Its breadth is modest enough at the moment, but that doesn’t mean Charter Digest couldn’t flip the charter industry on its head. Just look at what’s happened to travel agents: they’re nearly extinct thanks to sites like Expedia and Kayak. They’ve automated what used to be a very labour-intensive process (or at least streamlined a process that the majority of folks had decided wasn’t worth the hassle).
And that’s pretty much what Charter Digest has done for yacht charters – first as a website and then as an app for Facebook, iPhones and iPads. By applying easy-to-use and commonplace search functions, Charter Digest has developed a simple way to look for the right charter experience. The familiarity of the search function can most likely be attributed to its predecessors in travel bookings – Expedia and Travelocity and the plethora of other travel sites now functioning. It operates in much the same way as these other sites by crunching through a variety of input fields to call up a tailored list of results which match your search. Once inside a search, you’re able to easily narrow down the field even further based on a variety of amenities to hone in on which experience is best suited for you.
The site and the apps are clean and very user-friendly. It’s so straightforward you don’t need a tutorial of any kind (even though one is offered here). If you’ve ever used the Internet, you’ll understand what to do.
The one drawback at the moment stems from the limited variety of listings. It doesn’t have boats much beyond about 36m (120 ft), and very few offer accommodation for 10 guests or more. They’re mostly boats ranging from about 18m (60 ft) up to 36m. You can search for captain-only up to fully crewed, with prices varying widely as well.
But the most limiting factor at present is regional. Of the close to 150 listings, only about a dozen are located outside the Caribbean. Given that the company is based on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, this would seem to be the natural progression. However that could change soon as Charter Digest Founder, Aletta Wheeler, shifts her focus now that the major apps have been developed and launched.
“Charter Digest was conceived and created in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Wheeler said. “I feel most comfortable with adding listings in the Caribbean as I am familiar with most of them. I also am familiar with the process of booking charters in this area.”
By it’s own admission, Charter Digest is still in its “infancy stage” and it has grown by about 50 per cent since its launch in July 2010. With the addition of the Facebook app in February 2011, the iPhone app in September 2012 and now the iPad app the past month, the site is starting to expand its offerings. And as the search functions indicate, Charter Digest’s ambitions are global.
“My next task will be to introduce Charter Digest to yacht operators around the world,” Wheeler said. “Only this week Charter Digest has reached out to a large London- and Fort Lauderdale-based yacht management company. I hope to contact other large management companies around the world, then the individual yachts in those areas.”
“Charter Digest has no size limit and hopes to partner with the megayacht industry in the near future,” she said.
The company is pushing to expand its offerings and has more than a dozen boats listed in cruising hotspots from the Mediterranean and Alaska to the South Pacific and Central America. And you can search for boats in any of these areas. But its search functions have outpaced its actual offerings, giving the impression that it is more comprehensive than is the case in actuality. At present this is the one drawback in terms of usability.
If you narrow your search fields too much when searching outside of the Caribbean, the odds are good that you won’t get any results. In some cases, the region is listed too specifically (for Central America alone there are three separate categories: Belize, Honduras and San Blas, Panama), and this can lead to some frustrating dead-ends – especially if you’re faced with several empty searches in a row.
In these cases, it’s best to only select a location from the destination dropdown menu and simply search for whatever is available.
When searching within the Caribbean, however, the site and the app work wonderfully. It gives a nice impression of how the site will function once populated with listings around the world.
First thing upon opening the Charter Digest App are a series of search prompts: destination, type of boat, dates. You can search out specific regions and select from a sailboat, catamaran or powerboat charter experience, each of which comes with the options of captain-only up to fully crewed. The dates are selected through pop-up calendars.
Results appear on the right side of your screen in two columns (the search criteria still visible and adjustable in a narrow section on the lefthand side of the screen). You scroll from side-to-side to look through the options. The app allows you to arrange the results using various criteria, and even narrow them down further based on special needs or amenities– dietary restrictions, kid-friendly atmosphere, clothing optional, water skis, dive capabilities.
In addition, there are “Package Deal” and “Promotion” search functions that call up pre-arranged listings of all charters offering specials.
Upon selecting a boat, you can view all of the yacht’s details, amenities, photos and read reviews. A calendar displays the dates that are available for charter. Below the listing, in orange, is an estimated rate.
When searching, the most expensive charter I found was for M/Y Sovereign, a 36m yacht with seven crew, sleeping up to 12 guests. It came in around $66,500 per week, though the vast majority of listings are significantly less expensive.
If you like what’s offered, there’s an orange button next to the estimated rate that allows you to email a request. Upon clicking this, an email window pops up with a form letter that allows you to fill in various details and quickly send in an enquiry.
That enquiry goes to Charter Digest and to the listing’s representative – but only if they’re a paying member of the site at an annual cost of $200, according to Wheeler. The listing’s representative has total control of their enquiries, and Charter Digest receives a 7 per cent commission on the total charter fee.
“For non-member listings, I am working with brokers most knowledgeable in the charter area,” Wheeler said. “In this case, the standard charter broker commission applies.”
With all its potential, I asked Wheeler whether there had been any blow-back from traditional charter agents. She told me there wasn’t.
“Our goals are the same – to keep the charter industry alive, healthy and striving. While Charter Digest approaches this in a new, innovative manner, there is room for all of us in the industry,” Wheeler said. “As I see steady growth in reservation enquiries, cooperation between charter brokers and Charter Digest can only be favourable to the charter industry.”