Fiona Maureso has seen the yachting industry evolve in so many ways over the course of her 25-year career. Everything has become bigger, everything operates on a larger scale, with a clear trend towards managing and marketing online.
And in the same way, her role has evolved. Maureso’s clout within the industry has grown substantially from the time she started work as a broker’s secretary. Now, Maureso is the vice president of MYBA, the worldwide yachting association. She chairs MYBA’s Information Technology panel, which has overseen the development and rollout of the much-anticipated Yachtfolio – the online booking system which has finally replaced the outdated MYBAnet.
After eight years as a broker’s secretary, she became a fully fledged charter broker and worked in yacht charters with Peter Insull’s Yacht Marketing and Yachting Partners International before joining Northrop & Johnson last year as the company’s charter director to expand their presence in the south of France.
Recently, Maureso took time to speak with OnboardOnline from Northrop & Johnson’s new office in a business center in Mougins, in the hills behind Cannes. They decided to forego a seafront office for economic reasons, which itself turned into a topic of conversation, along with trends in technology, industry messaging, and the way in which online brokerages have changed the industry.
OnboardOnline: To start, how has the reaction to Yachtfolio been?
Fiona Maureso: “Very good. I mean, brokers have been crying out for it for ages. It was initially launched about three years ago and it failed dramatically. It wasn’t ready…So this time we were very careful and it’s launched successfully. We’ve had very good feedback. The brokers are all very happy and they’re happy because they know we can improve it in all sorts of ways. We’ve developed new search functions. And they’ve all been very good about coming back to us with features they’d like to see developed, which is great.”
OO: How is Yachtfolio different from MYBAnet?
FM: “It’s exactly the same, it’s just MYBAnet had been around for a long time and it was written on a platform that was proving to be a little unstable. It wasn’t modern enough for us to develop it and bolt on some of the features that are necessary in the modern world.”
OO: How do you mean?
FM: “For example, it was impossible to do an app. The very things we wanted to do, we couldn’t do with MYBAnet. And so we had to start from scratch, and that’s what Yachtfolio is: It’s MYBAnet reincarnated on a more stable, more modern platform.”
OO: How has technology changed the face of the industry – and especially charter?
FM: “It’s really the focus of all our interest at the moment, because it’s so important. Interestingly, in the past, a yacht owner would always be encouraged by a charter manager to produce a printed brochure. That’s not happening as much anymore because clients aren’t requesting brochures. I can’t remember the last time I sent a brochure out. It’s all done online. The focus has shifted now to high-quality images, to video, to 3-D images, and the website’s becoming increasingly important – and that’s been highly competitive as well.”
OO: How has technology changed the way charter is done? What was it like when you first got into charter?
FM: “I’m going to sound like a really old person now, but when I started in this industry, fax was new and we did all our presentations by fax. And to show photos, we had to send it by post. And it took ages to put a charter together, whereas now it can be done in 24 hours. You can do everything by email and a client can choose the boat they want by looking at photos or websites.
“So if you take that further, it means that everything’s done so much faster. It used to be that it would take weeks to put a charter together, by the time everything had gone backwards and forwards. Now, clients expect a very quick response. We expect a very quick response when checking availability, and so on. Everything is much more immediate, which means, sadly, that we’ve become chained to our Blackberries and our cell phones. And that’s really why MYBA felt it was so important to get this intranet site fixed.”
OO: Has the ease of access to information made it less work or easier to sell?
FM: “To be fair, it’s not less work than it used to be. It’s the same amount of work; it’s just quicker. The clients still have the same questions, the same concerns. You know, not every inquiry that we get, we’re able to confirm. Sometimes people phone up just because they’re curious. And I think that when you were booking a charter back then, it wasn’t just charter, it was everything – it was buying a house, booking a vacation, booking a spa. It was everything that took much longer. So it hasn’t really changed consumption."
OO: So what has it changed?
FM: “I think what we’ve found is that with new technology it’s been easier for people with less experience, less knowledge to set themselves up as yacht brokers. One of the things that MYBA does is keep a check on what other brokers are doing – what other brokers around the world are doing. Because what tends to happen is: I have a yacht that I’ve been asked to represent and I have all the paperwork in order and I have the mandate from the client and I am the official representative for that yacht for charter. And then I see it being advertised on rogue sites that I haven’t given permission for and that I know the owner hasn’t given permission for. And so we try to keep an eye on that because it’s harmful to everybody. It’s harmful for brokers, yes, because it’s competition. But it’s also harmful for the owners, because they’re being represented in a very dodgy way. And these are very expensive products and we’ve got to maintain that value-added side of things to make sure the image is exclusive and not cheapened in any way.”
OO: Have you had this happen to you?
FM: “Let me give you an example that really shocked me a couple of years ago when I was representing a yacht for charter. I was promoting it on MYBAnet, it was going to shows and it was being promoted in a very professional way to a very high standard. Well, I found it on eBay. It was being sold on eBay. So I inquired. The owner knew nothing about it. So I contacted the vendor – or the person claiming to represent the vendor – and he offered to sell me the boat for a million dollars, free shipping to the south of France. It turned out he had no authority whatsoever. It was just absolutely ludicrous. It goes to show just how far these things can go. You have a multi-million-dollar yacht – and it was a very large yacht – that’s being advertised on eBay. What image does that give? It has to be policed.”
OO: That’s one of the things the industry really struggles with – isn’t it? Given that it’s fundamentally international, there’s no uniform means to regulate any of this…
FM: “There isn’t – but it’s a very, very small industry. People often compare us to the real estate industry, but it’s not comparable. I mean the job we do is the same – it’s matchmaking, whether it’s charter or sales. But the scale is not comparable at all. So, no, there is no regulatory body – not for the industry and not nationally. There aren’t licenses. Brokers at the moment can’t get licenses, pass exams, things like that. And that’s something MYBA is very aware of.”
OO: Is this where the conflict between the online startups and the pedigreed brokerage houses stems from?
FM: “Initially there was huge resistance from MYBA to the online startup companies because they were seen to be Johnny-come-latelies who didn’t have any overheads who didn’t know what they were doing. Because running these traditional brokerage houses costs a fortune, with the offices and the salaries. They were looking at it and thinking, That’s not right.
“But over the years, we’ve all had to accept that this is the future. People are working more and more not from a fixed desk somewhere – they’re more mobile. And I think we’re going to be seeing more of that. But as far as MYBA is concerned, we have very stringent entry requirements for members, and very stringent subscription requirements for MYBAnet or Yachtfolio.
“And there have been companies that have met those requirements because they have proven that they’re prepared to put in the effort to go to the boat shows, to learn the trade – they’ve demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they know what they’re doing. They’re capable of not just bringing in clients, but of conducting business in a very professional manner, and that they conduct a lot of business. MYBA as an organization has had to accept that this is the way the business is going – or at least part of the business is going. And as long as those companies can prove that they know what they’re doing and that they can be trusted, then there’s a future for them, definitely.”
OO: Northrop & Johnson has chosen to maintain a less expensive office. Do you think the traditional brokerages are going to take similar steps and adapt their operations to maintain smaller offices, smaller central staffs, have people work remotely?
FM: “I think there are a lot of companies now where brokers work remotely. But they still maintain their prestigious offices. There’s been a lot of talk about that. You know, if you go to Monaco, and you have a look around the harbor, you’ll see all the big brand names of yachting maintaining very expensive offices. And there are some people – some owners – who say: Is that my money that’s financing that? Is that really necessary? Could they perhaps be reducing their bills and charging me less by having a more modest office? So, in times of crisis, you can understand that.
“I don’t think we’ll see the big ones completely disappear into online, but I think you’ll see a lot more people working remotely and perhaps downsizing their offices. But I don’t know. There’s quite a bit of resistance to that. From yacht owners, as well. I mean, yacht owners like to see their broker's brand in headlights.”
OO: There’s also that feeling of exclusivity and grandeur about an office overlooking Port Hercules…
FM: “It’s impressive. They like to feel that they’re special and there is that sort of gentleman’s club exclusivity that only sitting in a leather chair overlooking the harbor can give them. There’s definitely an element to that – you’re right. And I don’t think anyone who owned a large yacht would want to think that they’re represented by a company that didn’t have a prestigious image themselves. So I think there’s room for both. And the companies that are operating online at the moment are not trying to be a Y.CO or a Burgess. They want to do what they do to the best of their ability and they are very successful. I have a huge amount of respect for them because it’s not been easy breaking into it. But they’ve proven to be very professional and they get the job done and they’re great to work with. So I wish them well and I really do think there’s room for everybody.”
OO: What has distinguished between the ones who’ve proven themselves and the ones that haven’t?
FM: “The ones that have proven themselves are the ones that go to the boat shows, they introduce themselves, so that we know who they are, and they’re not just faceless people. They make an effort to integrate and then, really, the proof in the pudding, is that they make the bookings. They’ve read the charter agreement, they know what it means, they know what to do when things go wrong.
“People keep saying that, maybe, going forward there won’t be any need for brokers. But it’s a bit like an estate agent: you don’t need one until something goes wrong. You need someone to deal with broken agreements and missing funds and any of it. Any broker or any company that can prove that they know what they’re doing in a crisis – they’re going to earn respect for that.”
OO: How did you manage the transition from working on board to land-based life?
FM: “I can tell you how I did it, but it’s no longer relevant in this world. I was very lucky. I finished university. I came to the south of France thinking I’d gotten a job at the local radio station and it didn’t actually materialize. So I flagged my way onto a boat and I worked six months as a deckhand-stewardess until the boat was sold. At which point I decided that I really didn’t like working on a boat and living with these people that I’d been working with all day. So I went ashore. It was only six months, but it was enough to show me what life as a crewmember is like and it’s given me a huge amount of respect for crew and what they do…
“I was lucky enough then to be employed by the guy who sold the boat. He needed somebody who was bilingual and could type, so I got a job with him. I was a broker’s secretary, and I learned the ropes. Over the course of eight years, I went from being a broker’s secretary – traveling all over the world to shipyards and just a great, great learning experience for me – and at the end of that, I was a fully-fledged charter broker…
“But that was in the days where you had much more time to figure out what’s going on. So I learned on the job. I was never really trained…It was a very different world. Now, if you’re not trained, you will not succeed. Because it’s so complex. There are so many regulations and it is so complex – the tax issues and the paperwork and everything. There’s so much more of it theses days. If you haven’t been trained, you’ll sink.”
OO: What’s the best way to be trained?
FM: “I’ve trained quite a few people and really the best way to do it is to work side-by-side with a broker and learn like that – actually in the environment. And I’ve talked to crewmembers who want to come ashore and I always tell them to be very careful. Because, A. the salary that you’ve been earning – you can forget that. Suddenly you’re back in the real world and you’re making less money and you’ve got to pay for more things with it.
“So that’s the first shock for everybody, is how much money you’ve got at the end of the month. And charter commissions are what they are, but that’s not what the charter broker takes home. People will often say: ‘Well, she earned 15 percent on that commission,” when, in fact, a broker never takes home 15 percent. It goes to paying the office or the staff or company tax. It’s never 15 percent – it’s usually much lower. And same with sales. The commissions are nowhere near what the crew think they are. And then, it’s a desk job. You do get out to boat shows and visit clients, but you’re not out traveling the world. It’s a desk job.”
OO: Have you seen a lot of discontent from people who come ashore?
FM: “Yes. I’ve seen both. I’ve seen people try it and fail. They’ve been disappointed for whatever reason – it just hasn’t been their cup of tea. And I’ve seen people come ashore and rise to the challenge and do a fantastic job. I think the older ones do better because they’re more realistic and they want to settle so they’re prepared to do what’s necessary to have a stable homelife.”