As China’s recreational boating market remains in its infancy, brands spanning from small sailboat makers to megayacht builders are going all out to sell the seafaring lifestyle to affluent Chinese consumers.
At the recent SO! Hainan yacht and lifestyle show in Hainan’s new Clear Water Bay Marina, top global yachting and sailing companies gathered alongside a wide range of luxury brands including Taittinger Champagne, Dassault Falcon private jets, IMAX, department store Galeries Lafayette, as well as many other representatives presenting wine, spirits, jewelry, travel destinations, helicopters, and more to China’s upper crust.
Potential Chinese buyers had the chance to not only try out a wide range of sailboats and yachts on sea trials, but were also exposed to all the trappings of a life of leisure with wine tastings, dinners, and parties as well as activities including motor paragliding, kite surfing, fishing, and golf.
“We tried to create more water sports; more activities by the sea” for the event, says Delphine Lignières, the founder and CEO of event organizer China Rendez-Vous, which also holds the annual SO! Dalian yacht show. “It was to educate the people to have fun with the water and acclimate the Chinese consumers with the water.”
According to Ewa Stachurska, the group marketing manager and Shanghai area manager for China’s top yacht sales and brokerage company Simpson Marine, “the market is young” in China, making it important to have a wide-ranging brand portfolio. With two offices in Hainan and several others in Hong Kong and mainland China, the company offers models from Italian superyacht brand Sanlorenzo, sailboat maker Beneteau Group, and several others. “Most of the guests are newcomers to boating and it might take some time to assist them and make them discover yachting and help them understand what they really want,” she says.
In order to make yachting appealing to China’s rich, many brands are adjusting the designs of the boats themselves to cater to the China market. Several yacht brands had China-specific boats on display with special features customized for a Chinese clientele, such as more space for entertaining guests and less for sleeping, as Chinese buyers tend to avoid long-haul journeys preferred by Europeans.
Motor yacht company Lagoon featured a catamaran that had been designed specifically for the China market with a small kitchen located below deck, in contrast to an open kitchen connected to the living space that can be found on its Europe-targeted models.
“It’s more suitable for the Chinese market. A lot of owners want the kitchen separated,” says Ivy Jin, the marketing manager for Beneteau and Lagoon in Asia. In Western markets, “the owner of the boat works in the kitchen” and thus “doesn’t want the kitchen to be isolated,” she says. “However, in China, it’s completely different. It’s always the captain or crew cooking in the kitchen.”
It’s also important to have ample protection from the sun in the outdoor areas of the boat for sun-averse Chinese seafarers, says Jin. Several models on display featured retractable sunroofs that would be more likely to be left open by sunbathing European buyers. “Most of the Chinese clients don’t want to be too exposed to the sun, so it’s necessary” to have the choice to cover the area, she says.
Bespoke features are also important to the China market, and Sanlorenzo presented a customized version of its approximately 30-meter SL96 that was designed specifically for the China market. While European clients tend to prefer a massive, open combined luxe living/dining space, the China-focused model featured a separate dining room, complete with a wine refrigerator to appeal to Chinese demand for a dining room. Superyacht brands are also known for adding features such as karaoke for Chinese buyers, who are often mainly interested in buying superyachts to entertain business clients.
The fledgling yachting industry has seen quieter times since China’s luxury market entered a slowdown due to the anti-corruption campaign and slowing economic growth. “Everybody’s suffering—the luxury brands as well; you can see that they have a big issue” in China, says Lignières. There were certainly signs that Chinese enthusiasts are still willing to spend big, however: for example, Monte Carlo Yachts featured a customized model that had already been commissioned and purchased by a Chinese client. Entitled the “Princess Muzi,” the yacht was purchased for the buyer’s daughter, Muzi—a four-year-old.
Even as China’s luxury market slows, Lignières says the upper-middle class has slowly become more interested in buying smaller entry-level boats such as sailboats. The market consists mainly of “smaller boats or larger yachts” at the moment, she says, with fewer sales in the middle range that appeals to mature markets. “The brands that probably have the best success are the ones with smaller units or the ones with large units. It’s interesting because the 80-footers are working less than before,” she says. “It’s because the upper-middle class is starting to invest as well step-by-step. Still, the wealthiest are buying larger yachts.”
She notes that a growing emphasis on experiential luxury in China will be key to the development of the market in the future. “There’s a real shift,” occurring among China’s wealthy as they gain more interest in experiences, she says. “Instead of buying maybe three bags, they will probably buy one bag and then travel around the world. They will spend differently, because luxury means many things. It’s a lifestyle, and people understand more and more that it’s a lifestyle and referring to quality of life.”
For now, yacht brands remain hopeful about the future of the market as they work to create a culture of boating with special VIP networking events for their buyers. “We need long-term potential and a growing, sustainable market,” says Stachurska. “And that is why we are here after all, to help clients get into boating, taking the time they need.”