Looking for a fishing charter online is a little like wading into the early days of the Internet.
Most boat captains’ websites are clunky, if they have one at all. Few of them have an online booking option or a calendar of when they’re available. And because fishermen spend their days on the water, calling for a reservation is bound to become a back-and-forth game of phone tag.
That’s the way Vickie Waller sees it, anyhow.
Her husband has been taking charters for a decade or so, and for a few years, she ran a business managing captains’ calendars and fielding calls from customers. She watched as customers raised their expectations: They want an easier booking process, and they want to make plans hours in advance, not days or weeks early.
So Waller set out to build one. Her startup, EZ Waves, aims to modernize boat charters, giving captains a better way to market and manage their services by bringing online the process of reserving a trip. And she promises customers that they can get on the water with three hours’ notice.
“Captains think they’re competing against each other,” Waller says, “but really they’re competing against other activities that are just more easily accessible.”
The disrupting force of the technology sector has long since swept through most of the travel and hospitality industry. Tourists book plane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars online by second nature. Smartphone apps have made it easier than ever to get a ride, a place to stay or a dinner reservation on a moment’s notice.
But that rush of innovation was slow to arrive in the business of providing things to do. Booking an activity — something like a carriage ride, a ghost tour or, say, a fishing trip — has typically required a time-consuming process of flipping through several websites rather than searching one marketplace that pulls them all together.
While tech companies are starting to go about trying to create one, boat charters are already well behind. Online booking options are scant, and most working captains only have a bare-bones website, if they even have that.
The charter boat business is relatively small — an industry trade group estimates that there are only around 20,000 boats on the water — but it brings in good money. In the U.S., boat charters pulled in $1.6 billion in 2012, according to the most recent census data.
EZ Waves is hoping to take a cut of those sales by charging a commission on bookings and offering other services like building a website or handling online advertising. The company charges customers a 4 percent fee when they book, and it takes a commission of 4 percent to 16 percent from captains.
The company says it plans to double its staff of 19 by the end of the year, and Waller says it’s on track to bring in $3 million of revenue in 2016. She expects it will turn a profit early next year.
Investors are betting that it will. EZ Waves has raised about $4.2 million in investments over the past year, Waller says, from groups like the S.C. Research Authority and the St. Louis-based Greenway Family Office, which has provided the bulk of the funding. Terms of those transactions have not been disclosed.
The company’s concept — booking boating trips — is fairly simple, but the model has been complicated at times. Its challenges seem basic, but Waller says they’ve been tricky enough to deter much competition.
“There’s a reason people are not doing boating,” Waller said. “It’s not easy.”
EZ Waves has dealt with things like how when captains list different kinds of trips, its scheduling software has to account for all manner of factors — say, how it takes longer to clean up a boat after an offshore fishing trip than it does after a harbor tour.
It’s had to figure out how to handle foreign currencies after deciding to dip its toes into international markets like Costa Rica and Norway.
And it had to find new ways to give customers directions after it realized most boat landings don’t have street addresses. Most of them, after all, don’t receive mail.
But the company’s most vexing challenge may be its target audience.
Many boat operators have a way of doing things: managing their schedules on paper, taking cash instead of credit cards, and relying on word of mouth in lieu of marketing. Even Waller’s husband is reluctant to use a smartphone, she acknowledges.
So while EZ Waves tries to lure captains to its platform by partnering with the schools they attend and the insurance companies they patronize, its biggest competition may be captains sticking with the status quo.
“It’s the most low-tech group there is,” said Tim Hayden, managing partner at St. Louis-based Stadia Ventures, which invested in the company as part of an accelerator program it runs. “They picked a very hard group to try converting over, but if you can stay focused enough and you can convert that group, you now have an easier time for the next group.”
The company’s hope is that even the most tech-averse captains will see the value in taking their businesses online, in marketing their businesses more broadly and managing their calendars digitally.
If all goes to plan, its path will be like the GPS devices and fish finders found on most boats, said Matt Galvin, vice president for business development: Operators will see the value and shake their old ways in favor of more advanced options.
The tech sector has been fairly slow to reach the boating world, but competition for the market is starting to pick up.
Startups like Boatbound, GetMyBoat and Incrediblue have amassed millions of dollars in investments, hoping to do for yachting and sailing what Airbnb did for short-term home stays. Even Uber, the ride-hailing giant, has toyed with bringing water taxis onto its platform. Most services offer go-it-alone boat rentals, but some also give customers the option of chartering a trip with a captain.
“As the saying goes, a boat owner’s happiest days are when he buys his boat, and when he sells his boat,” Piper Jaffray wrote in a report last year, dubbing boats an “emerging” part of the sharing economy. It said that peer-to-peer “boat rental companies are trying to change that with a model identical to a car rental company, but specializing in boats.”
That’s part of why EZ Waves is leaving itself open to markets outside boat charters — to manage booking for other aquatic sports and tourist activities. Boat charters alone would be enough to sustain a good business, said Hayden, the St. Louis investor, but the market has connections to plenty of others.
“They’re really driving out even further than that,” Hayden said. “This is a toe in the door for other opportunities that have already presented themselves.”
Working with boat owners, for example, offers an easy segue into working with marinas and others. The company recently inked a deal to manage class schedules for U.S. Sailing schools, and it’s working on ways to expand to markets like campground operators, safaris and hunting guides — low-tech businesses that might benefit from a new way of doing business.
“Captains are the hardest model,” said Lisa Pansing, the company’s chief operating officer. “So by doing that, we can actually do all the other things very easily.”
Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703.