The past year has been a wild ride for SeaDream Yacht Club’s Bob Lepisto. Last year, the Club, located in Islamorada, Florida, was purchased by Lepisto, who was appointed its new President. And while his new role is anything but the average, Lepisto’s position at SeaDream is exactly what he was looking for.
It’s hard to believe that just over a decade ago, Bob Lepisto’s wife, Nancy Lepisto, started the design firm SeaDream , which operates out of their Long Island home. That decade has been a hectic one for Bob as well as for SeaDream as the company has grown from a one-woman firm with a handful of clients, to a full-service design firm with a staff of 25 employees and a client base of over 500.
On Sept. 1, SeaDream Yacht Club celebrated its 20th anniversary, a significant milestone given that the premium line was founded only 10 days before the terrible 9/11 attacks and the ensuing travel ban. Bob Lepisto, president of the two-ship boutique line, was interviewed about his recollections of the debut, how the young business managed to survive, and what lessons were gained that might be applicable to today’s pandemic shutdowns.
(TP): What are your memories of SeaDream’s formal debut on September 1, 2001?
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Bob Lepisto (BL): I was vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for SeaDream at the time of 9/11. Previously, I was in charge of sales at Seabourn, which included the Seabourn Goddess I and II in its fleet. Because we had far larger ships to deal with under Seabourn, those two tiny boats received very little attention. Those two were, in fact, near the bottom of every spreadsheet. They get 100 percent concentration once they become SeaDream I and II.
My SeaDream recollection dates back to the development stages in July and August 2001, when the company was still in the planning stages. We didn’t want to create simply another luxury cruise company; there were enough of them already. We were ecstatic to be able to provide a really unique yachting experience. That’s why we chose the name SeaDream Yacht Club, as well as the motto “It’s Yachting, Not Cruising.”
Our aim was to create a relaxed but beautiful yachting experience that made each visitor feel like they were on their own private boat. Focused on providing exceptional service and food, as well as the pleasure of traveling with like-minded people. We have remained loyal to that goal throughout our 20-year existence. It is what has propelled our extraordinary growth throughout the years and continues to do so now.
It resonates truer now than it did when we started SeaDream 20 years ago, for all the wrong reasons (the COVID epidemic). In this climate, visitors like the concept of having no more than 112 people, outdoor dining, the chance to sleep beneath the stars, and excellent watersports.
On a SeaDream mega-yacht, sleeping beneath the stars on a Balinese bed. (Photo courtesy of SeaDream)
TP: What occurred after September 11th? Did your company come to a stop right away?
BL: Yes, after 9/11, we had to shut down operations for a while since airplanes were not flying and no one felt comfortable going. That, we believed at the time, would be the most catastrophic catastrophe for the tourism business. In hindsight, as tragic as 9/11 was, the post-9/11 recovery in travel was much faster and more predictable than the present epidemic. After 9/11, airlines quickly restored service and routes, far faster than we saw with the COVID epidemic. It was simpler to predict a business recovery. As a young business, we survived 9/11, and we will survive this current epidemic as well.
SeaDream Yacht Club’s beach party is called Champagne & Caviar Splash. (Photo via SeaDream Yacht Club)
TP: What did SeaDream do to remain afloat amid the post-9/11 tourism slump?
BL: We maintained our workers on standby, waiting for travel to pick up. They worked on both boats while we kept an eye on the situation and waited for the public to be ready to fly and travel once again. We maintained touch with travel advisers, informing them about the new yachting business, SeaDream Yacht Club. We kept our emphasis on providing our visitors with a sailing experience. It’s important to be positive and hopeful about what we can control during difficult circumstances, and to prepare appropriately.
That’s what we did on September 11th, and it’s what we’re doing now as we go ahead in the world of COVID-19. We know that there is a higher need than ever for our loyal passengers to return to the sea, and for our loyal travel advisers to confidently recommend and sell future trips. As a consequence of the lessons gained and procedures put in place as a result of the present reality we live in, our whole industry will be stronger and safer in the future. The demand for 2022 is very high.
On one of SeaDream’s two 112-guest mega-yachts, a cabin. (SeaDream Yacht Club photo)
TP: It’s clear that SeaDream has survived and flourished over the last two decades. What makes this epidemic different from the aftermath of 9/11?
BL: Even during that period, our performance was aided by the fact that we were a new boutique business with little brand recognition. It’s “onward into the unknown” with COVID in many respects. We all assumed and hoped that after the first COVID spike, everything would be back to normal. Unfortunately, such was not the case with the new variations, which resulted in greater infection rates and lower vaccination rates than anticipated. Fortunately, we are now heading in the right way, with a greater emphasis on the need of vaccines for travel and booster injections being available to improve protection.
TP: Isn’t it true that SeaDream got up and running very fast last summer?
BL: Many people are unaware that during the summer of 2020, we ran 21 COVID-free trips in Norway, especially for Norwegian visitors. At the time, I think we were the only cruise company operating. We were able to rapidly adapt itinerary plans to the present restricted climate since we are a tiny, privately held business with limited capacity. Our Norwegian visitors appreciated having SeaDream accessible at a time when they couldn’t leave the country.
Fortunately, SeaDream is enjoying a great summer season in 2021. We began operating in the Mediterranean on June 26 this year. From the Norwegian Fjords and Bordeaux on SeaDream I to the Greek Isles, Croatia, and Italy on SeaDream 2, we’ve already completed 17 incredible journeys.
On SeaDream’s twin mega-yachts, the alfresco Top of the Yacht Bar. (SeaDream Yacht Club photo)
TP: What protocols are you currently using?
BL: Our visitors’ and crew’s safety and well-being will always be our first concern. All staff and visitors must be immunized, according to SeaDream. COVID is clearly not going away anytime soon, and we must all prepare for the possibility that it could become the new standard, necessitating rigorous procedures and regulations to guarantee visitor safety today and in the future.
TP: What advise would you offer today to travel agents?
BL: My advice to all travel advisers is to contact their customers and urge them to make reservations for 2022 and 2023 as soon as possible. Things are just going to get better in the coming weeks and months. Because of the high demand for vacations, individuals who do not book early may discover limited availability during their desired trip dates.