In late August, Crystal Cruises went into damage control mode after its parent company, Genting Hong Kong, said that it had defaulted on debt payments.
The news spooked travel advisors already concerned that Crystal had not refunded, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars owed to their clients who had paid for cruises that were canceled this year and next.
Although Genting "is engaged in a financial restructuring and fundraising exercise to address liquidity issues," Crystal said at the time, "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 went on to say that it was "committed to honoring our contractual obligations with guests and travel partners, including the processing of refunds."
More than three months later, however, not much seems to have changed on the refund front, except the level of frustration among travel advisors, some whom have clients who have discussed taking legal action against Crystal.
More than 127 people have lodged complaints about Crystal with the Better Business Bureau in the last 12 months; the vast majority are unanswered and refer to not getting refunds. In comparison, Regent Seven Seas had seven complaints in the last 12 months, all answered by the company. The Crystal complaints say they are still waiting on refunds for as much as $38,000.
Many travel advisors say the situation has frayed 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. "It is empty, a vacuum. Nothing is coming back. No updates, no information."
Turen 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," he said. "This is, I believe, an industry first."
As far as he is concerned, the "bottom-line question" is whether Genting found a successful restructuring partner. "I cannot find evidence that they did."
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."
When Genting CEO Lim Kok Thay in August pledged nearly his entire stake in Genting as collateral for loans, it reassured some advisors that the line would stay afloat. Genting, also parent company to two of largest cruise lines serving Asian customers, said in a regulatory filing in September that it was working on a restructuring solution and was looking forward to relaunching cruises in Asia, which it did on Nov. 6 under its Dream Cruises brand. "These operations have and will continue to contribute towards the group's financial condition," the company said.
For Crystal guests and travel partners, the news doesn't do much to assuage their clients. Some advisors say that because Crystal is growing so quickly and has become an ocean, river and soon-to-be an expedition line, disappointed clients are spread out across a wide spectrum of products and agencies.
Other top producers are striking a more conciliatory tone when it comes to Crystal, if not Genting.
"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 Jack Anderson, interim CEO], 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 says 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."
She worries that any bank that steps in to restructure Genting would want to see Crystal sell its two older, oceangoing ships, the Serenity and the Symphony. "But none of us know. Anybody that tells you they have information has no idea," she said. "It's a shame, and I hope they thrive and survive."