Interview: Lester Lam, Chairman, Camper & Nicholsons Asia
Chairman of Camper & Nicholsons Asia and sitting on C&N International’s Board of Directors, Lester Lam explains how the ‘original yachting company’ pre-empted the challenges and restrictions of Covid by investing extensively in “a strategy for a digital world”.
Lester Lam, Chairman of Camper & Nicholsons Asia. Photos: C/O Camper & Nicholsons International
It has been over four years since Lai Sun bought into Camper & Nicholsons in 2016, so how would you describe the journey so far?
I have been yachting in Hong Kong and the Mediterranean all my life and it’s my passion. The transition from being a yacht owner to being involved in the yachting industry by playing a role in the most prestigious and oldest brand, Camper & Nicholsons International, is simply amazing.
Where have most of your clients in Asia come from?
Camper & Nicholsons is owned by Lai Sun Group, which is a group of five companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, so Asia is certainly our stronghold. This allowed us direct access to penetrate the Asia market. Most of our clients in Asia are from Hong Kong and Chinese clients who reside in Hong Kong. However, we have recently experienced increased traffic from Australia and Thailand.
The 41.3m Ocean Emerald, pictured at the 2019 Thailand Charter Week, is among C&N’s charter fleet and also listed for sale
How do clients in Asia differ from clients in Europe, US and other traditional superyacht markets?
Clients from Asia have a great tendency towards new yachts or recent brokerage yachts. Furthermore, most clients, even first-time buyers, are very well informed and lean towards to the well-established brands from Italy, UK, Germany and Netherlands. One notable trend is that Chinese owners trade up quickly and often have multiple yachts in Hong Kong and overseas.
How would you evaluate Camper & Nicholsons’ business in Asia, in terms of new builds, brokerage and charter?
In Asia, we experienced a wonderful 2020 in brokerage. Having sold one 60m, one 50m, one 38.5m and other yachts, we can say brokerage is the bulk of our business. Due to the pandemic, many of our services have been affected, as has been the case for the entire industry. However, we enjoyed a successful and prolific year within our new-build activity. With six vessels sold and three under project management at five of the world’s top shipyards, it was a stellar year of activity that bucked the industry trend.
The jacuzzi on the Norman Foster-designed Ocean Emerald, which had a full interior refit in 2019 and is among the best-known Asia-based superyachts
How have you and the company managed interaction with clients and prospects this year following the need for social distancing and reduced travel?
We have strong teams across Asia-Pacific including in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. This has allowed us to coordinate effectively internally, as we can still have a Camper & Nicholsons International (CNI) representative meet any client face to face in any of these regions.
We still have to respect social distancing guidelines, though, and we think it is general etiquette to avoid close interaction when there is a spike in confirmed cases in any particular areas. When this is the case, we utilise online platforms like we did when organising a series of webinars for clients with prestigious partners like UBS bank or a 28-minute video tour by the Captain of Lady Moura, which was by invitation only. So again, being quick in adapting our strategies and thinking remains key to sailing through these difficult times.
A Sunseeker 131 Yacht based in Hong Kong, Rhine was built for an Asian owner and is now for sale through Camper & Nicholsons
Like in the US, yachting in Hong Kong appears to have benefited from Covid. Has this helped your business and what other markets have performed positively?
Actually, yachting has experienced a full revival in Hong Kong because of Covid. Yacht owners have taken social distancing to the extreme. After all, what’s safer than being in the middle of the sea! We have also experienced a habitual change whereby owners are spending more time on their yachts. Instead of a day trip, owners are staying overnight on their yachts and in some cases for the entire weekend.
We have been approached by many clients making their first purchases. In terms of charter, we have also seen a huge surge in demand, especially in the day-charter segment. Also, the day-charter business has also seen a shift whereby guests are able to enjoy cruising and excursions. All in all, a full charter experience!
Do you think the new Lantau Yacht Club will encourage and attract more visiting and locally owned superyachts in Hong Kong?
Certainly. The Lantau Yacht Club has created much-needed berths for large superyachts. For sure, this will allow yacht owners to make bigger purchases.
Among C&N’s sales fleet, the 65m Benetti Ambrosia is one of the most famous Asia-based superyachts; Photo: Thierry Ameller for Benetti
What are your hopes for Asia’s established charter markets like Thailand and Indonesia, which have suffered from a drop in tourism? When do you hope travel restrictions will relax enough for charterers to have the confidence to visit these destinations for a week or two?
Charter by foreign guests who need to fly in will not happen until the travel restrictions are completely lifted, although we are starting to see positive signs. Nonetheless, we have seen a surge in local charters in recent months.
During the weekends in Hong Kong, there could be 10 yachts waiting at Central Pier to pick up guests in the morning. It’s quite a scene! Guests are bringing their bikes and hiking shoes for their weekend charter trips, so they can enjoy different activities in the many secluded islands. It’s the same situation in Phuket, where charters are starting to pick up due to clients flying in from Bangkok or other cities in Thailand.
Can you talk about some of your leading yachts for sale and charter?
We are proud of our sales fleet in Asia, the most well-known of which is the 65m Ambrosia. In addition, we have 13 yachts over 30m. Our charter vessels in Australia, Thailand and Indonesia are receiving extremely positive feedback and attention. Recently, we added the 103ft Azimut Aquarius and have a few more in the pipeline.
Based in Indonesia, the 65m Lamima is the largest luxury phinisi for charter
Before Covid, C&N was already extensively developing its digital platforms. How has Covid and the reduced travel and client interaction forced the company to further develop its online resources?
Our digital and tech transformation started with the acquisition of Nowboat, whose team of five in house developers quickly became the heart of our ecosystem. They developed ad hoc solutions for clients like our brand-new yacht accounting software, database, Fast Fleet offering and more.
But the starting point of all these actions has always been that we don’t need a digital strategy but a strategy for a digital world. In that sense, we felt ready to engage our clients across social media platforms, editing live tours of yachts, enhancing our EDM activities, expanding our retargeting campaigns, setting up our own brand webinars and so on. I think it pushed us to accelerate, but it felt like we were on the right track.
Can you expand on your online developments with Yachtseeker?
Currently still in its first initial stages of development, Yachtseeker is similarly being created to alleviate and resolve fundamental inefficiencies within the yachting industry, especially in the charter
The 30.3m Hummingbird is one of only a few charter superyachts based in the Philippines
Usually when a potential client would like to book a yacht charter holiday, they need to go through a variety of hoops to get a confirmation. It’s a process with many steps, like contacting the yacht charter broker, selecting the yachts available, checking with the captains, signing the contracts and waivers, paying a deposit and so on.
Yachtseeker’s aim is to reduce those steps to just one, all within the same platform, so a process that can sometimes take a few days will now be done in the space of an hour. Through Yachtseeker, yacht availabilities are consolidated on one platform with all details needed, contracts can be signed digitally, and the payment processing is safe with the application of Know Your Client (KYC), an extra layer of service we provide that’s not directly linked to the payment gateway.
As a yacht owner yourself, have you spent more time on the water this year?
Due to travel restrictions, I have certainly spent more time on my yacht. As a matter of fact, we have just completed another yacht purchase for the family to be shipped to Hong Kong in the coming months.
Camper & Nicholsons Asia is selling the 42.5m Explorer Ice Class, which will be built in Turkey
I always believe that we need to learn something new to keep our minds sharp and engaged. In the summer, my friend and I picked up wake surfing, which became one of the most popular water activities in Hong Kong.
Finally, what are your hopes for Camper & Nicholsons by 2030?
We wish we could read the future this far ahead! Certainly, the exercise of looking at the next five or 10 years has become difficult and 2020 was a master lesson in that, but we still need to do it and try to build a vision.
We are a luxury service company. We wish to offer our clients a one-stop, 360-degree experience with the best professionals you can find, with working procedures and mindsets that are future proof – compliance-wise, digitally-wise, tech-wise and so on. We want to be the best at what we do and learn from our clients to tailor and adapt our services constantly.
The full version of the interview will appear in Issue 57 of Yacht Style