Back in 2020, billionaire superyacht owners like business mogul and producer David Geffen were roundly scorned for hiding away with their full-service crew while the rest of the world was in lockdown. (Geffen’s yacht, which he bought from Oracle founder Larry Ellison, cost a reported $590 million; Jeff Bezos was photographed aboard it in 2019.) While we’re facing a markedly different world today than we were then, it was the beginning of a shift in how owners spend their time on board—especially during the workday.
The pandemic brought a “real explosion” in yachting interest when the ultra-wealthy used them as an escape, Richard Lambert, head of sales at Burgess Yachts, tells Fortune. And with the remote work boom freeing them from mandatory in-person meetings, that interest hasn’t waned. The mega-rich are spending more time on their mega-yachts than ever, Lambert says, but “these are self-made successful business people who need to be able to turn around and actually run their businesses.”
As a result, yachting has shifted from being purely leisure time to a space for everything, including Zoom calls. “We have clients spend up to four months a year on board and be able to actually effectively run their businesses,” Lambert says.
Of course, it’s not like a business meeting was never conducted or an email never sent aboard a yacht before the pandemic. But part of sailing the high seas is being off the grid. In the past, it was “very difficult” to work onboard, Lambert says, because the communications technology infrastructure wasn’t “anywhere near as good as what we’ve got today.” The vastly improved internet access owners have come to enjoy, for example, used to be extremely expensive and hard to come by (though, Lambert points out, cost is secondary for yacht owners to reliability and speed).
Now, a “really big part” of spending extended time onboard is the ability to stay in touch with your business on land, whether that be via Zoom call or quickly sending off emails. The end result, Lambert said, “is people actually using their yachts more than they would have done historically.”
The new design standard
As a result of the change, Lambert and his team have seen a slight shift in yacht design to accommodate more day-to-day needs. Those include the needs of younger patrons who may have a newfound latitude to work from the seas—an option previously mostly available to older, more credentialed workers with ample flexibility.
The work-from-yacht trend has accelerated quickly, Steve Gorman, a sales manager for maritime communication tech and services company KVH Superyacht Group, wrote for superyacht trade publication Dockwalk, and not just for the superyacht owners. Their young kids onboard needed connectivity for Zoom school during lockdown—and now everyone has simply gotten used to having it.
Because more owners are spending more time on board with their families, design extends beyond the office to focusing on catering to all generations. “It’s not necessarily about remote working, but I think we’ve seen a slight shift in design that makes it more appealing [from] a multigenerational standpoint,” Lambert says. “A lot of the design is built around access to the water. Maybe younger generations are in the water doing water sports, [and] the area is very accommodating to the slightly older generations—maybe retired grandparents or the owners themselves.”
And for the working owners, many new superyachts are outfitted with full home offices, representing an evolution in yacht architecture. First-time yacht buyers who entered the market during the pandemic are especially concerned with functionality over “Instagrammability,” seeking both Zoom rooms and space for leisure and exercise in equal measure, Kate Lardy reported for Boat International. A space that is amenable to the needs of an extended stay is becoming more important than conspicuous luxury.
Working for the fun of it
As for why the yacht—the pinnacle of leisure—appeals as a workplace to someone who can certainly afford to not work, Lambert insists that many bosses don’t know how to log off, or maybe don’t want to.
“With a lot of these owners, the work is part of their DNA and their passion,” he says. “A lot of them are very successful business people that have built up their businesses over many, many years. There’s a sense of pride, and it’s part of who they are. It’s not just viewed as work, it’s part of their raison d’etre.”
That these floating behemoths have become a sort of remote office for the elite might explain why yachts are having a heyday. As the New Yorker reported from Palm Beach last year, the number of billionaires in the U.S. has grown from 66 in 1990 to over 700, and in tandem, the number of yachts measuring over 250 feet long—the length at which a superyacht is typically defined as a megayacht—has grown from single digits to over 170.
But it’s not all smooth sailing; the percentage of billionaires who own yachts has been on the decline since 2017. That may have something to do with Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, at least according to a research note from Berenberg Bank, which found that luxury yacht manufacturers have seen a “lower level of interest from the financial community, linked to the perception that yachting is significantly exposed to Russian clientele.” Still though, according to the latest Global Order Book, 17.5% more superyachts were in ongoing production in 2022 versus a year earlier.
And, the work-from-yacht craze looks less like a trend and more a permanent state of affairs, especially with the emergence of generative A.I. Lambert says. “It’s a technological revolution; we’re going to see the way we work change massively over the next 10 to 20 years. It’s an ever-evolving, and dynamic situation, but it’s here to stay.”