Driving force

In this exclusive Q&A, Gulf Craft CEO Erwin Bamps speaks with us about the company's growth, and his plans for the future.

You have described Gulf Craft as a “prolific and disruptive” yachtbuilder. What are the characteristics and behaviours of the company that make it disruptive compared with other international yards?

When I say a “prolific and disruptive” builder, I mean we do things that people don’t expect us to do, from building yachts in the desert to coming out as a superyacht builder of significant stature today. Even announcing last year our mission and motivation to move into the megayacht construction field is, in itself, already significant because, as a boatbuilder from the Middle East, we’ve stepped up and grown so quickly.

It’s not only within the business that we are profiling ourselves quite ambitiously but also within the context of global manufacturing, which is noteworthy. The manufacturing sector is not clearly aware of what the Middle East has to offer to the world. We have a unique position in that regard.

Why disruptive? Because we try to offer something that others do not, such as different boat designs, a different approach to clients and a focus on intrinsic value, family yachting and reliability before design; throwing everything that people know about yachting up in the air.

We try to be different and stand out by listening to our customers and by combining things differently. Gulf Craft’s Majesty 100 is a great example. It has a unique combination of features that have been individually created before but never combined in this way.

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Over your 15 years at the helm of Gulf Craft, how has the business evolved?

We went from building boats to yachts to superyachts, and now we’ve started construction on megayachts. Our ambition and skill level is continuing to grow, along with the scale and reach of the company globally. Yachting overall has boomed over the past 15 years. It is true that it diminished after 2008 but we have retained the ambition of getting people on the water. I believe that the financial crisis has been a blessing in disguise for the yachting sector because, as I see it, it has evolved faster in the past 10 years than it did in the previous 50.

I’m talking about inclusion of innovation, the willingness to question all the things that were considered pillars of the yachting industry. Today, we know it is moving towards technology integration and a more customer-focused orientation.

Are there “hallmarks” of Gulf Craft’s design and engineering?

Our main focus is reliability and functionality. With regards to our engineering and design, form always follows function. We’re also very family oriented and focused on practical boat ownership and intrinsic values that build customer loyalty.

For Gulf Craft, it is not about a styling exercise; we put down impressive styling and we’re very detail oriented, but we’re more concerned with the use of the vessels, the space utilisation, the fuel consumption and the overall onboard experience. Our main aim is to bring people together on boats and create experiences on the water that are memorable.

What are the major waterfront developments aimed at the yachting community that are underway or completed in the UAE?

There are many waterfront developments here but I think that the most memorable one is the Dubai Canal. It turned a part of the emirate into an island, creating an environment in which boaters could be less concerned about getting seasick or navigation than they might be elsewhere. It created a backdrop for boaters with a very low barrier to entry; you don’t need to be able to read a navigation chart because you basically see what’s on the left and right of you. It also created a destination where boaters could have dinner and drinks up and down the canal with friends in the evening.

The Dubai Canal created a new concept of a waterfront destination in Dubai, a backwater that allowed boaters with small craft to just enjoy it in a very different way than what they were used to.

We believe that the canal set a new standard for waterfront living and waterfront enjoyment for people in the UAE, not only for small boats but for small yachts too.

We’ve become associated with the “sky’s the limit” attitude and luxury living that is synonymous with Dubai. The Dubai Canal, Dubai Harbour, Deira Islands and similar developments are creating a name awareness for Dubai as a yachting and boating destination.

 

You have said “the boatbuilding industry tends to walk where other industries run”. Can you elaborate on where and how the global marine industry could improve?

The industry is slower in adopting technologies that are embraced very enthusiastically in the car world or in the hotel industry. Even with consumer electronics, you see new ideas such as biometric scanning for access to a computer or phone, none of which is available on yachts today. You would be surprised to learn what a battle it was to convince navigation equipment suppliers to do away with all the keyboards and accept touchscreen displays for radars so that you can pinch and zoom with your fingers.

Equipment suppliers kept saying that people don’t want another iPhone screen on their boats; well, they do today. The yachting industry is slowly catching up on the thought, first, and on the reality, second, that it cannot be independent of Airbnb, the Uberisation of the world and the integration of new technologies and ideas. When I’m being ambitious and preaching about self-driving yachts, people tell me it will not happen easily. I say, “Well, we’ll talk in five years and see what happens then.”

I believe there is a lot that the industry still has to get accustomed to with regards to the future of yachting; I’m talking mainly about technology but also about the overall mindset and ambition to integrate these new customer-oriented concepts and technologies.

 In your opinion, what is the definition of a customer-focused approach to selling boats?

My definition involves understanding local market requirements, sensitivities and interests, and how people enjoy life. Maybe we shouldn’t be telling people in China or Africa how yachting should be experienced; they can enjoy something different from the customers in France.

A lot of boat builders have generic designs or boats that are built for a global audience, but that doesn’t automatically mean they will fit. That’s where a better understanding of local sensitivities comes into play, in addition to building designs that can be modified and adapted to suit different markets’ needs. Gulf Craft has one of the widest product ranges under one roof so it’s easier for us to cater to different audiences, from Peru to Tonga, New Zealand to the Middle East.

Understanding local market requirements means not trying to build a product and export a lifestyle to another country but building around local requirements and interests and seeing how they can help to redefine yachting. We’re learning every day from emerging markets about how they perceive boating and yachting to deliver added value to their families, to their personal lives, to their business lives. Through talking to people in different parts of the world, we see how boating is used differently and how they approach it differently, which changes our yacht design, yacht reliability requirements and overall customer approach.

What are some of the new opportunities – including  markets, regions and demographics – that boat brands need to embrace?

We’re always looking for the next emerging market; the places where people have not discovered yachting yet are the areas we are interested in. South-East Asia is definitely a clear example; if you are looking for azure waters with forests and volcanos, those are all out there.

We’re not only focusing on new markets, we’re seeing new opportunities even in mature ones. Even in Europe, there is still unexplored territory. In Greece and Turkey today, there are lot of yachts but their coastlines are so vast that it’s largely unexplored and under developed. Yes, there are global political and economic issues, but there is still a lot of potential in the next 10 years. So even where we believe yachting is everywhere, there is still a lot to be developed and plenty of diversity possible in mature boating markets.

We are exploring with people how they want to go yachting. Maybe they no longer want just a one-week rental? “Explorer yachting” is coming up as a new trend and we find that people are spending more time on the water.

You speak about the pioneering waterfront developments of the UAE, pitched at yacht owners or to encourage residents into the boating lifestyle. What are the major developments that are underway or complete in the region?

There are a lot of developments coming up in Dubai including Deira Islands and Dubai Harbour, which will boost Dubai’s status as a yachting hub and yachting destination, giving Gulf Craft more relevance on a global platform.

These upcoming developments open the market to newcomers, give the owners of small yachts outlets for waterfront living and enjoyment, and offer tourists a chance to cruise around and see the city from the water.

How are they unique compared to destinations we’re more familiar with such as Singapore, Sydney and Sanctuary Cove?

Each of them has a unique geography but the big difference is the internal waterways. Singapore has tropical weather and a coastal area; in Sanctuary Cove, Sydney and all the way in between, you have the backwaters of the beautiful Gold Coast. There are people in Australia who, in their entire lives of boating, have never cruised in the sea; they stay in the lagoons. Dubai didn’t have much coastline, only the naturally formed Dubai Creek worked in its favour. Its rulers had to create a destination that everybody would want to come to, and they have achieved that.

 

Expo 2020 Dubai is approaching. How do you think it will it benefit the region?

This event will increase tourism to Dubai and hopefully the emirate will continue to impress people with its diversity of nationalities and entertainment, making it a hub that people have to visit. If you have travelled internationally but haven’t been to Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai, then you haven’t really travelled internationally. That’s essentially what the emirate is trying to project with Expo 2020. It is hoping that the Expo will also make it clear that Dubai is not a one-off success, that it is a very resilient and robust emirate that continues to grow in tourism, in financial services and in its positioning as a transportation hub of importance for the region. Dubai’s geography is a blessing and something that can never be taken away from it.

What is Gulf Craft’s involvement and the company’s aims for being part of it?

The event is going to attract a lot of people and there’s only so much time you can spend shopping, in the desert and walking around the Expo halls. We want to do what we do best, getting people out onto the water and enjoying themselves. We’re still working out the details but we’re 40 percent market shareholders here, so I’m certain there will be a lot of people on our boats.

We’re also a UAE-based manufacturer, waving the flag for Emirati entrepreneurship. Gulf Craft has a role to play in Expo 2020 as a presentation of the success and resilience of Dubai.

What’s next for Gulf Craft in terms of innovations, investment and expansion?

Our ultimate goal is not world domination! It is to create an iconic company that stands out in terms of its track record, ability to think outside the box and redefining what the marine industry is about. We’re trying to make sure that we create a legacy by expanding our product range, geographical expansion and globalisation of the organisation.

We’ve gone from being a market follower, trying to catch up, to a significant market player by 2010, and our next aim is to become a market maker. We hope that we can offer a new take on yachting. It’s never been about selling boats. We’re all about getting people to enjoy 70 percent of the planet, to switch off and enjoy the therapeutic expanse of the water. That is why Gulf Craft was founded; our heritage lies in enjoying the water.

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