Rob Poirier with Privilege Catamarans was kind enough to talk with us about what is happening with their new builds. We talk about the most popular model their 510, their new 580, and the changing demographics of catamaran buyers. Rob has 20 plus years of experience selling catamarans and is a wealth of knowledge on the industry with a very straightforward and honest approach you will see.
I’m Deidre Jordan from CatamaranSite.com, a great website where you can buy or sell your boat, as well as access resources such as these videos, where we are interviewing different people from across the industry of catamarans. Today, we are meeting with Rob Poirier from Privilege Catamarans. Welcome Rob, how are you doing?
Hi Deidre, I’m very good, it’s good to be here with you.
Great! Well thanks for joining us today, let’s just start by hearing a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in Privilege.
I got involved in the boat industry over 20 years ago, and I’ve only ever been involved with catamarans. The first business I got connected to was PDQ Yachts, which was based in Canada, and again, a great, really pioneering catamaran builder. I learned a lot there. It was a great opportunity because I worked directly with the factory, directly with the builders and the facility. At the time I was the only representative for the boatline in most of the cases, and got to really form a lifelong relationship with the head designer there.
As far as my boat knowledge, I’m not a technical person, but Ted Clements, who has become a very close personal friend, and a very significant boat designer, had a background in commercial boats before he got into recreational boats, has given me a foundation to talk from, that I know has benefited me. It has absolutely benefited the people that I’ve sold boats to over the years, because we’ve always been focused even at PDQ, and then on through Privilege.
Live-aboard boats have been the major client base that we’ve had, so I really rely heavily on that background and selling that class of boat.
How many catamarans per year are you currently building?
I am the representative for Privilege Marine out of Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, and as the North American rep, we sell pretty close to half of the boats that they’re building. Privilege is a broad boatyard, they have five different models ranging from 50 to 75-feet. The number of vessels that get constructed in a year depend tremendously on what size of boats are being built.
Currently, there are several new 580s being built, there’s two 64-footers being built, and a 75-footer being built, so that’s going to reduce the scale of boats that will get delivered. I imagine over the next 12 months, 11, 12 boats will splash from that boat yard; which is not a lot, but remember Privilege is an old school boatyard. For example, even a 50-foot Privilege still takes 50 to 55 weeks to complete, and we’re living in a day and age where the modern production 50-foot catamaran is completed and splashed in 45 days. So 45 days, 55 weeks, very different world.
Quite a bit different. Now, over the past year, we’ve all been affected by COVID in different ways, how have you seen it affect your business?
It’s had a huge impact on my business in the sense that because my clients are North American-based Canadians, Americans, we’ve not been able to travel to Europe for most of the year.
Fortunately, Canadians only got cut off six months ago, but of course US citizens have been cut off since this last March, or for a full year now. I’ve not been able to have my clients visit the boatyard. It’s been a lot of Zoom meetings, a lot of visiting older boats, and making the best of a very tough situation. Boats have continued to be sold, we’ve actually had a reasonably good year. But has it been difficult? Yeah. The amount of traveling has been reduced substantially.
As you know, there’s only two boat shows that really matter to us, the Annapolis show and the Miami show, both of which were last year. It’s been a year like no other.
But sales have been stable?
Sales have been good. That part of things, we’re not complaining about.
Sales do matter, but we really like to see ourselves as an organization that interacts closer with our clients. We don’t see ourselves as merely being commissioned salesmen that wave goodbye at the dock, and move on to the next guy. We really, and it sounds just like blue sky, but we really do want to have long-term relations relationships with the clients. It keeps the project interesting for us, as well.
I’ll give you an example. One of the projects that we just announced is our spring flotilla program. So many of our buyers are no longer highly experienced offshore cruisers. Better than half of our clients have never done any serious offshore sailing.
What we’re going to start doing in the spring, is for those boats that are built through the winter months in the Northern coast of France, where the boat yard is, we’re gonna group three, maybe four, boats together and we’re gonna sail them together, all the way from that coast of France down along the coast of France, Portugal, Spain, right into the Med. It’s a trip that’ll last three to four weeks, and we’re going to do that every year, and again, that is in order to establish the relationship with the clients.
We’re not doing it this spring, and we can’t. We did have a couple of boats that we could have done this with, that are splashing, but we can’t do it this year, and this is where COVID effects. We’ve had to delay that project the whole year, because our clients aren’t able to fly to France.
It’s a great idea, I love the concept, but unfortunately yes, we’ve all had to learn how to do business a little bit differently over over the past year, be innovative and adjust to that. Hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel soon for us here. Tell me a little bit more about the history of Privilege Catamarans.
I’m glad you asked that question. I don’t want to say I’m a history buff, but I read history constantly. I love things that have a history, rather than simply a group of people in a boardroom who sketch a plan to make money, building boats.
Privilege started with Philippe Jeantot who, if you don’t know already, was once a world famous racing sailor. He twice held the solo round-the-world record, obviously a very very accomplished sailor. So accomplished in fact, that Adidas once had his name on one of their running shoes for many years, which is pretty cool. I mean, in Europe, he would be a superstar. In North America, we don’t tend to honor our sailors as well, so he wouldn’t have been recognizable here.
There came a point in his sailing life, where he decided he wanted to take his family on that trip around the world, rather than race around alone on a very dangerous boat. He had already become very familiar, very enthralled in the late 70s and early 80s with the catamaran concepts. With fiberglass construction, the possibility to build those kind of boats emerged. A lot of people don’t realize the catamarans didn’t really happen in a big way until fiberglass. Working with fiberglass really took off, and it made the possibility of the hulls that we enjoy now a possibility.
He basically went about designing the first boats to do that himself, for his own pleasure and safety. I always think it’s interesting that a guy who made a living sailing fast, when he wanted to take his family across the ocean said, “no way, performance is not my priority.” Good performance, but safety and comfort are the priority, and that’s where Privilege Catamarans was born. He built the first boat himself. It went so well in fact, that he launched the company that built these boats in 1985, but he started building his first catamarans before that, even held some of the first racing records on catamarans prior to launching the the boatyard.
That’s a great story. Do you remember about what year you said when fiberglass really became mainstream and you could use it for catamarans, when was that roughly?
If you really watch all fiberglass boat construction, in the 70s was the Golden Era. Really, the development happened shortly after World War II. A book called Heart of Glass truly details the fiberglass boat building, that it really took off in a big way in the 70s. At first, there was a lot of pushback from people. They were referred to as Clorox bottles on the water, the heart and soul of boats went away with this. But fiberglass boats made boats available to the middle class for the first time, sailboats. Prior to that, wood boats were so expensive to build and so expensive to maintain, that really, they were in a different category.
It was the explosion of fiberglass boat building in the 70s, and the learning process that happened, that really created the opportunity to build catamarans. Because of course, a catamaran built out of wood, it would have been way too heavy to be feasible. You know what I mean? Carrying your heels and so forth. It really was the development of fiberglass boat building that is what really initiated the success of what we see today, the mainstream catamaran business.
By the way, when I got into this business 20 years ago, it’s hard to believe now, because I know it’s an ancient history, I was still being tortured by people saying, “is it going to flip over?” People’s comfort in the catamarans even right into the early 2000s, was a lot of skepticism and a lot of pushback. A lot of people saying, “they’d be fun to sail in the Bahamas, but I wouldn’t sail it around the world.” Well, we all know that that’s crazy now, that these are actually the safer boats to be sailing around the world.
Currently what’s the most popular model that you build?
The most popular model of course, is our 50-footer. It is the most accessible.
There’s two Privileges that I would call personal boats, and two Privilege sailboats that can be personal but are more cruise-oriented. The 510 and the 580 are both designed so their helm positions are such that the boat can be managed by a cruising couple, comfortably and easily. The 580 and the 510 are the boats that are suited for that.
So the 510 is being the more popular. It is although the most accessible financially, it’s the best price boat. It is the right size, it is a really comfortable size for two people to sail, and that’s a big market that we’re involved in. Privilege doesn’t build boats targeted to the charter market. Those larger boats often do go into charter, but they go into charter for a very niche market, because if you’re trying to build boats for charter, you want multiple heads and beds. It’s the hospitality industry more than it is the boat business.
Whereas, we’re selling 65-foot boats with only four cabins. If you want to make money in the charter, that’s not the way to go. If you want to do some limited chartered, fine.
I often tell people this, and maybe you don’t want to air this because people don’t like hearing this, but I often have people say, “I bought this production brand boat, but I didn’t buy charter, I bought the owner version.” I always laugh and say, “you better understand that who is driving the design of those boats!” I know the designers and people that are involved, they’re all charter boats. The charter companies dictate the designs, all decisions are based on charter. In your case, they eliminated one head and one bed, and said owner version, but it is in every way, in every design, a charter boat.
Privilege is very focused on building boats for personal use only.
Give us some highlights on the new Privilege 580.
The 580s are very versatile boats, which I really love about it, is that it’s two boats. By launching this one boat, they’ve created two boats for two very different usage. Of course, it adopts some of the popular design elements of the modern boats, a forward lounge, there’s also what they call a flydeck. It’s not a flybridge, because the helm is in a functional location. It’s a place where two people can sail this boat, as opposed to all the problematic implications of a flybridge, so I like that design.
A boat that has that forward lounge area is really going to appeal to people that like to do an awful lot of socializing on board, who plan to sail with multiple people, and it serves that purpose. But the 580 also has the ability to eliminate that forward deck, that forward lounge, and create this enormous cavity of storage, with an almost-like barn door access. If anybody who spent enough time at sea likes to carry their toys, and very often pulling things through the typical boat hatch can be a real pain. Having a boat that has this huge capacity for storage and large access doors, I think is phenomenal.
It’s a really good versatile boat, whether you want to circumnavigate, or just live in the islands, this boat gives you some choices that a lot of product out there doesn’t. That’s my favorite feature about the the 580.
What is currently the biggest obstacle in getting people to purchase a Privileged catamaran?
What is the biggest obstacle? Well, I’ll tell you. It sounds funny, but for many people that I’m talking to, it’s getting their businesses sold. I have a lot of interest. If you were to say, if somebody could have that business sold, I would have more orders than I know what to do with. But I’m talking to a couple of dozen people whose businesses are for sale, and boy oh boy, as soon as that business is sold, the order is placed. So the obstacle is getting a business sold! I know it doesn’t sound like it should be the case, but that seems to be the biggest obstacle. Because right now, the demand is really good for the product, there is still a very solid demand.
These are not the least expensive boats on the market. One of the biggest challenge for people, in all fairness, when they’re agonizing over a purchase, is do they need that additional quality in some of the features that Privilege provides, that the other boat doesn’t. But it’s gonna cost them three, four hundred-thousand dollars more, in many cases. Can they justify that with their budgets? That is a legitimate discussion for couples to have, and there’s a lot of people having that discussion right now. I fully appreciate that a budget’s a budget.
Absolutely. If you had a crystal ball and you can predict the future of Privilege Catamarans, where do you see it going in the next five years?
What’s funny you should say that, I actually do have a crystal, in the other room! So what is the future of Privilege? I don’t need a crystal ball, demographics tell us that the wealthiest generation in history is retiring, and we’re just about at peak retirement for that generation. The boomers have changed everything. I mean, they don’t do anything small. Unlike previous generations, boomers are getting into cruising, and they’re starting at the top. They don’t have the patience to go from cradle to grave, and slowly build up their experience. I am selling boats to people that have said this is the first, quite sincerely. I was on a boat with a client last year who said, “this is great, first time I’ve ever been on a boat,” and it was his boat that we were sea trialing.
That’s crazy, that’s a big jump.
This is his first boat, and that sea trial was the first time he’d ever been on a boat.
Oh my gosh! That is a big jump, good for him.
Like I said, 15 years ago, people were coming on catamarans. I remember we had launched a new 44-foot catamaran, and I was dealing with people for the first time we introduced this boat at the Annapolis show, I think it was 2002. I was getting seasoned sailors, people that were members of the Seven Seas Sailing Association, and sailed halfway around the world, getting on the boat and asking me legitimately, did I feel a 44-foot catamaran of this size was something that a couple could manage. Sincerely. I mean, there was that legitimate concern with experienced sailors, that a 40-foot catamaran may be just too much vessel for a sailing couple, even with 25 years of experience.
What has changed? As I said, now people are coming aboard the boat with absolutely no experience, a 50-footer, and going, “hmm, what do you build bigger?” That’s what’s radically changing, for the good and the bad.
The biggest concern that I point out to people very often at boat shows now, that I’ve really watched happen or gradually over the last 10 year is, I’m at a boat show, and I get fewer, and fewer, and fewer boat questions. I actually have a bet for a bottle of rum with a co-worker at boat shows now, as to whether or not anybody’s going to ask a single question related to sails, rigging. In other words, this is a sailboat, the first question asked about is line management, sails, the standing rig. I’ve gone through two boat shows where I won that bottle of rum, where not a single question was asked during the entire boat show, relating to the sails.
They’re just asking about the galley, or…
Real estate. It’s a real estate show. I don’t like trying to scare people, but the reason why so many people sell the boat so soon, is because they’re not taking into account that the sea can be a very scary place. You should really make sure that boat is designed to protect you, and it’s well considered. The boat can take anything, but if you’re not prepared for what you could be presented with, maybe you won’t be ready.
One of the reasons we do that spring flotilla, and one of the reasons we want to go to the extra effort to introduce our clients to that kind of thing, is because doing it in the spring in Biscayne Bay, is not going to be a walk in the park. You could get your brains bashed in a little bit. We really want to truly educate our customers about cruising so that they’re successful.
It’s a lot to learn.
I want somebody to be successful, I want to keep talking to the clients like I do now, that have been out there for years, and not the ones that sold the boat after two years and decided to buy a condo in a gated community.
You’ve gotta get some skills and some confidence under your belt so that it can be enjoyable, and you’re not constantly worried about what’s gonna happen, because it’s a lot to learn.
It is a lot to learn. As I was saying earlier, buying a boat’s a mistake. It’s the best mistake you’re ever going to make in your life. But if you do it right, and you’re really getting an insight and an understanding about the product, and really care about the product, that will be something that you will enjoy forever. I’ve never met a person who didn’t do this right, even after they sold a boat, that doesn’t look back on the memories and say, “those were some of the best best years of my life I ever did right.”
Irregardless, it’s always an adventure, and there’s always a great story to follow, from any boat journey, a crossing, cruising. Thank you Rob, so much for your honesty and your transparency, really enjoyed hearing your perspective. For those watching this video that want to get in touch with you, or learn more about building a Privilege, where would you recommend them to go?
Just visit our website PrivilegeCatamaransAmerica.com, and my phone number’s there. Just call me anytime. As I said, everybody, I’m a pretty boring guy, I never get sick of talking boats, so don’t hesitate to reach out.
Thanks so much for joining us on catamaransite, that’s all for today’s episode. Thank you.