Despite a desire to run away to sea on a superyacht, Tom DeBuse has never quite been able to. It wasn’t that he never planned to do so. But he was thrown off course by a lost credit card that needed his attention in Greece. By the time all of that had been sorted out the season was over, he never made it to the south of France, and instead found himself in England for four years working in publishing. A significant change of course.
But it’s really been his family that’s kept his feet dry. He met his wife, a Frenchwoman, back in his native Australia. DeBuse is from Brisbane, though he’s lived in quite a few places, including Papua New Guinea (his father worked in tropical medicine) and Japan.
When his wife became pregnant with their first child, they moved to the south of France to be closer to her family. It was also a place that rekindled old dreams of running off to sea. Realizing it would be unfair to his wife to do so, he got a job with Vins Sans Frontières as a sales manager. And it was through wine that he got to know about superyachts, and how he eventually found his way into the industry.
It quickly became apparent that superyachts would make up a large part of VSF’s base. It was DeBuse’s job to research this more. “I was basically given a large sum of money to got on a sort of fact-finding mission to find out about the brokerage community,” he says. “Through meeting them, I realized that there was a place in the industry that I could fit into.”
DeBuse moved into Camper & Nicholsons’ charter management division, where he stayed for the next 13 years, before moving to charter management at Y.CO in 2011. He sat down on the company’s balcony overlooking Port Hercules in Monaco to speak with OnboardOnline about what makes working in this industry so great. In his mind, it’s the people.
OnboardOnline: You came into the industry without yachting experience. Did that make your transition difficult?
Tom DeBuse: “I’d developed a sense of what it entailed. My first boss was pretty direct and certainly the standards were very high, which was a good thing. So there was a steep learning curve. There’s a phenomenal amount of assumed knowledge that comes up in conversations and I found myself swimming with that and, frankly, most people knew me anyway. A lot of captains, a lot of crew knew me anyway from Vins Sans Frontières, so there was nothing hidden about my past.
“And the thing about charter management – or as it was known then, charter marketing – is that it’s a position that’s not based on a phenomenal amount of technical knowledge. We’ve got a yacht management division that does that. But charter management is not just promoting yachts to the press, it’s about the relationships you build up with charter brokers throughout the industry. And I’m someone that’s pretty personable – or at least, I think I am. I try to be a nice guy. And the whole industry in fact, I think, is about the relationships you build up with people. And that seems to work.”
OO: You mentioned that you came in during a time of incredible growth. How has the economic slowdown changed your job?
TD: “The industry, since the recession, it’s sort of gotten back to where it was in 2005, 2006. But it’s still growing, and the top end – that’s the strange thing – the big yachts are still coming out.
“There’s a lot of pressure for yachts in the 25m-to-40m range where people five years ago had bought a yacht and were easily expecting to get six-to-eight weeks a year of charter. A lot of those boats came out and now they’re all competing for the same business. But at the very top end, it’s still rolling along.
“One of my previous jobs was working on a magazine called Leisure Week. And they noted that the leisure industry – and at the end of the day, it’s all about leisure, it’s all about holidays on the charter side – it will be very often that it’s the last industry to feel the pinch and the first industry to pick up. Because very often if you’ve had your holidays yachting, you might change the size of the boat, but if the kids got expectations or the wife’s got expectations, or the husband has expectations, then people will spend the money if they’ve got it.”
OO: In terms of marketing, Y.CO has been pushing the idea of marketing the experience. The company has a promotional video of what charter guests can expect from their sailing holiday- how has the reaction been to that so far?
TD: “I think it’s been mostly positive. That video, for example, had a two-pronged effect. It is there to show what can be done to make people understand the life in the day of a charter, for example. It also shows the boat exceedingly well. And that’s a yacht that, this summer, I think she’s got about 10 weeks of charter, so she’s doing very, very well. Whether that’s an effect of the video or a carryon effect of the yacht itself – I don’t know. It’s arguable.
“But I think at the end of the day, the thing that markets the yachts best are the charter guests coming back and saying: ‘Wow, we had the most amazing experience.’ Talking about the qualities of the chef, the crew and the destinations. And people coming off and telling their friends. And what we’re trying to do with videos like that is look at the first-time charterers, the people who’ve maybe bumped into someone, heard about the experience and then can go online and find out more.”
OO: That’s what everyone talks about – getting owners, guests to talk about it with their friends…
TD: “Spread the good word.”
OO: How do you maintain contact and stay informed about what crew are experiencing and what can reasonably be asked of them?
TD: “Well, maintaining touch throughout the whole season is a telephone issue. Obviously email for factual stuff and keeping communications clear. But at the beginning of the season and through the winter at the end of the season, I’m going out and getting coffee and having beers. Getting to know the crew and spending time on the boat, I think, is essential.
“Obviously, boat shows are great for that because we’ve got our centrals and we can spend days with the crew. Dinners with them, going out having a few beers, breaking the ice and getting to know people. And getting to know people – I think that’s essential.”
OO: And how does that work at the boat shows?
TD: “If you get brokers on board and spend three or four days where they get to enjoy and see just how good these guys are and how much effort they put in. You see they’re up at 5:30 in the morning and they’re washing down and at 9 o’clock at night you’re having a glass of wine and thinking about toddling off to bed and they’re still just finishing off their day. So it is – it is really impressive. And there’s nothing like firsthand experience in getting to know that.
“It’s about getting to know them, getting to know who’s on board. There are some captains who, in the height of the season, say they don’t mind doing a 24-hour turnaround because the crew’s ramped up and I don’t want to let them down, I don’t want them to get off that high, but just go straight into the next charter.
“There are others that really need that 48 hours. It might be because they’ve got one recurring issue on the boat or it’s just the way they need to work….It’s about understanding those basic parameters and not forcing them so that at the end of the season you’ve got a crew that have done what they’re expected to do and will stay together. Because when you’ve got a good crew, you don’t want to push them so hard that they at the end of the day take their money and tips and say, ‘Okay – that was a great summer but I’m dead and I’m gone.’”
OO: Crew turnover is another one of those burning issues…How do you keep track of crew performance with so much turnover?
TD: “For me, my basic communications are always with the captain and he’ll always keep me updated. And those are continuous communications that you have. How’s everything going? How’d the charter go? In the middle of the charter, there might be issues with a second- or third-stew, so we might be swapping her out. And I ask if there’s anything I can do to help…
“It’s continuous, day-to-day communication. And when that’s clear and easy and relaxed, and they’re happy – you know, we’re here to support them. I can listen and understand before the season starts, and planning…and then during the season just being there for support, because sometimes they’ve got really difficult clients on board and they need to vent, they need to say, ‘Man, these guys are just driving me nuts!’ And then they need to go back out there with a big smile on their face. So you’re there as someone to chat to, and you’re there to solve problems when they arise.”
OO: In terms of your job in charter management, what aspect of it is least understood?
TD: “I think one of the funny things is, because I’m the central agent, and all charters pass via me, there are some crewmembers who think I’ve brought all these charters as the actual broker. Which is very flattering, but is, unfortunately, not the case. I don’t deal with the actual clients. I deal with the brokers who deal with the charterers. And I’m pretty much the owner’s representative in any negotiation and drawing up and contracts. Sometimes the crew doesn’t understand how all that goes.”
OO: What was the inspiration for the M/Y Sherakhan’s world tour?
TD: “That really came out of their trip to Antarctica last year. The owner realized that there’s a large amount of people who are not chartering yachts, but that might because they’re interested in a destination; they’re interested in education, culture and science. And they’ve probably steered away from your 30m Benetti or your 60m Lürssen, thinking that the level of luxury and opulence isn’t their thing. And they may be very rich people but they may be very interested in the educational side of yachting. And if we can show them a yacht as a vehicle to different parts of the world to discover different things…There are people out there that can be interested in that as well. So he thought: Let’s take Sherakhan around the world. Which, it has the advantage of being registered as a passenger ship…the idea being that let’s go to places that a lot of yachts don’t normally go.”
OO: I guess you get to live vicariously through crew…
TD: “I do. I just received some photos of a surfing trip from Winston, the captain on Big Fish, and I just emailed back and said that’s completely unfair. And I do very much live through them vicariously and a lot of the research prompts my ideas for the next family holiday.”
OO: What is one of the family holidays that’s been inspired by what you’ve seen in yachting?
TD: “It’s not booked yet, but I’m dying to get up to the Mergui Archipelago and see the Moken people. The Moken people are the nomadic sea nomads who spend nine months of the year floating around on there….This year they’ve got Big Fish and Vertigo going over there. Just fantastic waters and people going about their business as they always have.”
OO: You’re well known as a very outgoing and personable guy. Is that something that is helpful in your job?
TD: “Oh, yeah – definitely. I’m on the phone all day, often until very late at night with Americans. And, yeah – I like people. I like my conversations to be enjoyable. To make them enjoyable, you put in a bit of yourself and when you put in a bit of yourself, then something from them comes back and you have fun. You laugh and you smile through professional experience.”
OO: I’m sure it breaks down a lot of barriers…
TD: “I mean, there’s times and places where you have to make more effort than others. And there’s people that you naturally warm to more than others. And that’s normal. It doesn’t matter if they’re captains, deckhands, stews, chefs, brokers or owners. What I do enjoy in the industry is there are different registers. So you can go out and have a few beers with the crew and have a muck around. And then you have a different register with the brokers and a different register with the owners. And some of the owners, you might find, end up behaving like crew. And some of the crew want to behave as if they’re the owners. And all the way through that, you have different personalities and that’s what keeps it interesting.”