Lex Raas is no stranger to the yacht design or charter industry, having built a long, successful career with Beneteau, the Moorings, and South African catamaran builder Robertson and Caine, among others.
Now president of marketing, charter, and special initiatives with MarineMax Vacations (www.marinemaxvacations.com), his new challenge is to introduce to vacationing sailors a company more renown as the largest Sea Ray powerboat dealer in the world.
In 2012, MarineMax took the plunge and entered the laden sailboat charter market with a base including 13 Dufour monohulls in the British Virgin Islands.
Raas, an expert sailor himself, took time from his busy schedule building the fleet and its bookings to talk with CW about the challenges germane to a career in the evolving boat building and sailing vacation industry.
CW: It’s hard to compete with companies that have long track records in the charter market. Given your diverse experiences over the decades —sailor, racer, major player in the global charter, boat building and design industries—tell us why you’ve chosen to get back in the game. What’s the challenge in it for you?
LR: My wife, Carol, and I had an incredible 2011 traveling round the world, visiting family, and this gave us ample time to reflect and consider our future. There are fundamentally very few things in life, after family, that truly matter. For me these things are one’s passion (I have a few water related ones, obviously) and the team that one goes to work with every day.
This means bosses and peers, but the most important is the culture of the business that one chooses to work in and help develop. I have been extremely fortunate to work with folks in this incredible industry who’ve been true trail blazers: Annette Roux, Christian Iscovici, and Francois Chalain of Beneteau; Arthur Warshaw; Charlie and Ginny Cary of The Moorings.
After a hiatus, I knew I’d only join a company that was led by someone not only passionate and knowledgeable about the recreational marine business and the amazing lifestyle that it brings to so many folks, but above all, someone who considered employees as true assets of the business. I have personally always excelled under this atmosphere.
When my phone rang and it was Bill McGill, CEO and president of MarineMax, I was immediately interested. I met Bill a few years ago when I was trying to cross-market a prior charter brand I managed to MarineMax customers. The recession got in the way and nothing ever came of it; however, his pure passion and drive had already left an indelible mark on me.
Here I was being asked to join a great leader, a great company culture and a company wanting to diversify into areas that I had a deep passion for. What was there not to like? Bill has a simple mantra for MarineMax: “We change peoples’ lives.” All of it was magic to my ears.
As far as competition is concerned, this is where I believe our industry needs to change. The competition is from everything: other recreational sports; mom and dad off to kids’ soccer and judo; dad off to golf; mom off to tennis. The list goes on.
What our industry offers in terms of lifestyle is unbeatable: Fishing with one’s kids; hooting and hollering on a wakeboard; cruising off to an island with your loved ones and friends; dropping anchor off that remote beach, whether it’s in the tropics or close to home and reconnecting with family and friends.
All we have to do is share the story. I’m confident if we get this right as an industry there’s space for even more companies.
I’m not at all worried about the so-called competitors. What we offer from MarineMax is unique, different, and totally focused on expanding the charter lifestyle.
MarineMax is uniquely positioned for this. At MarineMax we now look forward to bringing the next generation of product to the marketplace. We’ve already assembled a highly talented team. What I spearheaded with sailing catamarans at my prior job as a top executive with The Moorings is only the first chapter.
CW: Chartering, from the boats to the sailors, continues to change. And the costs of owning, maintaining, and berthing sailboats are rising. This would seem to make chartering an ever more attractive alternative. Is that the case?
LR: Isn’t change a fabulous thing! This is an interesting point and one that Bill and I have debated at length in the past few months. The reality of charter boat owners is that the majority of them already own a boat in their home waters. They’ve realized that if they ever want to cruise the tropics, what charter companies offer today is incredible. Show up and go cruising.
On the flip side, I think alternative forms of ownership and usage will develop. However, that magic of owning your own boat will continue to exist for a long time. I personally believe that builders will need to create extremely interesting new concepts of boats.
Bill has a patent pending design that one of the world’s most prestigious boat manufacturers is placing into production. It’s a 37-foot sport cruising powerboat that will enhance the boating experience and lower maintenance costs. This concept will take us in a new direction; stay tuned for more news on this. I believe sailboat manufacturers need to also take a fresh look at simplifying and lowering the cost of ownership.
CW: Have the demographics of the charterers themselves changed? What’s the biggest challenge to continued growth in this sector, and what do you project the “landscape” to look like a decade from now?
LR: The demographics of the customers are changing, driven also by the number of catamarans now in charter operations, which is phenomenal. I predict this to continue. Data shows us that people participating in boating (not buying) continues to rise, more so in power than sail. In fact some data shows that sailing is shrinking.
I think there’s a more affluent segment now chartering, which makes sense if the catamaran sector has grown, as charter rates are significantly higher for catamarans and the fleet has reduced over recent years but revenue has remained probably flat. Fundamentally, we have to make boating and chartering more affordable and accessible. That way we grow the market.
In relation to charter, there’s significant opportunity, but more in power. Interestingly enough, many sailing catamarans on charter motor around all the time. A decade from now, I foresee more catamarans, more power catamarans specifically, and a lot of new folks introduced to this incredible lifestyle of reconnecting with family and friends in some of the most beautiful places in the world. What better vacation is there than moving around at your own pace and own time? At MarineMax Vacations we intend to help shape these changes.
CW: How does MarineMax, a giant retailer of powerboat models like Sea Ray, Cabo, Grady-White, and Boston Whaler, decide the time is right to get into the bareboat charter market, and with that, to first target the sailing market, which may be largely uneducated about MarineMax? Where is the cross-over?
LR: Customers of the brands you’ve mentioned are very demanding and MarineMax delivers above expectations. It’s a culture of being customer focused, and that is what MarineMax Vacations will be known for in the coming years.
Timing is always an interesting question. I believe that MarineMax Vacations has timed this very well; these decisions were made prior to my arrival. However, one can assume that the incredible drop in the boat retail business drove Bill and his team to look at business models that had smoother cycles. The charter industry certainly has not experienced the volatility of boat retail sales.
The crossover question has actually pleasantly surprised us. As we move forward, we discover that a large number of MarineMax customers already charter. (They’re easy converts, we hope). We’ve actually found that the MarineMax name brings a ton of credibility to a new entry; anyone enquiring has immediate comfort that paying for their charter in advance with MarineMax Vacations will guarantee that the boat will be at the dock when they arrive.
Many folks in the sailing industry may not be that familiar with MarineMax; however, considering that MarineMax touches more customers than the entire sailing industry does, this is only great opportunity for MarineMax Vacations.
CW: What are power boaters looking for when they decide to do a sail charter? Are they really different animals from sailors?
LR: Power boaters are clearly used to a higher level of service than sailors. They are less tolerant of problems and expect fast resolution if they do occur. In most cases, they’re not concerned about the extra pennies. They are more concerned about a company that takes responsibility. I’ve learned from Bill that the specification level demanded by power boaters is much higher. They are also willing to pay for it.
For example, the last large power cat we developed at my prior role had twin 150hp engines. Our new power catamaran, the MarineMax Vacations 464, will be provided with twin 330hp engines, a significant difference.
The addition of watermakers to our boats as standard has been making a huge difference to our customers; we’ve had nothing but accolades. However, in the end, sailors and power boaters charter boats for the same reason and we have to deliver. After all, these are folks’ hard-earned vacations we’re talking about!
CW: We also understand that MarineMax has positioned itself as providing a premium level of service akin to a boutique experience to distinguish itself from larger fleets of the A-level companies. Tell us more about this and the reasoning involved in offering this type of service and product.
LR: The MarineMax customer base expectations alone will make sure we’re offering the best service and the best boats. I’m a strong believer in differentiation and treating customers exclusively. These are the main items that will distinguish us, and the staff in MarineMax Vacations knows that.
Being smaller definitely makes it easier for obvious reasons. Quite clearly we couldn’t enter at the same level as the A-level companies as they have mass and size over us. We have to differentiate and we have chosen service and quality.
CW: Along those lines, how do the boats and customer service you’re presenting at the MarineMax Vacations base in British Virgin Islands reflects the company’s position in the marketplace?
Feel free to elaborate about this and the reasoning involved in offering this type of service and product.
LR: Dufour Yachts is considered the premier production sailboat builder. They do a superb job; the boats sail well and are incredibly well equipped. Our power cats will have no equal at all; they are purebred cruising power catamarans.
The base is where an A-Level charter company used to operate from. The owner is investing to bring the marina up to the standard we expect. Our staff are well-known in the B.V.I. marine industry as top notch.
Our personal touch is exceptional. Our goal is to make everyone’s vacation so exceptionally good that they will return time after time. In the end, a business is about the people who get up in the morning to represent that brand. One needs A-players on one’s team and we’ve assembled that. The culture at MarineMax is incredible, and it shows in MarineMax vacations. It reminds me of the Charlie and Ginny Cary days.
CW: The base at Hodges Creek Marina on the eastern end of Tortola presents several advantages for clients, from access to the airport to anchorages sailors on a one-week charter might otherwise overlook. Can you elaborate on these points and your strategy for this base and any others MarineMax may be considering opening?
LR: MarineMax Vacations wanted a marina that covers those points stated above, but the overriding reason is the environment. The ocean is crystal clear; a cool breeze is there most of the time. We want our customers to be in a pristine environment and have quick access to and from anchorages. Right now we are 100 percent focused on the B.V.I. We will of course expand to other locations, but now we’re awaiting our new 464 that will be a game changer power catamaran.
CW: Inland waterway trips aboard self-driven barge boats have long appealed to sailors eager for a different experience exploring Europe and its vast cultural, historical, architectural, and culinary amenities. Tell us about MarineMax’s partnership with Locaboat Holidays.
LR: We’re really excited about this product. Locaboat (www.locaboat.com) aligns well with MarineMax Vacations. It’s not the biggest, but Locaboat offers an incredible customer experience. We also believe that this type of vacation is relatively unknown to power boaters and therefore creates a huge opportunity. We’re confident we’re aligned with a premier operator. The experience of cruising the European canals is incredible; our MarineMax customers will appreciate us introducing this product.