Paul Benson may live in Park City, Utah, but he’s a Maryland man at heart, and opening a high-end boat brokerage in Annapolis represents a homecoming, of sorts.
Born in Towson and raised in Bel Air, Benson now travels the world running much of the North American business for Engel & Völkers, the high-end German luxury real estate brand. Growing up in Harford County in a family that enjoyed sailing, going to Annapolis was a big deal. He viewed the capital city as, “a date night town.”
“It’s a romantic, perfect town,” he said. “It’s a premium destination.”
“Premium destination” is the operative phrase in Benson’s primary line of work selling luxury homes. Although Engel & Völkers has long sold yachts in Europe, the company’s North American holdings were limited to real estate, until Benson tried to buy a boat himself.
“It was like trying to buy a used car in the 1970s,” he said of the experience. Sellers expected payment up front, but boats wouldn’t show up for six months, often in much worse shape than the pictures.
“It can show up in a completely different color combination, different equipment. And nobody’s going to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Benson said. Yet the amount of cash changing hands is exponentially higher than trying to buy a used Ford Pinto in 1978.
Benson thought he could do better. In November 2019, he opened E & V’s first North American Yachting store in Newport Beach, California. Annapolis is the company’s fourth location to open in less than three years, and the most prestigious in Benson’s book.
“Annapolis is one of the top marinas in the United States,” Benson said.
Although fewer than 10 E & V Yachting employees are currently working out of a West Street office, where the company’s real estate arm already has a presence, Benson hopes that within a year, he’ll employee 30 to 35 people who offer a complete boating experience to Annapolis visitors and residents.
“The idea is, whatever your boating needs are in the Chesapeake Bay region , we have a team member who can do that for you,” he said.
In addition to selling yachts, Engel & Völkers will offer training, maintenance and charter management. “That’s where the bricks and mortar come in,” Benson said. “We offer the operation side of it.”
There’s a German word for this sort of comprehensive service: Gestalt, the concept that an organized whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, Benson’s official title is CEO of Engel & Völkers’ Gestalt Group.
The Morning Sun
In Annapolis, Engel & Völkers 210 current real estate listings includes dozens of million-dollar homes. Many buyers moving to the area are also going to want boats, Benson said, making yacht sales and high-end real estate a natural partnership.
“It’s a market that got more popular than ever during COVID for various reasons,” Benson said. “A lot of the people that made a lot of money in the cities left the cities. They really want the lifestyle now of having the summer home, the winter home and the boat.”
Although Engel & Völkers does sell “super yachts” that show up on popular apps like Vesselfinder and Boat Watch, Benson says not to expect an influx of luxury liners like those formerly owned by Russian oligarchs in Annapolis.
“We are more focused on your everyday sailboats,” he said. “Our bread and butter would be boats that a couple could handle by themselves without a crew.”
New boat options will include McConaghy Multihulls, an Australian catamaran company not available through other local dealers. Benson said. Engel & Völkers plans to lease several slips for model boats, which means, “clients can touch and feel [the vessels] more comfortably, on their own schedule and not at a big boat show.”
It’s unclear where those slips for model boats will be located. Benson said he did not know yet whether the company would be looking to dock in public spaces or at private marinas, but slowly, he expects Engel & Völkers Yachting to raise the number of boats available for sale and for charter in Annapolis.
“You will start seeing those boats trickle into the Annapolis harbors and waters,” he said.