We sit down with one of London's most successful property developers, Khalid Affara, to hear all about The Wellesley superyachts.Managing Director of Arab Investments, the Yemeni-born businessman has spent the vast majority of his life in England, with the slight Scottish lilt of his broad London-accent the only indication of a childhood spent in Edinburgh. Entering the property business in the early 90s, today the company’s portfolio spans multiple high end commercial and residential projects, including Regent Park House on one of the most highly sought after streets of London, the Mall of Berlin in Germany’s capital city, and the boutique hotel, The Wellesley.
His status as superyacht owner comes as a direct result of this success, but not in the way that you would immediately think. Whereas most yacht owners have rewarded themselves and their families for years of hard work with the purchase of their new toy, Affara is well… creating years more hard work, with both The Wellesley yachts (The 32.4-metre Falcon Yachts-built The Wellesley II and the 56-metre Oceanco-built The Wellesley) being very much business-only additions to Affara’s expansive list of assets.
Both yachts are offered for charter as an extension of the luxury brand of The Wellesley hotel and, as Affara told me as we sat on the cigar terrace of his boutique hotel in the heart of London, there was never any other plan: “Always - it was always business,” he says. “That’s one of the things that is a problem in the yachting industry. Chartering is secondary to owning. People buy a boat, some people try to charter, but the owner is always the owner. With us, it’s all about the customer. When we actually set up the idea of what the boat was going to be like, it’s always heavily connected with what we know charter clients want.”
The idea behind the business model is not rocket science: offer your loyal clients the opportunity to enjoy every element of your brand in beautiful settings around the world and generate even more loyalty and even more custom to your brand. Speaking of the development, Affara says: “The first of The Wellesley yachts did quite well on the charter market, but we realised that with the smaller yachts it’s not enough to sustain a business. So we had an opportunity with the second The Wellesley. Yachting is all opportunity. You need a great price, invest some money on it to make it a great product, then customers will understand the greatness of the product and be willing to spend a substantial amount of money to charter it. There is a business model that actually makes money. If you buy the boat sensibly and add value to it, you can actually make a profit from it.” But it begs to question: why is nobody else doing it?
For a start, it’s not the easiest operation to execute in the world. The risk of damaging a sterling brand reputation with a bad charter experience cannot be underestimated and then of course the vast financial aspects involved with this kind of ownership: the initial hefty investment, the development and execution of the refit project to ensure the standards of the existing brand are more than met, and then, of course, the continuous running costs.
But as Affara says, these yachts are a business, not a lavish luxury in his personal life, and, with the right business model, are perfectly profitable additions to The Wellesley brand. With this mindset from the very beginning, Affara and his team successfully transformed two vessels into opulent floating palaces reminiscent of the 1920s - a theme that came about from the history of The Wellesley hotel itself and Affara’s personal passion for cigar smoking and the excesses of the period. “The building of The Wellesley hotel was built in 1906 as an old Tube station, then in the 1920s they built the extension upwards. So we thought, 1920s it was built, we smoke cigars, we drink cocktails, we have fine cognacs; all the excesses that everybody says you shouldn’t have. That was the 1920s for me, and that’s what we’ve done here.”
Getting each boat to the same quality and ambiance as the hotel required a complete rebuild of each yacht - as cool and collected as Affara was as he looked back upon this period, the second refit of the larger of the two vessels was certainly no easy feat. “It started off as a refit - it was a pretty extensive refit already - but then it grew. I enjoyed the whole project though,” he continues as he talks of his heavy involvement. “They thought I was crazy, I would fly all the way to Turkey for three or four days so that I could be hands-on with the build. You’re working with so many different skills, you’ve got to get involved. If you don’t you may well end up with a product that you’re not completely happy with. My business is to build things, and I very much enjoy the building process. That’s what we do, and during my time on the boat things were changed which ultimately contribute today to its success and how much people like it, which is satisfying.”
The business-only philosophy of The Wellesley yachts is also demonstrated by the fact that in addition to the Yacht Manager, David Westwood, Co-Director of Thompson Westwood White, it is Affara himself who attends countless charter shows around the world, meeting yacht agents personally in order to personally establish great relationships that will add to not only the number of bookings in which either yacht receives throughout the year, but to ensure that the yacht agents The Wellesley chooses to work with are worth their time - both in terms of bringing clients to the yachts, and guaranteeing that each and every client’s needs are fully met: “I attend the charter shows for at least two or three days. I’m on the boat, the agents get to know me which I think is important. The agents usually do not meet the owner of the boat, but it’s very important to have that rapport with the agents, and they get some comfort in that the boat is being run as a professional organisation. We try to hammer that home and let people know that we’re willing to accommodate their clients. Simple things like if someone needed a cabin converting from twin to double… We’re willing to rip it out and install a double. That comes from the boat very much being a business. There’s two different directions with charters: one is a business, customer orientated, and the other is that this is my boat and I want to reduce my costs. With us, our priority is the customer.”
So with two The Wellesley yachts currently enjoying the summer season of the Mediterranean, what’s next for Affara and his business with superyachts? “There’s no set plan. We hadn’t finished the first one before we were looking for the second! You’ve got to find the perfect situation and the best price. I can’t tell you about the one we’re looking at right now… but there is one!” It seems that there will be a fleet of The Wellesley’s in all their art-deco, glory in the foreseeable future.
Hear more about The Wellesley on @TheYachtGuy’s Instagram feed this week. @TheYachtGuy will be hosting a fascinating seminar on Social Media and the SuperYacht Industry on Saturday 3rd June at SuperYacht Gallery London. Buy your tickets here to avoid disappointment.
SuperYacht Times - The State of Yachting 2020
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