Standing at around 188 centimetres tall, when Tino Prosenik, CEO of the International Charter Expo, smiles down broadly at you, the expression covers the whole of his face and feels somewhat likes the sun's rays radiating upon you. This, despite the at times sombre tone of his words regarding the current and future state of sailing in Croatia, which has the world's largest charter boat industry.
'The industry has been doing well for ten years,' he says, 'but this is the second year of decline. The full season is starting to show gaps. July and August were never an issue before now. But because it's the most expensive time and it's known discounts will become available outside of these times, it has become the weakest link.'
Prosenik never looks less than satisfied, even as he goes into greater detail about the downturn, its causes and the frustrating absence of measures currently in place to halt the decline. Perhaps his optimism stems from the fact that we are on the eve of his International Charter Expo, the world's largest business to business event within the sphere of charter sailing? Perhaps. But as a man who relishes new challenges, as evidenced throughout his career, you get the feeling that at this, his seventh such event, he is firmly within his comfort zone. Prosenik's optimism is surely then also a result of the fact that, despite a gloomy forecast and certain frustrations, he can see only positive outcomes for the future of charter boat sailing in Croatia.
Prosenik has done almost every job you could imagine connected to sailing in Croatia. He started washing boats, was a base manager (a technical position, mostly connected to maintenance), then a skipper for the best part of 20 years. He then went on to run charter companies, known in the industry as fleet operators, before moving up to run charter agencies, the mediators who connect the end consumers with the boats. With such experience, there is little about the industry that he doesn't know. That makes him perfectly placed to not only run his current expo, at which 120 fleet operators, 140 charter agencies, 50 suppliers and associated sectors such as the media and insurance, will meet, but also to have imagined it in the first place.
'At some point I took a step back,' he recalls. 'I decided I wanted to do my own thing and started filling gaps in the industry infrastructure.'
'As a skipper and in the charter companies, I'd seen an absence of a booking system for skippers. So, I first built the largest skipper database in the world, with over 500 skippers, with real-time booking. This was 2009, so real-time booking was kinda technical back then. Then in 2013 we wanted to bridge the business relationships between the charter companies and the mediators. We realised they had no place in the world to meet. At boat shows, people were always busy selling to clients.'
Since founding ICE, Prosenik's success with the event has lead to him being invited to organise a similar summit in Greece for their charter industry, which stands in second place behind Croatia's. He was also asked to run the Mediterranean corner of the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis, with the intention that success in such an effort could easily counteract the problems currently facing the industry in Croatia.
'We are simply not marketing in areas like the Americas, and if those people were coming here, they would stabilise the market,' he says. '17.4 million Americans flew to Europe last year, yet Americans make up less than 1.2% of the tourists coming to Croatia. An even smaller percentage of that come for the sailing.'
Prosenik speaks simply and matter-of-factly about the causes of the current plateauing of revenue in the industry. He pins the problems on the shortsightedness of the industry offering last minute discounts. They have become so commonplace that much of the customer base have changed their booking habits in expectation of such cut price deals. This has in turn lead to a decline in early booking which only perpetuates the situation. It is a bizarre practice of self harm, and the exact opposite of how airlines operate (where those who book early are eligible for the greatest discounts), but with such a relatively short season in which to earn, in what is an extremely competitive market, it is perhaps understandable for the industry to want to rush and fill as many empty places as appear.
'We checked the availability of new sailboats over two weeks in July this year,' says Prosenik. '163 were still available, missing the traditional period of peak income. A boat like that might make you 6000 euros per week in the peak time, but only 2000 euros in the off season. I think this issue of discounts and how to halt the decline are going to be a key talking point at this year's event.'
Whether actions through marketing, innovation or improved offers and services manage to halt the current decline or not, Prosenik sees nothing but a bright future for the charter boat sailing industry in Croatia. This is largely due to the fact that whatever hits it takes, they will not be borne by operators, but by individual boat owners, who can absorb a decrease in returns on their investments better than any other section of the industry's players. The danger though is that, if the downturn persists, buying boats as an investment opportunity may decline or cease.
'But even that is a beautiful thing,' laughs Prosenik, 'because we currently have more boats than we can use. And people will then try to fix the situation, which means an increase in the level of service, money put into improving older boats, and marketing.'
'It's a relatively small industry,' says Prosenik, who also counts the recent entry of high quality Chinese suppliers to the European market as another reason to be cheerful (American tarrifs be thanked). 'We have 4000 boats to fill over 20 weeks. That's maybe an average of 20, 000 rooms. It's not like having millions of rooms to fill, like they have on land. So, there's really no place for pessimism in our industry.'
International Charter Expo 2018 takes place between 2nd and 4th November at Arena Zagreb