The abrupt cessation of all cruises in March, which has mostly lasted nine months (and counting), presented cruise lines and travel advisors with the herculean task of handling refunds and exchanges for millions of passenger bookings.
Many of the lines had reduced the size of their workforce and call centers, and remaining staff, working from home, were unable to access internal systems efficiently.
Many travel agencies had likewise reduced the size of their staffs who could work on refunds and rebookings. The time to process the deluge of cancellation-related requests lengthened considerably beyond normal. Anger, complaints and bad press followed.
By mid-summer, noise around refund issues had died down significantly, as did negative sentiments.
One cruise line, however, remains an outlier, both in how it has handled the refund issue and the amount of passenger payments still outstanding.
Crystal Cruises still owes an unknown amount to people booked on cruises the line canceled this year, with many passengers still waiting on refunds from as far back as March, some for tens of thousands of dollars.
Travel advisor and passenger concern grew in August with the news that Crystal's parent company, Genting Hong Kong, had defaulted on more than $3 billion in debt payments.
The news seemed to suggest that the issue was not connected to Crystal's systems, but to its finances.
At the time, Crystal said that although Genting was "engaged in a financial restructuring and fundraising exercise to address liquidity issues ... it is important to understand that the company is not going out of business. Whatever option our parent company pursues, it will allow Crystal to operate its business."
Crystal also said it was "committed to honoring our contractual obligations with guests and travel partners, including the processing of refunds."
Fast forward to December, and both customers and travel advisors say that not much has changed on the refund front, except their level of frustration. Agents report that some clients say they may take legal action or try to work with their credit card providers.
More than 127 people have lodged complaints about Crystal with the Better Business Bureau in the past 12 months; the vast majority, referencing refund issues, remain unanswered. By comparison, Regent Seven Seas had seven complaints in the past 12 months, all answered by the company. The Crystal complaints indicate unfulfilled refund requests for as much as $38,000.
Some travel advisors say the situation is fraying long-standing relationships with some of their top-spending clients.
"There is absolutely no one at the line who will talk about a guest refund with either the guest or the agent," said Richard Turen, the managing director of Churchill & Turen and a Travel Weekly columnist.
He added that he has "never seen this stone wall constructed around any other line's financials."
"I now have guests who have not received their deposits back for more than 10 months," Turen said. "This is, I believe, an industry first."
Crystal said in a recent statement to Travel Weekly, "In regard to refunds, we cannot give an exact date when specific refunds will be issued. We have refunded more than $100 million since our voluntary fleetwide cancellations began, and although we have made significant progress, we know there is obviously more work to do. We know that this issue is causing frustration and angst with those affected, and we recognize and apologize that we have fallen short of our service standard. We remain committed to fulfilling all obligations to our guests."
Silence and frustration
When Genting CEO Lim Kok Thay in August pledged nearly his entire stake in Genting as collateral for loans, it reassured some advisors that Crystal would stay afloat.
Genting is also parent company to Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, which serve Asian markets. It said in a regulatory filing in September that it was working on a restructuring solution and looking forward to relaunching cruises in Asia, which Dream Cruises did on Nov. 6. "These operations have and will continue to contribute towards the group's financial condition," the company said.
For Crystal clients and travel partners, the news hasn't done much to assuage concerns, which grow as time passes.
U.K.-based Julia Aishford describes herself as a "very disgruntled and frustrated ex-Crystal cruiser."
"Even more frustrating is the silence," Aishford said. "But the icing on the cake is the constant offers for their future cruises. Do they really think that the thousands of people who have been so shabbily treated, and who had mostly been loyal customers, are going to throw money at them now?"
Some advisors are striking a more conciliatory tone when it comes to Crystal, if not Genting.
Mary Jean Tully
"Unfortunately, we have no further information on Crystal whatsoever -- Crystal doesn't seem to know themselves at this point, but I know they are trying to pull something together, " said Mary Jean Tully, founder and CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, Crystal's top producing agency for 25 years. "I know the sales executives [Carmen Roig, senior vice president of marketing and sales, and interim CEO Jack Anderson] are all trying to do everything they can, but their hands are tied, as it doesn't seem like they are given much information, or none that they can share at this point."
Tully said Genting should do more.
"As far as Crystal rebounding from this, it's up to Genting Corp. And they have not made anything known. They could definitely be doing a better job of saying something to reassure travel agents and their loyal clients, clients who have said they would still be the first ones back on the ships," Tully said. "They just feel that this could have been handled so much better by Genting. What we all have been through is awful. But it is how it is handled that makes the difference."