Game Theory

In today's market, the yacht with the most toys often wins.

Eight or so years ago, Mark Elliott got a bit carried away.

Elliott was captain aboard the 166-foot motoryacht Nadine, which a charter guest bought after sampling her selection of toys. "I want everything else you can think of," the new owner had said. Elliott diligently set to work.

"I built a seaplane from scratch, a water slide, a diving board and, of course, we had the helicopter," Elliott said recently from his Sint Maartin office with International Yacht Collection. "The helicopter is the ultimate sightseeing tool. The seaplane let us go farther, twice as fast, then land on land or water and cruise away."

He entranced guests in Nadine's master stateroom with two large sofas whose hydraulic arms lifted the seats to reveal a clear section under the boat. "We lit it up at night so the fish came up to the light, like an underwater aquarium." He brought aboard two Yamaha motorcycles, a pair of kayaks and six Wave Runners. He towed a 33-foot Intrepid while other charter yachts carried inflatable dinghies.

He went out of his way to lure guests with fun and excitement they could find nowhere else-and in the process helped pioneer "game theory" in the growing charter market.

As recently as five years ago, yacht charter focused mostly on traveling to unspoiled vistas for the sheer pleasure of experiencing them. If you called a broker for advice about which boat to book, you'd likely hear about each yacht's number of staterooms, the different décors and the tempting cruising areas each boat called home.

Today, more boats are being built and put into the bustling charter market. Hundreds are available, and each is striving to carve a niche. When you call that same broker for advice, you're likely to be asked not only where you want to go, but how you want to play when you arrive.

"It used to be, a vessel had a Windsurfer and snorkel gear and water skis," said Missy Johnston of Northrop and Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters in Newport, Rhode Island. "Now, certain yachts have sea kayaks, Jet Skis, an enormous amount of sun toys to be towed behind the tender, like inner tubes and bananas."

Charter captains are accumulating toys-including "you'll only find them here" oddities such as submarines and live music-as a way to help their yachts stand apart in the crowded field.

"The trend is piling up as many toys as you can," said Shannon Webster of Bob Saxon Associates in Ft. Lauderdale. "They just want to have a full repertoire, a variety, something for everyone."

The "game theory" trend has several roots. First is availability. The myriad kayaks, kneeboards and underwater cameras on the market today is a far cry from the snorkels and water skis that used to sit alone on the shelves in sporting goods stores. Charter guests are often as savvy as captains about newfangled goodies, and they know exactly which one-of-a-kind plaything they want on board during their vacation.

"I spoke with a gentleman last week who wanted a boat that carried one of those little underwater toys, not the mini-sub, but it's like a scooter that drags you underwater," Webster said. Only after she found one did he book the trip.

A second root is the growing number of motoryachts and catamarans available for charter. These boats simply have a ton of space to stow toys compared with more traditional charter yachts.

"Monohull sailboats, for example, have enormous trouble stowing Jet Skis," Johnston said.

Third is the same economy that created the need to stand apart in the first place. It's created a younger, more athletic base of customers who can afford vacations costing upwards of $30,000 per week. When you add to that group the baby boomers intent on keeping their figures intact, you get a good-size demographic pushing captains to be at the ready with all the toys in the land.

"They want to know that they're there," Webster said. "Whether they end up using them or not is irrelevant. Say we've got two same-size Browards side by side. One's got a ton of toys, the other's got minimal toys. The layout's the same, and the rates are close. Which one do you think they're going to pick?"

Elliott tried to make Nadine the answer to that question with "the right toys."

"You just can't pile on a bunch of junk. User-friendly, safe, low-maintenance, practical," he said. "Kayaks, big bananas a lot of people can hop on and ride, all doing it together. The diving board was a little high for some kids, but the rope swing was fun. We tied the rope to the end of a crane, and I'd pick them up out of the water and gently start to swing. You could manipulate that to an incredible height. You could get 60 feet off the water with that thing."

Foremost, though, was-and still is-offering choice.

"It's important that guests feel they can have their own agendas and aren't stuck on the boat all the time," he said. "Nowadays, you'll see kayaks stuck on cranes, toys stuffed everywhere you can stuff them, dinghies on top of dinghies."

Most charter guests with specific requests want scuba gear or Jet Skis, Johnston said. Webster gets a lot of inquiries about Wave Runners, which, along with Jet Skis, are being banned in some areas. Such bans, of course, have left charter captains looking for the "next new toy" to stimulate business. Most, following the market's lead, are working to get satellite TV and surround-sound theater systems on board-if they're not already there-as well as full offices with fax machines and e-mail.

Still, with all the toys and technology available, many charter guests are thinking in a more traditional direction.

"Jacuzzis are becoming a big item," Webster said. "Before, not many yachts had them. But now, more yachts are getting them, so people are starting to expect charter yachts to have them."

Webster also gets more requests than she did a decade ago for on-board gyms, though she questions whether they get more use than toys whose popularity has been solid for an eternity.

"People that do work out in a gym on a daily basis or a few times a week think they're going to go and work out, but they're not," Webster said. "Their workout is going to come when they put on those fins and go snorkeling."