Pitts says that she found this to be true. "The websites I visited offered a sampling of charters available—each was briefly described, stating the number of passengers, available equipment, photos, and price, and all this was all helpful in forming some preliminary ideas."
So how does a prospective charterer go about navigating the web to get the best information? Good question. The experience of clicking around a charter company or broker's website can range from trouble-free to tricky. Although Pitts believes that the charter sites she used were fairly easy to navigate and provided adequate information, Jack Edwards, an avid boater and past bareboat client from Gibbsboro, NJ, says: "I've found some websites simple to navigate, but too often things can get very complicated and mind boggling."
Edwards explains: "I think the most useful information on a website are the pictures. Interior layouts especially interest me the most. I've purchased and exchanged timeshares using the Internet, and have I always look for pictures that show the outside of the unit as well as a schematic of it."
Pitts does have one suggestion for charter companies that peddle their services via a website: "The one thing that would have been helpful to me would have been a sample itinerary."
The best way to navigate a bareboat company website depends on your level of experience. "If the person has chartered before, they go right to the availability listing," Voyage's Beavis says. "Most people who've chartered know the makeup of their crew and time of year they want to go," Christine DeSimone of Sunsail says: "Our website is a wonderful research tool, whether it be for general information about all of the exotic sailing locations we offer around the world, to see photos of the possible cruising areas, or to review a particular yacht's layout and specs in comparison to others. It's also a good place to pick up sailing and chartering tips." For those who have never chartered, "We suggest going to the destination and fleet sections first," advises The Mooring's Roman. "We have an on-line sailing resume where first timers can answer a few questions and see right away if they qualify for a bareboat."
After reviewing destinations and selecting a boat, "most people check out the rates and availability through our on-line booking system where you can confirm a reservation or look for other information," says Chris Bent, president of Trade Wind Yachts, Inc., in Gloucester, VA. Once the charter has been booked, the Internet can continue to be a useful resource for planning a repeat or first-time charters. "We offer an on-line preference sheet for everything from provisions to water sports equipment," Beavis says.
The second form of website is an on-line brochure that gives contact information for an individual boat. About 30 percent of the crewed charter yachts that are based out of the US Virgin Islands book directly. This saves on the commission a boat would have to pay to the broker. However, for the client "there is no advantage in booking the boat directly," says Ed Hamilton, owner of Ed Hamilton Yacht Charter Agents, a brokerage based in Whitefield, ME, which does numerous Caribbean and worldwide bookings annually. "The price is the same and a boat owner or crew is going to have a less objective view concerning the boat's condition, crew's character, reliability, and standard of service." Another benefit of going through a broker is that "the money goes into an escrow account and isn't turned over to the captain until right before a charter," Admiralty's Borns explains. And, "if the boat selected has to cancel because of repairs or other reasons, the broker can usually find another similar boat so the trip doesn't have to be canceled, or worse yet the client doesn't end up standing at the dock all alone.
Finding Deals The Internet can offer real deals on yacht charters that can't be obtained through standard magazine ads or snail mail brochures. "Periodically, yachts may offer specials and we post them immediately on our website," says Deb Adao of Jolly Mon Sailing. Admiralty Yacht Charters has a site, www.charterbid.com, which also offers specials. "When boats are not as busy as they want to be, they often discount a week at the last minute and we post that deal on our site. Potential clients can then bid on line for the best price," Born says.
Discovering last-minute deals is a growing advantage of the Internet. Sunsail's DeSimone says visiting the company's website "is a great way to stay up to date with any ongoing specials we might be offering." She says interested parties can also sign up to receive the Sunsail newsletter escape via e-mail, which details monthly updates and specials. Web-posted special rates, which are updated as frequently as weekly or even daily, are usually for specific dates, destinations, and boats. Cost advantages can include a straight discount off the cost of the charter, additional days for free, or the waiving of a flotilla fee.
From the client's perspective, Pitts recounts what precautions she took when selecting a broker online: "Once I had found a website and broker I liked, I called to verify the legitimacy as I'd heard that some vacation websites could be a scam; they just take your money and run. Ultimately, I selected the broker I did because after spending an evening on the computer researching the various charter opportunities and seeing very little difference in the product being offered, this one seemed the most responsive to my inquiries; the one who responded to me promptly and answered by follow-up e-mails in a timely manner."
Show Me the Money These days, as with any other purchase you might make via the Internet, you can complete the transaction on line, including payment of the charter, without ever having to talk to anyone directly. DeSimone says Sunsail has offered the option of on-line bookings since June 2000. "At Sunsail.com, we offer the convenience of booking a complete charter online, it's immediate, safe, and secure. We even recently introduced the option of ordering all provisions online. It's very hands-on and simple to do. However, we still believe nothing replaces the one-on-one personal touch you receive when speaking to an experienced sales agent. These people can offer information from past experiences that many of our clients find useful or perhaps just answer that difficult question."
Even though on-line booking is available, clients typically prefer talking to a real person, says Stardust's McCrea. Borns confirms this: "We book about one-third of our clients over the Internet. The other two-thirds still want to talk by phone, and perhaps have their contract faxed or mailed to them."
Bent at Trade Wind Yacht says: "I think the 'human touch' is always helpful for most clients. Often it takes a real person to confirm details and answer specific questions that may otherwise take more time to locate on the Internet. That's why we offer the option to click through and speak with a reservationist for free."
In the Future The future of charter booking through the web looks promising, according to most brokerages. "Potential clients will be using the Internet more and more," says Voyage's Beavis, "whether it's to research charters or book them."
"The only thing the Internet lacks is subjectivity. And, that's important in a sport that so many people feel passionate about," Stardust's McCrea adds. "Perhaps, we'll start to see interactive chat forums to fill this void."
"What I'd really like," Edwards says, "is an independent site that gives a rating of the vessel, the company and the manager. This information is available in the timeshare industry, but I haven't seen it for charter yachts—at least not yet."
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