Yacht makers hope disco decks will help them cast off at London Boat Show

Tue Jan 7, 2014 9:49am EST

* Yacht makers seeing signs of upturn

* New buyers may forgo cabins, order disco instead

* Industry changes to suit Chinese, Asian tastes

By Clare Hutchison

LONDON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Longer boats, decks for discos and underwater lighting are among the offerings yacht builders are hoping will help steer them out of a sales slump this week at the London Boat Show, the biggest British showcase for their wares.

It's all about new markets and tastes in Asia and Latin America at the cavernous exhibition centre in the east of the city.

A 40-m (130-ft), 16.5-million-pound ($27 million) super yacht and the presence of Olympic gold medallist/America's Cup sailor Ben Ainslie are among the main attractions expected to lure some 100,000 enthusiasts to the show.

Not all the boats there will be extravagant; the Boat Show also still caters to family budgets.

But super well-heeled visitors can set course around these to inquire about having their more substantial yachts delivered without any cabins - outfitted instead with disco dance floors and mini casinos, as increasing number of buyers are doing.

"It's to do with the personal taste of the owner. The whole thing is fun, you take these boats and put them on the water and the whole thing comes alive," said Carl Richardson, communications director of yacht builder Princess Yachts International.

Orders from fast-growing economies like China and Brazil have helped renew demand for floating palaces, which tanked after the economic crash of 2008, industry representatives said.

Princess, whose stand cost 1 million pounds ($1.64 million) to build and is one of the main attractions, sold two of its 60-foot-plus yachts to British buyers in the first three days.

But the company is pitching for buyers from non-traditional markets with yachts to suit any taste.

"Five years ago customers had two or three different options. These days it goes on and on...from underwater lighting to personal water crafts," Richardson said.

"All the markets are very different - the Americans have a very specific set of likes, in the Chinese markets it's very much about using the boat as an entertaining area, not necessarily going anywhere on it so you get some very interesting options there," he added.

"A lot of the time they don't want cabins, they want everything from mini casinos to dance floors to meeting rooms."

"MARKET GROWING UP"

He said broadening Princess's international dealer network had brought more sales from places like Mexico, China and Southeast Asia, but new markets had meant drastically altering its vessels, which range from 40 feet to 40 m in length and are priced at between 250,000 pounds and 30 million pounds.

"The market is growing up, it's growing out - we are going a lot higher in terms of length, and the way boats are finished is a lot more aggressive," he said.

Rival ship maker Sunseeker, which was bought in June by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, showcased the largest and most expensive vessel on display - the "40 Metre Yacht". [ID: nL5N0EV0LI]

Marketing Manager Gemma Marsh said it was too early to tell if the show, which opened on Saturday, Jan 4, had been successful but the firm had already received some "great enquiries".

Smaller vendors said the last six months had seen the strongest sales in some time thanks to a sunshine-filled summer and a string of positive economic news that had encouraged more spending on leisure.

"People seem to have that feel good factor. Boats are selling across all sectors of the market - sailing boats, power boats, both large and small," said Richard Hewett, a director for Clipper Marine, the British dealer for Bavaria Sail and Bavaria Motorboats.

"When the power boat market picks up, it's usually a sign of more instant decisions, more confidence," he added.

James Burroughs, managing director of Ribeye, a maker of rigid-inflatable boats, or RIBS, said revenue was up 15 percent in the last financial year after a six-year period of flat turnover.

"We've reached a point where people are prepared to consume more conspicuously... They are ready to be part of the recovery," he said.

As well as snapping up vessels, specialist kit and training, visitors can see a sailing superstar when four-time Olympic champion Ainslie takes to the stage for a question and answer session on Wednesday.

The London Boat Show ends on Jan 12.

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