In business, as in life, the success of a bright idea is often a matter of timing. Having the right idea at the right time is a fortunate state of affairs and, in the case of Bec McKeever and Dominique Smit, the stars are aligned for the launch of their new venture Virtual Pursers. Offering remote assistance to superyachts just as ‘virtual’ becomes the norm, the wider vision is to retain the knowledge and expertise otherwise lost when women of a certain age move ashore. For the yachting industry it sounds like a win-win, so we asked Bec and Dominique to tell us more.
Tell us a little about your backgrounds?
Bec McKeever: I’m Australian, born and bred. With a background in accounting and hospitality I stumbled upon the yachting industry in 2007 and honestly haven’t looked back since! I also a qualified diving instructor and exploring the world at sea has been the most incredible part of my journey. Dom and I have been friends for years and in 2015 we climbed Mt Kilimanjaro together, although sadly I was shy of the summit by just 300m due to altitude sickness! Aside from the many adventures, I’ve continued to study and I’ve taken numerous courses in leadership, business and project management.
Dominique Smit: I grew up in South Africa, in Johannesburg where my family still live. I had a very active childhood, I loved sports and qualified as a modern and jazz dance teacher at 18, competed in cheerleading nationals and even did kung fu! I also love animals and we used to take regular trips to the Kruger Park and national parks in Zimbabwe and Botswana. After school I moved to Cape Town where I studied for a degree in Organisational Psychology and HR. After that I went into yachting where I’ve been ever since!
How did you come to work on board yachts?
Bec: I was very lucky as yachting is unheard of in Melbourne. I saw an incredible power point presentation of the motor yacht Octopus and I just knew that’s where I wanted to be. I applied and got the job, which is how I met the fabulous Peter Vogel who was chief steward at the time. It was a dream come true.
Dom: I had heard about yachting through a school friend and it sounded like a great way to earn money and travel the world. It was a bit daunting getting my visas and not knowing anyone in France but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What type and size of yacht have you worked on?
Bec: I’ve mostly worked on larger world cruisers. It was hard to leave Octopus as we went everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic, but I’ve been part of some incredible programs. MY Danah Explorer was something completely different, a 67m exploration yacht based mainly between Seychelles and South Africa. I was in my element, diving every day and assisting with ocean research programs.
Working with Dom on Hampshire II was also very special. I then worked on MY Anastasia and MY Nirvana, both amazing yachts and, most recently, I was on the 75m MY Cloudbreak, one of the most exciting explorer yachts in the industry.
Dom: I’ve worked on yachts ranging from 35-90 meters, including Gitana, Sea Dream, Rio Rita, Hampshire II, Amore Vero, Lady M and finally Barbara, which is part of the Nirvana/Anastasia fleet. My favourite has to be the 79m Feadship Hampshire II, which is where Bec and I first worked together.
What were some of your highlights at sea?
Bec: The travel and friendships, 100%. My time spent in the Seychelles was very special and along the way I developed a huge love for South Africa - diving the Sardine Run, one of the largest marine-life migrations on earth is right up there. I’ve been incredibly lucky with all the vessels I’ve worked on, getting to explore the world with some of the industry’s finest and coming out at the end with a solid career.
Dom: The ultimate highlight was all the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve made friends for life and am still in contact with all of them to this day. I also loved exploring wonderful destinations such as Dubai, Barcelona, the fjords in Norway, Scotland and the Maldives. While on Hampshire II, I got into fitness thanks to the owners and ended up running the Florence Marathon which was a great experience.
It’s no secret that female crew often reach an early crossroads in their careers but you’ve found a way to continue ashore – tell us more?
Bec: Starting life ashore was a conversation that came up so often among senior interior crew, predominantly women wanting to move ashore and settle down. We were constantly wracking our brains on what we were going to do next. For years we had debated the idea of moving the purser role ashore, and when the pandemic forced businesses to quickly adapt to remote working, it was the push we needed. It was a lightbulb moment as the role is already largely virtual!
Dom: We wanted to start a business that enabled not only us, but other women in our position, to continue their careers in the industry we all love. That’s how Virtual Pursers came about, an obvious choice because we’re both very experienced and can provide the same excellent service ashore.
How would you define the role of a yacht purser?
Bec: A purser wears many hats! They are the central administrator and logistics coordinator for a vessel, responsible for overseeing all financial matters, such as accounts and budgets. A purser also takes care of crew administration including immigration, visa applications and certificate management. Another aspect of the role is guest administration and concierge, including itinerary planning and execution. For the vessel, we take care of all logistics including port disembarkation and clearance, procurement and provisioning. We’re the main point of contact for all shoreside parties and we have detailed knowledge of ISM and ISPS protocols.
More than that, a purser is a huge support to the captain and it takes years of experience to get to this point. Typically, when a purser leaves the industry all their knowledge and experience leaves with them, which is another reason why we created Virtual Pursers as it allows the industry to retain all that expertise.
What has been the response from your peers so far?
Bec: The response has been really positive, both within the yachting industry and beyond. Being a yachtie is all about adaptability and a virtual purser is a great solution for both vessels and pursers looking to move ashore and continue their careers.
We’re hoping it will be well received by the wider yachting industry as it’s an innovation that makes total sense in today’s world.
What’s your target market -which boats are most likely to need your services?
Dom: We envisage working mostly with 30-65m yachts which need a purser but don’t always have the space on board. We know how time-pressured captains are and how much they have to do in a day, so we can alleviate some of that stress by taking care of the yacht’s administration.
We also understand the workload and time pressures faced by pursers themselves, and in such cases we can provide a temporary cost-effective, shoreside solution, taking care of any over-flow.
An obvious scenario must be assistance with charter administration and itinerary planning?
Bec: Yes, charter administration is complex and very time consuming, and attention to detail is of the utmost importance. Understanding contracts and paperwork is integral to our profession, whether we’re managing an APA for a single charter or planning a worldwide itinerary.
Having travelled and explored over 150 countries between us, we’ve designed many exciting itineraries all over the world, all tailored to the client’s unique vision and preferences.
Do you envisage a wholesale shift towards the use of remote pursers or will the bulk of your business be assisting in times of transition, or covering during time off?
Bec: Any real change in the yachting industry takes time to gain traction but, judging from the response we’ve had so far, we believe there’s a real and widespread need for our services. Most significantly, we don’t take up room on board, we don’t come with any of the usual overheads of a permanent crew member and we offer a flexible solution depending on the number of hours a yacht needs our services. We can also manage specific projects so there’s no need for a yacht to employ a full-time purser.
Everyone is now more accustomed to digital and remote ways of working which surely plays to your advantage?
Dom: We definitely feel this way. Coronavirus has revolutionised the way people work, and the yachting industry is no exception. With all sorts of cloud-based systems and programs, it’s easier than ever to perform tasks from a distance. Naturally, we use secure cloud-based systems with top of the range cyber security implementations to protect data and privacy.
In terms of software, you have formed an affiliation with DeepBlue Soft – tell us more about that?
Bec: DeepBlue Soft is a revolutionary yacht management software catering to every aspect of a vessel’s operation, including charter management, administration and finances. Their financial module is very impressive as it includes detailed financial reporting which is hugely beneficial to captains, management and owners. It’s a perfect fit with our business as it enables us to do our job very easily which in turn saves our clients time and money.
Each module is extremely customisable and all information can be easily accessed by captains and management, allowing them to keep their fingers on the pulse at all times.
Dom: We wanted to establish our business correctly from the start, so we've made sure that our structure is sound and highly organised so that our clients have a seamless experience from the get-go. There is currently no other software on the market that is as comprehensive and efficient as DeepBlue Soft and we are very proud to be affiliated with them.
You’ve also signed the Diversity Pledge with She of the Sea – what are your thoughts on diversity in the yachting industry?
Bec: We are thrilled to support She of the Sea, it’s an important initiative. We truly hope to see a shift within the industry so that like-minded women don't feel there's an expiry date to their yachting careers. In the future we hope to set up a mentorship program to promote innovation and diversity, something we feel is still lacking, particularly for women in the yachting industry.
What’s your long-term vision for Virtual Pursers?
Dom: Our eventual goal is to cement Virtual Pursers as the go-to shoreside solution, keeping valuable expertise within the industry by offering experienced pursers the opportunity to move ashore and start a family while still continuing their careers.
Bec: We have carefully and meticulously laid out our plans in order for us to be around for a long time which is why we like to describe ourselves as ‘The Purser You’ll Never Lose!’.
**Tune in to Yachting International Radio on Monday 7 September to watch an interview with Bec and Dom.