By Chris Vellacott
LONDON, (Reuters) - The glamour, champagne-soaked launches, astronomical price tags and celebrity clients belie a mounting unease in the world of superyacht building, according to industry insiders.
The billionaire financier clients of the pre-financial crisis world are fewer and the new rich of Asia with the kind of money needed to spend at least $100 million on a holiday gin palace just aren't that into boats.
"The business has been going through a lot of change in the past four years," says Henk de Vries, head of shipbuilder Feadship which recently completed the 80-metre (yard) Venus motoryacht, reportedly ordered by the late Apple founder Steve Jobs and impounded in Amsterdam for unpaid bills.
"Leading up to the third quarter 2008, our market was going absolutely nuts, it was bonkers. The years 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 were years I think will never come again."
De Vries spoke to Reuters at a gathering of superyacht builders and designers in London's gilded Mayfair neighbourhood. The weatherbeaten faces, and tatty outdoor clothing of the London boatshow being held across town were largely absent from this event, marked by expensively cut lounge suits and designer frocks.
The partygoers work in a world catering to the tastes of clients who want boats of up to 100 metres long, often equipped with helipads and submarines, with multiple suites fitted out and designed with no expense spared.
Anyone thinking of buying such a vessel should budget for about $1 million per metre of boat, according to Andrew Winch, founder of west London-based designer Andrew Winch Designs which kits out not just boats, but also private jets and homes.
A superyacht buyer should also expect to spend about 10 percent of the purchase price every year in running costs.
But whereas the clientele was once dominated by Americans, followed by Europeans from countries with sea-faring traditions and cultures that aspire to yacht ownership, the financial crisis has reduced their numbers.
The new rich of China and Asia do not necessarily have the same maritime traditions and many would not think of yachts when choosing luxury lifestyle accessories, which may prove a challenge.
"We're all hoping and expecting the next big wave will be from China," said Espen Oeino, a Monaco based yacht designer.
"I'm not so sure we will see many Chinese clients with very large yachts because it's not really in their traditions... We all expected great things coming out of Japan in the 1990s and that didn't happen."
Oeino's firm Espen Oeino International is currently "very busy", he said, though business "is not as frantic as it was in 2007 and 2008."
But the industry can meet these challenges, said Marcel Onkenhout, Chief Executive of boat builder Oceanco, by adjusting design to meet Asian tastes and educating the new rich about superyachts as the ultimate in luxury accessories.
"We as an industry need to teach them the lifestyle," he said.
Even if the new rich are persuaded to indulge a new found love of the sea, few expect an imminent return to the multi year waiting lists for superyacht orders seen before 2008.
According to de Vries, during the first three quarters of 2008, up to 100 contracts for new projects were signed with around 100 companies building boats around the world.
"I think what we have now is again a market with structural demand for let's say 30 to 50 yachts per year and room for maybe 30 or 40 companies to build those. We still have more than 100 so the oversupply is maybe 50 percent," he said. (Reporting by Chris Vellacott)