A taste of luxury

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

Would you prefer champagne by the hot tub or a massage this afternoon, sir?" asked the crew member as I sat admiring the Monaco coastline from the sundeck of RM Elegant. "Both, please," I replied. "Although I think I'll take one of the jet skis for a spin first."

Just another day in the life of an increasing number of super-yacht owners. Alas, I was experiencing the lifestyle for only 24 hours and so was determined to cram in as much as possible. In fact, relaxing was out of the question. There was too much to do.

The venue for this all too brief taste of the high life was RM Elegant, which stretches an impressive 72 metres and has king-sized beds, plasma screens, satellite TV, CD and DVD players – and that's just in the bedrooms. The main saloon boasts a grand piano and 55-inch plasma screen, while through the patio doors the aft saloon deck includes oak dining tables and an outside bar. Add to this an indoor dining room, business centre (there is wifi internet access throughout the yacht), spa pool, gym, beauty salon, sauna, massage room and sundeck, and there is enough to keep even the Abramovichs of this world happy. Okay, so it doesn't have a swimming pool, but who needs one when you have the whole of the Mediterranean, and various water toys to sit in and skim across it?

Super-yachts like these are becoming an increasingly common sight in exclusive marinas around the world. However, they are very expensive, with costs starting in the tens of millions of dollars. Not surprisingly, chartering a yacht for a week or two is a lot more common than owning one.
Until now, this service has been provided by yacht brokers, who charge a significant commission to effectively bring together yacht owners and potential customers. Enter PrivatSea, a "lifestyle platform" which offers clients the chance to combine yachting holidays with private jet chartering as well as access to exclusive country clubs and restaurants via a points-based membership. Part of the Latsis Group – a privately owned conglomerate with holdings in shipping, yacht management and private aviation, among other interests – PrivatSea launched in Europe in September 2005. If yachting is your thing, PrivatSea has a vessel for you. It boasts a fleet of 50 fully crewed yachts (including the Elegant) owned by preferred partners, PrivatSea members, and the company itself.

We were in good company – the buzz of the Grand Prix had barely died down when we arrived in Monaco, and many of the super-yachts owned by F1 enthusiasts and participants were still in the area. Also moored in the bay was Christina "O", the iconic super-yacht built for the Onassis dynasty, with its distinctive yellow funnel, that over the years has welcomed aboard famous names such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill.

So what is a super-yacht? Europeans tend to refer to any yacht larger than 40 metres in length as a super-yacht, while anything over 100m is a mega-yacht (though in the US the term "mega" seems to be bandied about a lot more readily). Both categories are getting bigger – we passed the Alexander, an enormous 122-metre yacht owned by the Latsis Group, while the German-built Rising Sun is currently the world's largest privately owned yacht at 138 metres. And there are vessels in the pipeline that will sail past the 140-metre mark.

Ironically, RM Elegant and others like her are not yachts at all. Yachts sleeping over 12 people are considered to be passenger ships, the classification bringing with it added health and safety regulations. Among these is the banning of candles on board, although the RM Elegant gets round this by recreating the effect with mood lighting in the bedrooms and bathrooms.

According to James Kung, chief operating officer for PrivatSea, the number of super-yachts will reach around 3,000 in the next few years. Considering that the average yacht owner uses their boat just four to six weeks per year, many of these are likely to enter the charter market.
"There is no doubt yachting is in vogue at the moment," says Kung. "Thirty years ago it was fashionable to buy a vineyard, then it was a private jet, and now it's the super-yacht. But a yacht is a depreciating asset, and with running costs of between seven and 10 per cent per annum, it's nearly impossible for owners to break even through chartering. PrivatSea is taking the toys of the überwealthy and making them accessible to the really wealthy."

Really wealthy is not an exaggeration. With a target client worth between US$10 million and US$400 million, it's unlikely most of us will be jumping overboard to grab individual membership at PrivateSea. The initial joining fee alone is a hefty €18,000 (£12,294), after which members buy points which they trade against super-yacht charters and other experiences. The minimum points purchase amount for Intro membership is €150,000 (£102,451) – which is barely enough for a couple of days on RM Elegant but can buy you a package that includes a private jet trip to Cannes, a week's Mediterranean yacht holiday, a villa stay and limo transfers – while Cobalt membership, the highest band available, will set you back a whopping €1,200,000 (£819,514).

Corporate membership represents an interesting option though, the only difference in pricing being a higher joining fee of E30,000 (£20,488). During the Monaco Grand Prix, for instance, BMW chartered one of PrivatSea's super-yachts, displaying a huge logo on the side of the vessel. As Kung puts it, what better deal-clincher could there be than meeting potential clients on board your yacht in Monaco?

But with dozens of yachting brokers, all with proven experience and eager for your business, why bother joining a members club like PrivatSea? The answer, says Kung, is threefold: "Firstly our points system means the process of chartering a yacht is transparent and simple. All of the costs including crew, petrol and food are included within the point bands, so the member knows exactly what is going to be charged from the start.

Secondly, with a broker company they effectively just introduce the customer and yacht owner, and then leave them to get on with it. With PrivatSea, we act on the member's behalf so they do not have to get involved with the actual chartering process. And finally we have included ancillary benefits such as private jet hire, limo service and partnerships with clubs like the Monte Carlo Country Club (MCCC), all of which give added value to our product. All in all, this results in a seamless, hassle-free experience for our members."

Kung adds that, crucially, PrivatSea is part of a group that owns all of the critical components; as well as owning several of the yachts in PrivatSea's offering, the Latsis Group runs a subsidiary company, PrivatAir, with a fleet of private jets at its disposal, meaning it can provide members with an all-inclusive service.

It is this concept, described as the "doorstep to deck" travel service, that PrivatSea was keen to promote during our trip. I was taken by limo from my flat to RAF Northolt airbase, where I boarded a private jet courtesy of Club 328 to fly to Nice (see page 16 for more details). From here we were chauffeur-driven to our yacht, and throughout the stay were treated to experiences such as a visit to the MCCC, where all PrivatSea members can enjoy complimentary tennis and use of the fitness facilities.

PrivatSea also recommends and books tables at restaurants and nightclubs for its members, although they stop short of calling themselves a concierge club (see page 42). Says PrivatSea's marketing director Jens Frees Horneman: "Concierge companies tend to overpromise and underdeliver. We tend to think of ourselves as a high-end lifestyle platform – we have the facilities and contacts to arrange these sort of things for our members, but we don't promise it as it's not the core of our business. What we can promise is the access to super-yachts, along with discretion, security and splendid isolation."

PrivatSea had obviously pulled the right strings on this occasion, with dinner in a private room at Hotel de Paris' Le Grill, overlooking the bay where our super-yacht sat patiently waiting for our return. Only time will tell if PrivatSea's "added value" offering will be enough to tempt customers away from the traditional yacht brokers. Then again, if the explosion in yacht building continues at its current pace, there is probably room for both concepts.

One thing no one can control, of course, is the weather, and as night fell in Monaco a storm began to brew on the horizon, causing our tender to bounce over increasingly choppy waters on its way back towards RM Elegant. "These roads haven't been repaired for a while now," quipped the captain. "Monaco obviously hasn't got enough money to pay the maintenance bills." But with the number of super-yachts that will be invading the principality over the next few years, something tells me the mayor would roll out a floating red carpet if he could. n

Visit privatsea.com, tel +44 (0)800 027 5077

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