Turning the tide on traditional retail, the ship has come in for a new era of luxury as SeaFair sets sail towards a port near you.
Two five-star restaurants, a sky deck, endless deluxe shopping opportunities, gala parties, a champagne & caviar lounge and a hospitality staff of fifty. The latest over-the-top luxury resort in the French Riviera, you ask? Think again. SeaFair, an über-exclusive floating exhibition emporium, is ready to sail, leaving the tenets of traditional commerce in its wake.
The extraordinary brainchild of David and Lee Anne Lester (founders of the Palm Beach International Art & Antique Fair, who sold their successful circuit to the Daily Mail Group in 2001) was a revolutionary concept and appropriately conceived while the couple traveled the world on their 100ft private mega-yacht after retiring (however briefly). Noticing a demand for prestigious, high-end goods at the ports they visited along their journey, the visionary Lesters saw clear through the horizon. Why not build a fleet of incredibly luxurious mega-yachts that would travel to America's most affluent communities, carrying with them the best art, antiques, contemporary design, fine jewelry and high fashion from around the world?
Almost five years after its conception, the first of the fleet — Grand Luxe, a fine art yacht filled with 28 international art and antique dealers — will set sail this June for the multi-billion dollar hedge fund community of Greenwich, Connecticut, before visiting 43 other ports along the Eastern Seaboard on a multi-month tour. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. In 2008, SeaStyle will hit the waters filled with designer shop-in-shops from the world's most luxurious fashion and jewelry brands, bringing Park Avenue and the Place Vendôme to a port near you.
What is your definition of luxury?
Anything that is truly extraordinary in comparison to life's norms. Luxury generates a positive, emotional experience enhancing self worth and importance.
If luxury were an object what would it be?
Anything tangible which allows one to feel truly special in terms of ownership or use.
If luxury were a person who would it be?
An individual with true savior faire who expects and is able to achieve amazingly superlative experiences in life.
If luxury were a moment when would it be?
That rare, brief moment in time when one experiences a sense of wonder, inner pride and self-indulgence.
If luxury were a place where would it be?
Anyplace which generates a sense of superlative, positive sensual experience.
Was the SeaFair concept designed to challenge or complement preexisting art fairs?
We believe SeaFair challenges the formula followed by many art fairs, not the fairs themselves. We've found that there have only been a few art fairs of any consequence in the US: New York, Palm Beach, the Haughton fairs and Miami Basel. That means if you're a gallery you only have a few weeks a year to exhibit and reach potential American customers. We believe that, while SeaFair is revolutionary for collectors, it is an essential formulaic change for many gallery owners. A great comparison with the art fair formula is that they are not unlike live theatre. If you run the same play too long people get bored. Essentially my wife and I and other key members of our staff are the producers of the theater show and we must continue to produce interesting events. What SeaFair offers is an experience for audiences and allows the exposure of artists and new galleries to 44 markets in the US. We are really an event-driven form of retailing.
How will it change the art market to have the fair come to the collectors, rather than the collectors travel to the fair?
Accessibility in all retailing is critical. Demographically, the most important retailers at every level have found that the closer they are to their client, the more business they do. Very few collectors ever wake up in the morning saying, "I think I'll go out and buy a piece of art today." They find themselves in an environment where fine things are shown and they fall in love with these things that they understand and admire, and then buy them. The more you can bring extraordinary things to the affluent public and offer them the opportunity to fall in love, and to acquire them, whether that be fashion, jewelry or art, the better it is. If these things aren't brought, they just don't make the purchases, and the opportunity disappears, it doesn't' necessarily go to a competitor.
You have said that in order to keep the project interesting, participating galleries will vary. How will the exhibitions be organized?
The blend of exhibiting galleries is going to change from month to month. Sometimes the galleries on board the Grand Luxe will be art and antiques, while some ports will view contemporary art. Other stops will feature art and design and finally other cities will experience a blend of all the above.
In terms of organization and events planning, how does SeaFair differ from traditional commercial environments?
We're the only art fair in the world that is an 'invitation only event'. We offer all the luxuries of a world-class resort while maintaining the quality and small numbers that are attractive to the elite art collectors. The enormous masses currently found at popular art fairs detract from receiving the one-on-one attention that most high-end art collectors need and gallery owners want to give. Furthermore, SeaFair is attractive because we are able to know who the potential collectors will be before they arrive at the fair each day. Because we're a US commercial vessel, we're controlled by the Department of Homeland Security and need to issue boarding passes and check for positive ID. As a result we can say to our exhibitors, every day, 'this is how many people are coming' and our collectors know that their opinions and needs are the utmost important to us. We are willing to sacrifice numbers in exchange for quality of service to these elite collectors.
How is the concept appealing to brands from an economic standpoint?
Since our stops are mostly seasonal areas you have to be there at the right time. SeaFair goes into places with 2-4 month seasons where the communities don't have a bricks-and-mortar environment because it's not economical for brands to be there in the off season. The business model that we're trying to establish is a pop-up retail system. This practice is not about overwhelming the market. What we do is provide an extraordinary temporary venue for purveyors of luxury goods to reach clients in an exclusive environment at the right time. It changes the whole luxury retail paradigm.
Boutique design is a very important communication and commercial factor for name brands. How do you intend to recreate the brand atmosphere on board?
We're going to allow the brands to hire their own designers and give the brands the latitude to create their own space. Art dealers tend to have smaller-scale operations, both in terms of space and staff. Therefore, a month or two at a time is better for them. However, on SeaStyle, we expect that people will have full-time, year-round stores on board because the fashion industry has the staff and budget to do so.
Do you intend to eventually move your ships internationally?
No. One of the reasons why the US location works is that we're working in a very protected marine environment. We're not going to be in the open seas ever. Also, in the US you don't have the problem of multiple tariff zones and you don't have different duties for different states. If you go to Europe, each country has a different custom environment so it would be difficult to have to grapple with those changes every week. Plus the kind of ship you need is very different. We have a lot of people who say they'd like to be on the summer ship in the French Riviera, or Italian Riviera, but that means that you need a bigger ship with a deeper draft. That's great but where does it go in the fall and winter?
Do you think that this formula can be applied to other forms of transportation such as luxury RVs and private jets?
We really thought about all the different venues that we could offer for this art fair experience. At first we believed, anything that creates a venue for the luxury retailer that's exciting and different could be an opportunity. If you could fly into the same communities on a 747; invite people on board, it would be phenomenal. However, upon researching and talking to potential customers we realized the problem is that most of these communities don't have adequately sized airports. Would it be great if you could do it? Absolutely! Do I think you can develop a luxury RV to accommodate hundreds of billionaires? No. That's what makes the SeaFair project so unique. However, we really wanted to be able to reach the art collectors inland. We're exploring the concept of doing a luxury train and building special train cars. That makes sense because you could have an unlimited number of train cars allowing for a reasonable number of clientele to board and to be served.
What in your opinion is the most appealing aspect of shopping on a boat?
People like boats. Look at the explosion of the cruise industry in itself. Water is attractive. All things being equal people would rather be around water. The most expensive real estate in the world is always water-front. It's a psychological thing. The only other comparable pockets of wealth that you have in the US are ski resorts, again, only very seasonal markets.
Was the yacht designed inspired by any preexisting ship?
No, there has never been anything like SeaFair's Grand Luxe yacht. In fact, the yacht we're using is a third generation design of the original yacht design. We quickly realized that the initial design commissioned was functional but a really ungainly vessel. The second design was better, but not appealing to either dealers or financiers. We took the second version to Luiz de Basto, an accomplished international yacht designer, who was able to perfectly combine functionality and aesthetics. De Basto was able to create an 'envelope' for the space without sacrificing our layout and arrangement plans which are ideal for the type of events that we will host. The visual effect is stunning to the participants and the collectors but it still maintains vital aspects of an art fair venue. For example, the art yacht doesn't have windows in it, due to the damaging effects sunlight has on art, but SeaStyle has many windows, much like boutiques on Park Avenue and the Place Vendôme.
SeaFair Inaugural Tour Schedule: Summer 2007
Long Island Sound (4 weeks)
International Fine Art
Greenwich: June 5-10
Port Washington/Oyster Bay: June 13-17
S.Norwalk/Westport: June 20-24
The Hamptons: June27-Jul 1
New England Islands (4 weeks)
International Fine Art
Newport: Jul 4-8
Martha's Vineyard: Jul 11-15
Nantucket: Jul 18-22
Cape Cod: Jul 25-29
Maine Coast (4 weeks)
Modern & Contemporary Paintings
Portland: Aug 2-5
Camden: Aug 8-12
NE Harbor/Bar Harbor: Aug 15-19
Portsmouth: Aug 22-26
For the complete 2007-2008 schedule, please see www.expoships.com