When Excelerate Technology Group, the leading provider of mobile connectivity for the UK emergency services, decided to apply their expertise to superyachts, they were in for a few surprises. Compared to their core business ashore, "Yachting is a highly competitive market; it's not easy." said Mark Savage, Business Development Manager at Excelerate Marine.
Two years later, on a blue sky morning in Antibes, we meet on board the company yacht, Excelerate Z, a 94ft Sunseeker boasting the best Wi-Fi in town. Mark looks like he’s been doing this all his life, and in a sense he has. The son of the founder of Excelerate Group, David Savage, he started out programming VPN boxes in a warehouse on the M4. He then studied satellite installation in Canada and network operations in Germany, later installing mobile units on Excelerate’s emergency response vehicles out in the field.
When Excelerate Marine was established in 2017, extending the group’s core capabilities to the yachting sector, Mark learned the ropes in a sales role before taking over the helm at the end of last year.
OnboardOnline: Reflecting on the past two years, what’s your impression of the VSAT market?
Mark Savage: We’ve spent a lot of time dock walking, speaking to captains and crew, and the perception, still, is that VSAT is very expensive. Yes, the hardware can be expensive, but the actual airtime is not. A lot of companies put enormous mark- ups on airtime but our focus is to drag down monthly costs but maintain the quality of the broadband connection.
The key is to understand how individual owners use their yachts and to offer solutions that are fit for purpose. Flexibility is also important so we offer contracts month by month because, if a yacht is based in port over the winter paying 3000 USD per month, that’s a lot of money wasted.
OO: How easy is it to persuade a captain to change their VSAT supplier?
MS: As humans we don’t like change! I think a lot of boats get used to the same supplier and if you call James or Fred you know he’ll come along and fix the problem and you’ll be back online for a few weeks. What we really want is the opportunity to sit down with captains and ETOs, to listen to their problems and to offer solutions. Every owner and every yacht is different, so we have to understand their individual needs.
As an example, recently a captain told me that his yacht was consuming so much data that he had to keep sending the crew ashore to top up their SIM cards. Excelerate’s 4G SIM was a simple solution as we can monitor usage daily or weekly and can top it up remotely.
In reality it’s not always easy to predict usage but, for example, if a yacht chooses a 500GB package and they don’t use it all that month, typically it won’t roll over. On the other hand, if they take a 200GB package and find they need more data, we can let them know and top it up remotely.
OO: What’s the clincher when speaking with captains?
MS: A lot of it comes down to cost, especially with VSAT, and overcoming the belief that you can’t compete on cost and also deliver the best quality service. We can, because our network works! Yes, we had a few little niggles in the beginning, particularly with older platforms, but one of the big lessons from last year is the importance of a full audit, including cabling – we often see a lot of unused equipment drawing power and sometimes even consuming bandwidth unnecessarily which slows things down.
Of course, if money were no object I’d recommend starting from scratch, but if a boat has compatible hardware they can easily join Excelerate Marine’s VSAT network. Last year we also saw a significant increase in enquiries for our AV solutions.
Now that our name is out there, it’s also to our advantage that we can offer a full end to end service for all the technology required to operate luxury vessels. We’re still more known for our communications capabilities but we also provide navigation systems, security, IT, AV and entertainment solutions. And because of our experience with critical incidents ashore it’s ingrained in the team that failure simply isn’t an option.
OO: And you manage your own capacity?
MS: Yes, and that’s highly significant as it means we can manage bandwidth in real time to maintain the quality of our service, so clients actually get what they’re paying for. We want to give owners and guests the best possible experience when they’re streaming music or TV, but equally we want to make the captain’s life easier.
The irony is, we have all sorts of problems with the broadband at home - we own a communications business and yet I can’t even make a phone call sometimes as we don’t own or control the public networks, whereas for yacht clients we do, so we can control the whole ecosystem.
The whole house depends on the internet and Wi-Fi, similar to what we have on yachts where everything is set up on an iPad that connects to a server somewhere. And that’s the way the world is evolving; everything will depend on an internet connection, whether it’s phones or autonomous cars.
OO: So how do clients manage their connectivity and data in real time?
MS: We’ve developed a yacht connectivity manager called DDMI (Digital Dashboard Management Interface) which stems from our core business in command and control vehicles. It’s very intuitive, so they can manage their connectivity via VSAT or 4G and select which one has priority. They can also give priority to different people onboard by giving them different passwords to access different networks. It can be configured however the client wants it - we can also manage it remotely.
OO: Having grown up around Excelerate’s core business, what are the main differences in yachting and what couldn’t you anticipate?
MS: The core business is essentially Government so the time cycles are extremely long and almost every project is subject to tender. Mission critical Government contracts are evaluated on being fit for purpose and cost effective over the length of the contract, sometimes 10 years, not a single summer season. The similarity in both contexts is that there’s no room for failure; the systems have to work.
The main difference with yachting is that everyone knows each other and every captain and crew already has their favourite suppliers. It’s more cost driven as it’s more competitive, so you’re always up against multiple suppliers. Also the captain is acting on the owner’s behalf, so spending time with captains and ETOs to explain exactly what we can do is very important. This is also why we invested in our own yacht, Excelerate Z, so we can demonstrate our capabilities first hand.
OO: Tell me a little about the team in the French office
MS: We’re friendly! We like to assist our clients to the best of our ability, we listen to their problems and we’re also open to suggestions on how we can improve; it’s always better to admit your mistakes.
Our office is just up the road from Antibes in Sophia Antipolis and currently we’re a team of five. Our principal engineers, Patrick and Stephan, are both highly regarded in the industry, and if we need extra resources we bring our engineers over from the UK. Tech support is spread across the UK and France but the VSAT network is controlled out of the UK. Philippe manages our accounts and Tami assists me with marketing and sales.
It’s a huge advantage being based here in France so we can be available when a client arrives in port. We work hard to provide great customer service and we’re always on hand to pick up the phone or to come onboard.
OO: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your role so far?
MS: That’s a hard one! When I first came here with David to assess the business I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but it was right up my alley. To the outside world yachts are big boys’ toys but, to the professionals who operate them, they are complex valuable assets which need constant care and upgrading to maximise the owner’s enjoyment at the highest levels of safety - for them and for the yacht’s crew.
I’m an engineer at heart so I was also slightly hesitant about working in sales. I’ve met enough sales people in my time and I didn’t want to be like that, bluffing the end user, but I realized that’s not the only way to sell. We bring the same ethos of our core business to the yacht market, evaluating the specific needs of each client so we can provide solutions fit for purpose as every yacht is different.
I also like interacting with people and building good relationships with clients is especially important in yachting. Our captains are already coming back each season so we must be doing something right!
OO: What drives you?
MS: Since the end of last year it’s seeing the change in our maritime business, and where I believe we can take Excelerate Marine in the future. The orders we received at the end of last year were a big boost – we’re up 100% in terms of contracts, quotes and forecasts. Yes, I’d love to have Dilbar, I’d love to have Azzam, but in reality there are lots of smaller yachts, so we start small and we grow, and working as a team we can achieve that.
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