Commodore's wake: Mulling future of 'little guys'

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Last week's Chapter 11 filing by Commodore Holdings, parent company of Commodore and Crown cruise lines, has leisure agents saying the industry no longer has room for the little guy, whether it be a start-up air carrier, a small cruise line or a mom-and-pop agency.

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Bill Sivillo, owner of Captain's Club Cruises & Tours in Middletown, N.Y., said, "This filing is pretty rough on the heels of Premier Cruise Line going out [in September] and sends a message to the public to be very cautious."

The bankruptcies of Commodore and Premier has spurred many to persuade clients to pay by credit card and purchase travel insurance because they aren't always guaranteed full protection under the maritime bond.

Sivillo added that agents will see the stocks of major cruise lines go south as a result of this event.

"I think the entire industry needs to take a good look and start policing itself to guard against this type of activity and finally give the traveling public the sense of security it deserves," he said.

He added that travel agents need to be very conscious of whom they deal with and observe any small signs of trouble as they happen.

Some retailers believe Commodore's collapse signals rough seas ahead for smaller lines. Sivillo also commended Carnival for providing passengers with a vacation guarantee and is surprised that other cruise lines haven't followed suit.

According to ARTA chairman Nancy Linares, "There's so many new products on the market right now that those who haven't spent much money refurbishing their ships to keep them attractive can't really compete."

Linares added that agents have learned to operate in "protection mode" the latter half of this year due to all the turbulence they've been experiencing with smaller carriers and cruise lines.

Robbie Louchheim, president of the Arizona chapter of ARTA and Travel Destinations in Scottsdale, Ariz., said this latest filing gives agents even more reason to make sure clients purchase travel insurance through a third-party vendor.

Don Anderson, president of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, Mass., said that after Premier and now Commodore Holdings' demise, the major cruise lines need to reinstill the public's confidence in the cruise industry.

"It doesn't take much for the public to start playing connect the dots with the negative events that have occurred so far," he said.

Commodore's collapse jars some

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Some retailers were caught off guard by last week's fall of Commodore Holdings, parent firm of Commodore and Crown cruise lines.

Bob Wall, owner of Vacations at Sea in New Orleans, which did more than $600,000 in annual business with Commodore, said his agency was extremely affected by the proceedings because the line's two ships were based in New Orleans.

"We have been big supporters of Commodore and its predecessor for more than 16 years and have given them a lot of business," he said.

"We knew their stock had been significantly hit by their investment in San Diego-to-Mexico day cruises, but it was a shock to everyone here because they seemed to be doing well, with a positive cash flow, timely commission payments and full ships departing every week."

Wall said the message the situation sends is that cruise lines operating a few ships just can't make it anymore.

The agency owner, who has hundreds of passengers booked on Commodore next year out of New Orleans, spent most of Dec. 28 and 29 speaking with those clients by phone and sending them claim forms and other detailed information so they will know how to get their money back.

"We already had 15 messages when we came in this morning and four passengers waiting outside the agency to see us," he said.

Other cruise lines had been calling to let him know about their availability, but he said that January and February are looking pretty full out of New Orleans, so his passengers might have to travel out of Galveston, Texas.

Don Anderson, president of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, Mass., said that when small players try to compete with the big guys on the same terms, they can't make it.

"You had older, smaller ships compting with newer, state-of-the-art vessels at the same price, and that just doesn't work," Anderson said. "What's going to happen next is that the major cruise lines continue to get more power and their stocks will rise. The scenario will be one of less choice for consumers and more control for major players."

But Scott Kertes, vice president of sales at Hartford Holidays Travel in Williston Park, N.Y., said that the turn of events didn't surprise him at all.

"If you look back to other cruise lines that went under, you notice that they all fit a certain mold: small, budget prices, old ships."

Agency owner Jayne Gomes Freese of Cruise Co. of So Cal and the Travel & Tour Co. of San Diego, both in San Diego, agreed.

"I really do see it as a situation of the biggest guys eating up the little ones ... I'm surprised Commodore lasted as long as it did," she said.

Looking for a refund?

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Agents who want to find out about applying for refunds should call (954) 967-2100, fax (954) 967-2148 or write to 4000 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 385 S., Hollywood, Fla. 33021.

Retailers should know that since the Crown Dynasty departed from a foreign port, it is not covered under the maritime commission's $15 million bond.

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