

“When I started, it was totally different,” she recalls. “There weren’t many power boats chartering. It was mostly sail.” And customers were far less pampered.

“People made their own bunks and they didn’t expect five-course meals. And the kids didn’t play video games all day.”

Sara Hill

Y.CO Fort Lauderdale

Y.CO is only 11 years old, but it has established a reputation, mostly abroad (five offices), as a leading yacht brokerage, with a strong position in the luxury charter market. It is expanding to the United States, including an office on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard. That office has been open for two years, but just now is taking on its desired shape – which is ultra modern and spacious, a motif shared with other Y.CO offices around the world. It also favors the color yellow, in décor and promotions.

To help build its local presence, Y.CO brought in Sara Hill, who is as native as they get. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale’s Rio Vista neighborhood, attended Cardinal Gibbons High School and studied sports medicine at the University of Mississippi. She got into yachting when she became a personal trainer aboard a yacht.

“I was a stewardess/personal trainer, and then I became the chief stewardess. I lived it for seven years. I knew how to run a successful charter. I have faith in a crew because I was one.”

Y.CO specializes in the finest yachts, and everything about the company reflects that, including very expensive, hardback promotional books (they come sheathed in lemon yellow) for its luxury yachts. One of them is unusual. Most charters are short-range, but Sherakhan takes cruises spanning oceans. With 13 cabins it is a cross between a charter and a small cruise ship. Like the latter it rents by the rooms – $350 a day.

“There’s no hotel in the world that matches the service this yacht offers,” she says. “And you can’t get a room at the W for that price.”

Windridge Yacht Charters

Most yacht brokers don’t do charters for just a day. It’s a lot of work for one event. Windridge Yacht Charters is exactly the opposite. It does only events, never an overnight charter. It is an entirely different business. Yacht brokers charter other people’s boats; Windridge owns its own, so it can arrange a cruise on fairly short notice.

Formerly owned by Kathleen Windridge of Fort Lauderdale, the company was recently bought by Entertainment Cruises, based in Chicago. With 30 boats in eight cities, it is the largest company in the dinnercruise business. Erica Gregory, a 15-year veteran with the company, recently moved from Boston to take over as general manager.

“We do events up to 430 people,” she says. “We’re a big floating function hall.” She quickly adds, “People may think of a booze cruise. But that’s not us. We’re high end, with many corporate clients. All our food is on board and we have a chef on board. Each cruise is completely customized. It can be top of the line or casual.”

Its full-time staff of 10 can expand up to 60 for larger groups. Its two boats berthed in Fort Lauderdale serve the market from Miami to Palm Beach. “We come to you,” Gregory says. “Every night is different, depending on the clientele.”

Indeed, its boats are elegant, with lounges resembling an upscale law office and nicely appointed dining rooms seating hundreds.

Windridge, as the only company unit that works full capacity year-round, averages 200 cruises a year. Bookings are usually arranged from two weeks to a year before an event.

“We have some bookings already for 2016,” Gregory says.