Online boat-rental companies that claim to be the “Airbnb of boats” have entered Seattle’s booming lake-based recreation economy, and are shaking things up.
Boatsetter, which held its official launch in Seattle this summer (though it’s been servicing the area for several years), and its competitor, GetMyBoat, are hoping to ride the wave of success enjoyed by companies such as Airbnb, Uber and Lyft that operate on the concept that you don’t have to own something if you can easily rent it whenever you need it.
The two apps work in similar fashion: A user chooses their desired boating location, specifies the size of their party, whether or not they need a captain and how long they want to rent the boat for. Most boats are available for half-days or offer per-hour options. Can you bring pets? Wear shoes? Drink red wine? That depends. The boats are privately owned, and passengers must abide by the owners’ rules.
Sure, people have been renting out boats since long before these apps were developed, but the difference, Boatsetter and GetMyBoat say, is that their mobile-based app platform makes boat rental more convenient for the consumer by consolidating everything into one simple-to-use interface.
But will hinging on the “why own if you can rent?” model ensure that Boatsetter and GetMyBoat see the kind of success Airbnb, Uber and Lyft have had?
It’s not a guarantee. While Boatsetter and GetMyBoat may advertise themselves as “Airbnb for boats,” the two business models may not be replicative, says Apurva Jain, associate professor of operations management at the University of Washington.
“My sense is that these websites are just trying to capture the demand that is now going to the traditional rentals,” said Jain. “I am not yet seeing a good case that they are ready to try for the potentially new, untapped demand.”
Basically, Jain argues, the value for Uber and Airbnb was so strong that even if you had some early hesitation — like with the safety of getting into a stranger’s car — you gave in. Boat chartering doesn’t have the same appeal.
“Unlike car rides or a place to stay, which are necessities, a boat outing is a discretionary choice,” said Jain. “New customers will need a stronger incentive to get over their early hesitation.”
However the platform does not just cater to customers; boat owners and captains are encouraged to advertise their services on these sites to offset the costs of boating.
“My boat is 86 years old, so it’s in the midst of restoration right now,” said Dorin Ellis, a captain who started listing his boat on GetMyBoat and Boatsetter two years ago, but has also owned his boat-charter business, Seattle Boat Cruise, since 2018. “It’s a good way to offset the cost of (my) boat. The cost of owning a boat is seen in the public eye as a ‘bougie’ affluent thing. Everything costs money and boats are one of those things.”
But some local boat captains are skeptical. Some boat owners who’ve chartered their boats long before these app-based boat-rental companies came on the scene have been critical of the newcomers — these captains have raised the issue that because these platforms are so easy to use, they frequently attract inexperienced boaters who do not always abide by maritime regulations.
“These companies planned on being the Airbnb of boat rentals. It’s a really attractive idea, but what people need to do when they’re renting their boats is be familiar with the way of the water and make that explicit with the renters,” said Dylan McCoy, owner of Canderé Cruising. “If you’re going to do this, be respectful of your fellow boaters. And make sure people know what they’re doing.”
Boatsetter says safety is a chief concern and that it meets with the Coast Guard four to five times a year. Chris Fox, Boatsetter’s chief operating officer, added that as of Sept. 6, he is “not aware of any violations in terms of Coast Guard regulations, city regulations or regulations in Washington.”
Despite the concerns, some customers who’ve used the new boat-rental apps say they offer an easy, somewhat affordable option to see Seattle from the water.
“When we moved out (to Seattle) we didn’t know a lot of people and the ones that we did know did not have a boat so we were looking for different options. We didn’t want to buy anything just because we didn’t think we’d use it frequently enough,” said Megan Pukala, a 33-year-old Seattleite and Boatsetter customer. “I think Boatsetter is a nice in-between for people that just want to go out a few different times, but (do) not necessarily want to commit to either buying or renting a boat year-round.”
And Boatsetter seems to think its easy-to-use platform will woo Seattle’s hard-core water-lovers and make boating more accessible to women.
The average age of a boat owner is 58 and aging, and only 12% of boat users are women, said Jackie Baumgarten, CEO and founder of Boatsetter. Plus, boats are expensive and difficult to maintain, which inherently excludes a wide percentage of people.
“We are focused on breaking down barriers,” said Baumgarten, who claims Boatsetter is already doing this. According to Baumgarten, 79% of Boatsetter users are under age 45, 54% are under 35 and 36% are women. The company hopes to keep this trend going.
These boat-rental companies hope to make their vessels more accessible to women by attempting to break down economic and physical barriers to boating. If you don’t own a boat, Boatsetter wants you to rent one from your smartphone. If you don’t know how to pilot a boat, Boatsetter will get you a captain. The company believes everyone can be out on the water — for about $300 for half a day.
“It’s all about creating a product that’s easy to use,” said Baumgarten. “Our mission as a company is to be the global destination for people to have amazing experiences in the water — anyone, anywhere.”