The opportunity for a conversation with Intermanager Secretary General Kuba Szymanski is not to be missed, but you do have to pick your moment. True, he is to be seen on many a conference platform, but he is equally likely to be en route to another airport and the other side of the world, or even home to his beloved Isle of Man.
My interest for catching up with him was prompted by his having taken part in the recent Satellite 2013 conference in Washington, illustrating a growing interest in communications on behalf of Intermanager members. Some 12 months previously he had given a rather effective dressing down to VSAT providers at the Global VSAT Forum just after MaritimeInsight got going, so I was keen to see what progress he had made in making the process of buying satcoms more transparent.
As always when talking to Kuba, the conversation took in related subjects and included some strong opinions. Nonetheless, this is an organisation that wants to change things, so a straight line is not always the most effective route from A to B.
Intermanager’s interest in satellite communications stems from not just from a desire to shake up the buying process. It is founded on the belief that communications form a vital and undervalued link in the business process as well as in crew welfare.
“Intermanager is always talking about crew and I thought it was time to start walking the talk,” he explains. “We really care about our crew and that means the crew as both a worker and as an employee.”
“What we wanted to bring forward is that communication is also extremely important for the viability of our businesses. Without good communication, without good core connection with vessels we will struggle,” he goes on. As a former fleet General Manager for MOL Tankship, his experience had convinced him that users were not getting what VSAT had promised them.
“For the last few years, we have been, let’s say ‘misled’ and we could not afford that anymore. When we only had Inmarsat everybody knew what the boundaries were, expectations were quite limited but Inmarsat was able to meet these expectations. As soon as VSAT came onboard, expectations have been blown out of proportion by the providers,” he adds.
The biggest problem was the assumption that maritime users made that they would soon be enjoying terrestrial broadband speeds. But his gripe was not that VSAT failed to usher in an era of social media and internet use but that VSAT services failed to do what they said on the tin despite running to big bucks.
“We were told we would get 365 days of connection but they forgot to say there would be no service between Australia and Cape Town. Intermanager said, OK, enough is enough. We can always whinge but this will not improve the situation. So we sat down with GVF and we gave them some very constructive criticism and they were happy to take the feedback.”
Suitably chastened no doubt, GVF got Intermanager involved in its events and brought the organisation together with the providers. Kuba happily admits this was not one way traffic, the managers had to improve their knowledge too.
To be fruitful, this could never be just a question of blaming the VSAT guys, but rather looking for sources of assistance and that meant shipmanagers could help themselves by deciding clearly what they needed.
The organisation commissioned Stark Moore McMillan to undertake a survey to gauge return on investment for shipmanagers, “so we could help our guys to see how much money they have to invest in order to achieve more, what were areas which could benefit most and which might benefit least from good communications” he explains.
In providing a tool to help in decision-making Kuba says managers have moved from ‘an educated guess to an educated management decision’ and he says the vendors have listened and moved too.
“I’m extremely pleased because it shows them we were right! There are cowboys in shipmanagement and the same applies to the VSAT system providers. The name of the game here is listening, so they sat down with us and said OK you tell us what your problems are and we together will try to work out the best possible solutions. That is what I was hoping for three years ago and we are some way to achieving that.”
He agrees there are members who decide they still know better but he says even the switched-on companies need help and advice so the opportunity to work directly with suppliers is welcome.
He says many on the sell-side realised they had to up their game if they wanted to sell to owners bumping along the bottom of a terrible market and for whom the to do list starts with the regulatory must-haves and works down to the nice to have add-ons.
“It’s not only VSAT, some of the bigger providers manage terrestrial communication, GSM, data exchanges so they are able to pull a lot of strings. I didn’t expect some of them to know as much about shipping as they did but I ended talking to one who said ‘what about ECDIS, we’ve got a nice solution for you guys’ and that was the icing on the cake.”
The Intermanager engagement strategy is simple, if demanding: be professional, do your homework, understand what makes a shipmanager tick and what can be done to make their life easier. Without that it’s best not to come to the table.
Isn’t it a problem though, that just as the industry sees light at the end of the tunnel, the broader satellite industry is regarding maritime as a potential pot of gold? The risk is that not just incumbents become more aggressive but that new players steam in and destabilise a market that is just getting back on its feet.
Kuba sees the same trend and a repeat of the original path of VSAT into maritime. Other markets have been already saturated and with revenues from government or land mobile under pressure and aero still emerging, shipping looks like a safe bet.
“A lot of them have a misconception in that they see shipping as the big passenger vessels so it is an eye-opener to discover there are only have 350 of those. That might have put them off but they don’t have many other places to go so suddenly the other 75,000 vessels look very tempting. But just because you can sell one million iPhones doesn’t mean all those ships want or can afford VSAT. Using your iPhone might mean paying $20 dollars a month not $5,000 a month for VSAT,” he says.
The number of commercial aircraft also compares poorly to ships, prompting a revival of interest at the point when potential customer advantage can be gained from better communication.
“Everybody has a vessel, everyone has crew but only very few can provide an excellent communication link with your customers so users now are demanding more. The charterer used to ask the manager or operator where is my vessel, what is the ETA, where should I put my trucks? These days the manager can say ‘don’t ask me, log in and you can see all that information.”
Coming up in Part 2 – why the crew calling trend could be overdone and whether there really is a shortage of seafarers.