Growing up in the Caribbean, Shawn Laird has always been in love with the ocean. While she left for some time to pursue career options in South Carolina, she was inevitably drawn back to its pristine islands to work as a stewardess on board a charter yacht, spending five years travelling to the world’s most luxurious locations.
Fast forward to today and the senior charter manager has been working with Northrop & Johnson for the last 11 years, navigating the fast-paced world of yacht charter while keeping up-to-date with the ever changing regulations.
Here Shawn opens up about her exciting entry into the industry, the latest charter trends, and why she believes Northrop & Johnson is a cut above the rest.
Where did you grow up and how did you first discover the yachting industry?
Growing up I was fortunate enough to experience life from two different perspectives. I was raised in the Caribbean and my desire to return has never ceased. I also had the unique influence of embracing my Southern roots, spending many years in South Carolina. There, I met a couple at a restaurant in Charleston who had recently chartered a yacht and told me I would be a perfect stewardess for the charter experience. Four months later, I was on a plane to the Caribbean and began working exactly as that.
I spent five years travelling the world, living a charmed life as a stewardess and working my way up to chief stew before deciding to transition into land-based work. Having met a lot of good people over my time as a stewardess, I knew Fort Lauderdale was the place to go. Soon after getting my first land-based job in the industry as a receptionist for one of the most well-respected firms of the time, I was recruited for a charter management job in 2001.
What did you love most about working at sea?
Travelling, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, creating that sacred bond with fellow crew which still exists today, becoming more wordly. I really grew up once I established a full-time yacht career.
How has the role of a charter manager changed over the past 10 years?
The role of charter manager has changed exponentially. There are so many regulations and formalities in place that didn’t exist decades ago. You really need to have your finger on the pulse with all the changing regulations in the marketplace. I would say our workload has increased 20 per cent as a result.
What trends are you seeing in the way charter yachts are marketed and how has this changed over the past decade?
Well, let’s go back to the 2008 financial crisis and then COVID - the marketing of charter yachts has become so competitive and you really need to be strategic with trying to increase business. It is the wild wild west for sure, and the supply continues to exceed the demand.
We hear of a looming downturn in global markets in light of world events – are you seeing any signs in terms of in demand for charter?
As of March 2023, for sure, there is a down tick in business and the market is all over the place and hard to make heads/tails. I am hoping the closer we get to the summer, clients will start to pull money out of their pockets to invest in a yacht charter again. Until then, they are holding onto their money.
What types of charter experience are clients looking for?
For the most part I would say the majority of clients are looking to simply get away with family and friends and to create special memories of a lifetime on board a 7-star floating hotel. Oh – and of course “staying connected” is also important - most clients just don’t switch off no matter what.
You’ve worked for N&J for some years now, what sets them apart and what do they do really well?
I have been proudly waving the N&J flag for 11 years now. There are so many elements that make Northrop & Johnson special — our ‘cult-like’ cool culture, longevity and professionalism to name a few. We are a family and attract good, ethical people to work with us. We all have serious passion, that burning desire for this industry like no other and for me it’s a labour of love.
What we do really well is our marketing – no one has the global reach that we do hands down, we are the leading charter management team in the industry and our ability to exceed the expectations of our owners every day says everything! We take great pride in our client partnerships, we are obsessed, we are relentless with everything we do as managers. It’s that simple!
Do you participate in any industry initiatives to reduce environmental impact?
Yes, N&J gives back - we have taken position on things like bottled water and carbon offsetting.
How does N&J attract and keep good crew in their fleet?
We only surround ourselves with the most talented crew in the biz – we recognise talent a mile away when we see it. We are renowned for having a stellar inventory of yachts equipped with the best crew which makes the booking process seamless for our target audience of brokers. They have 100 per cent trust with us managers here at N&J. They know we have excellent product.
Does N&J accept crypto payments for charters or sales and do you see this becoming a standard option across the industry?
No to crypto payments all together.
What are the current yachting hotspots – where is popular right now?
Without fail, the Med is the most popular for the summer season. Alaska is also another major sought-after destination with most clients booking one year in advance.
What are your own favourite cruising grounds?
Having grown up in Puerto Rico, I love the Caribbean, specifically the British Virgin Islands. That’s where we vacationed when I was a child, so it holds a special place in my heart. Alaska is also one of my favourite destinations. I did two seasons there and I was consistently amazed by the beauty and wildlife. I also love the Mediterranean as it is absolutely lovely and has so much to offer. My bucket list cruising destination though is French Polynesia and Antarctica. How could you not fall in love? I just need to win the lottery so I can afford to charter a yacht!
If you were booking a charter this summer, where would you go and why?
South Pacific & Antarctica – they have been on my bucket list for years.
What would be your dream yacht?
I’d have a pedigreed Northern European motor yacht with a sprawling sundeck and have it decorated in a Malibu beach home style. I wouldn’t want the yacht to be too big as I still want to be able to easily find dockage, so possibly between 150 feet and 180 feet. But definitely one that is ocean-going and capable of navigating all waters around the globe.
What changes do you foresee in the charter market over the next 5-10 years?
That’s a tough question to answer and I wish I had a crystal ball to predict the future. I think the market will continue to be saturated, or grow even more so. We all need that great ability to adapt, be innovative and learn in this new world we live in. Always brace yourself for any sort of impact and stay positive.
If you weren’t a charter manager, what would you be doing?
After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a major in Criminal Justice, I wanted to be an FBI Agent and specialise in Behavioural Science and study serial killers. Not to say that is even possible today but I’m obsessed to say the least.
What’s next on your personal bucket list?
A couple of things: own a winery and get to the top of Everest one day, but I could also be happy just hiking to base camp!
What’s a lesser-known fact about yourself that would surprise your colleagues?
I don’t think there is anything lesser known about me to be honest. I’m all about transparency and really don’t hide from anything. I am who I am, take it or leave it. I’m an absolute straight shooter, honest and 100 per cent transparent and I think that is why people gravitate to my business style. I tell it like it is. I tell it like I see it. I tell it like I live it.
What’s your motto?
“Don’t ever be like the rest of them, darling...”