By Fran Golden (Bloomberg) —
When Genting Hong Kong’s American luxury line Crystal Cruises shutdown suddenly in February last year it left consumers and travel agents out to dry on more than $100 million in bookings. Until then, it had claimed some of the most loyal passengers in the cruise industry; among their draws were free-flowing champagne, famously opulent restaurants such as Nobu, and dedicated butler service.
Now, Crystal Cruises is coming back. Despite the blemish that came with the bankruptcy, the possibility of reclaiming those customers was reason enough for Italian billionaire and shipping magnate Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio to resurrect the name, in partnership with luxury operator A&K Travel Group, which he co-chairs. The re-launch has been in the works for more than half a year.
By June 2022, the new partners said they had paid $128 million for the 980-passenger, 20-year-old Crystal Serenity and the 838-passenger, 28-year-old Crystal Symphony, and were sending both ships to be refurbished in Trieste, Italy. (Crystal’s expedition and river ships were sold separately.) The ongoing renovations are said to cost tens of millions of dollars, and are focused on reducing the number of passengers and adding larger suites — plus a pickleball court on each ship. The reborn company’s maiden voyage will have Crystal Serenity departing from Marseilles on July 31, 2023, for a 12-night cruise that starts at $9,700 per person.
Sales opened in February, and fans have been split. “Half the people say it’s a different owner and let’s give them a try because we love Crystal,” says Jack Ross, a Crystal fan from Miami who is active on company-themed message boards and forums. “Other people say screw them, Crystal took my money and I am not booking anyone with that name.”
So, in a bid to ignite business, Crystal is making an unprecedented move: Leveraging the tens of millions of dollars that customers lost out on when the line collapsed as a lure to draw back passengers. It’s a move that they’re under no legal obligation to make, but that the new Crystal hopes will rebuild goodwill and create a long pipeline of bookings.
The repayment plan, dubbed the “Exceptional Initiative,” will work like this. If you lost out on a cruise, you will be granted credits that match your Crystal Cruise balance and that can be spread across five future cruises. Thus, if the cruises are about the same value, that’s roughly 20% off on five trips. The catch is that you have to commit to cruising that much to get all your money’s worth, and you must act fast. Consumers must book the first of their discounted cruises by July 1, 2023 and use all their credits for sailings embarking before December 31, 2025.
In other words, you can get your money back from Crystal, but you have to agree to spend a lot more money—and time—on its ships.
The amount each consumer is given back reflects not just how much money they had parked with Crystal at the time of the original company’s sudden demise, minus any amount they have or will receive, be it through credit card reserves or disputes, insurance companies, or other avenues, all tracked by Michael Moecker & Associates of Fort Lauderdale, the insolvency company. Credits can be used on five separate itineraries or they can be spread out across five cabins on the same voyage.
“I don’t have memory in the industry of anyone who has ever taken over liabilities of a former owner without really knowing the extent of the liabilities,” says Cristina Levis, CEO of A&K Travel Group Ltd., speaking exclusively to Bloomberg from Monaco. (A&K is best known for operating the luxury tour company Abercombie & Kent.)
The extent of the liabilities is unknown because Moecker is still going through final stages of sorting through open reimbursement claims, and deciding how much money can be paid back in cash via insurance and credit card companies. It is also responsible for processing the debts owed to crew members, who were owed unpaid wages. It hopes that process will be concluded, and that payouts will begin, by the end of the summer. Even though the final reimbursement total remains uncertain, both companies expect tens of millions to be left on the table and transferred into the credit initiative.
If it sounds like a cheap trick to juice sales, higher-ups at the insolvency agency hold a different perspective. “What Crystal has decided to do with this gesture is remarkable partly because they had no [legal] obligation to do it, but mostly because it gives customers another alternative to recover funds lost in the shut down,” says Mark Healy, executive vice president of Moecker.
Levis sees it as an unprecedented goodwill gesture. “Crystal passengers have mistakenly been asking us to refund their money because they were under the impression that in acquiring the ships and acquiring the brand, we also acquired the bank accounts and all that goes with it,” she says. “Never did we come in contact with the customer money of the former Crystal. We have no visibility of the bank accounts or anything.”
Ross, the Miami-based cruiser, was out more than $2,000 from the old Crystal but decided to give the new company a try – booking a cruise with his wife, Vicki, to Alaska in 2024. In what may be another gesture of goodwill, he’ll be able to apply his 20 percent discount to the booking retroactively — which may just come as a nice surprise.
© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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