As the figures from 2012 settled into a broad view of the year, we puzzled over a topsy turvy market. A tangle of politics, finance and psychology had altered what – even post-2008 – we still understood to be reliable patterns. The overall number of sales was positive but they didn’t happen when they were supposed to. And did when they weren’t.
Now that the first-quarter figures are in, it is again the pattern rather than number of sales that has defied expectations. In past years (whether strong or not) sales have built upwards in the first quarter, as we head towards warmer months. But the tallies in January, February and March this year ran 19, 24, 19 (compared to 15, 19, 25 in the same quarter last year, or 12, 19, 26 in 2011).
Michel Chryssicopoulos, Greece-based partner of Cape 4 Yachting, suspects that this year the reason for the unusual sales pattern was a geopolitical event. ‘The only way to explain the March slowdown is due to the Cypriot banking crisis, which took place early/mid March, and the general feeling of uncertainty it spread in the market,’ he says.
Thierry Voisin, chairman of a small, well-established and eponymously named brokerage company in Nice, says: ‘Sales are currently very difficult for boats under 35 or 40 metres.’
Rob Newton a sales broker for the Fort Lauderdale arm of Yachtzoo, has seen a similar dry-up in the lower end of the US superyacht market. ‘In the past it has been the smaller yachts that have been dominating the US market – this year it’s slowed down quite a lot,’ he says. ‘The Miami Boat Show and the Palm Beach Boat Show were very disappointing.’
But the news is not all grim. Being based in Greece, Chryssicopoulos is well-placed to comment on a market we can reasonably expect to be more depressed than any other – yet even here there are signs of life. ‘The good thing with Greece is that even though the zero to 30 metre size is annihilated – doesn’t exist anymore on the new building side and is extremely limited in second-hand transactions – in 40 metres-plus there is still a market in Greece,’ he says. ‘This range in Greece is still active in a discreet way – it’s far from being a dead market.’
Both Voisin and Newton also believe the brokerage market for this larger bracket – bought by, as Chryssicopoulos puts it ‘ultra high net-worth individuals not really affected by what’s going on’ – is active throughout wider Europe and the US.
Indeed, it is not the first quarter’s numbers that have concerned brokers, so much as a lacklustre attitude. ‘If I take purely the numbers, the first quarter is most probably the same as the first quarter of 2012. If I take the general sentiment, I’d say it’s definitely worse,’ says Chryssicopoulos. ‘Clients tend to take more time – they are around the honey pot but they won’t go for the honey.’
So what are they waiting for? The answer seems always to be the right price. ‘A buyer will say call me when you have a fantastic deal,’ says Voisin. ‘You call them and say I have your deal at the price you want and he says I haven’t really made my mind up. The first question is, “Is that an excellent deal?” If so, then they will look into that.’
Newton notes: ‘Buyers now are making offers anywhere – any price bracket. It almost doesn’t matter what your asking price is on a boat anymore, offers will come in all over the board.’
The new build figures for the first quarter ran 3, 6, 8 (17 in total) compared to 5, 5, 4 (14 in total) in 2012. The 2013 Q1 tally comprises the following national scores: Italy, 5; US, 4; Holland, 3; Middle East, 3; Norway, 1; Denmark, 1. Seven of the yachts measured 50 metres or more, suggesting the health of the larger superyacht sector in the brokerage market is echoed here.
The continuing trend in new build appears to be the gravitation towards a few known and respected brands; in the US, Newton points to Christensen. ‘They signed a bunch of contracts last year at the end of the year. They probably signed more contacts last year than all the other yards combined. The second and third tier yards are not doing much. The brand name yachts seem to be holding their own and it’s almost all 60, 70, 90 metres.’
In a market that has changed so much, it is unsurprising that brokers are changing tack to navigate it. ‘We decided to specialise in the eastern part of the Med – we expanded in Turkey and Croatia and now we’re opening an office in Montenegro,’ says Chryssicopoulos. ‘Obviously the western part is really quite well covered, there’s an abundance of brokers there. We’re trying to make something unique.’
Changes have also included how, as well as where, business is done. ‘Overall we used quite an aggressive, innovative marketing tactic,’ says Chryssicopoulos. ‘For example the “I love my yacht” campaign which we’re still running – inspired by the “I love NY” slogan. It says we are passionate about what we do and try to pass this message to our clients – even though we’re living through a financial disaster, you should still love your yacht.’
Just as many builders are diversifying into refit as a reliable bread-and-butter occupation while they await sporadic new build contracts, some brokerage businesses have made similarly pragmatic moves.
‘We are concentrating much more on management and advice on tax,’ says Voisin. ‘We have seen a big increase of those two departments and the sale and charter haven’t moved, really. Even sometimes they have dropped. It is very simple to give people advice – they pay you to give them advice. This where I think the future is for a company of our size.’
Indeed, with a market often unrecognisable, even to those who know it best, adaptability may be the quality most valuable to the future prosperity of the industry.