Luxury travel advisor Steven E. Shulem, the nomadic owner of Strictly Vacations in Santa Barbara, Calif., boarded the Crystal Serenity on Jan. 17 with high hopes for the 116-day Grand Voyage through the Caribbean, Europe, and the Middle East.
After all, it was almost two years earlier that his Crystal World Cruise ended early in Perth, Australia, as borders started to close amid something called a novel coronavirus.
“Let’s hope I get thru all 116 days,” Shulem wrote on Facebook on Jan. 16. “Last time on day 56, we were all dumped in Australia.”
Well, this time he received an email – on Day 3 – that the World Cruise would end Jan. 30 in Aruba amid the financial crisis of Crystal’s parent company, Genting HK.
“Well, they say history repeats itself. I was not able to finish the 2020 World cruise and now on day three of this world cruise Crystal goes bankrupt,” Shulem posted on Facebook. “We will all be off the ship next week and have our fingers crossed that someone will buy them, and we can all return to one of our favorite cruise lines.”
Shulem, who was contacted on the ship by TravelPulse by phone on Jan. 25, said there may be a glimmer of good news coming for Crystal Cruises.
Earlier in the day, Shulem said all staff were called into a meeting and told there was a potential buyer who wanted the crew to remain intact in hopes the ship could resume sailing. How likely this scenario is remains to be seen.
“I have to think they would only say something like this if they have a very serious buyer, someone who has already shown them their money,” Shulem said. “Everyone – the butlers and staff – were all dancing around when they heard that. It’s big news, but we don’t know who the buyer is and don’t know when it’s going to happen, but that’s what the staff on the ship were told.”
As of Jan. 19, Crystal has suspended ocean and expedition cruises through April 29, 2022, with river cruises suspended through May 2022. Crystal Symphony’s last voyage was to end in Miami on Jan. 22, but the ship remains in Bimini under an arrest warrant obtained by a fuel supplier. Passengers were ferried to Fort Lauderdale.
Onboard Crystal Serenity, most passengers contacted their travel agents, who booked flights from Aruba or reserved rooms at resorts on the island. Crystal did help passengers rebook flights if the line originally booked the flights.
However, Shulem – who was the travel agent escort for Signature Travel Network – said many passengers will disembark the Crystal Serenity and board Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Mariner of the Seas in Aruba. The Mariner previously canceled its 120-day World Cruise and replaced it with mostly Caribbean itineraries. As it turned out, the Mariner of the Seas can pick up Crystal Serenity passengers who want to continue sailing.
“Regent has been working 24/7, including weekends, to modify its itinerary, work with the Aruba government and with Crystal, work with luggage transfers and the Ritz-Carlton, and reached out to the travel agent community so they could let their clients know about this,” Shulem said. “I’m the Signature host and working with Regent directly, but I told people to talk to their travel agents. Regent did very well with this and gave us a great price and made it a seamless experience. It sounds like about 80 people, I believe, will move over to Regent and take the cruise anywhere from 13 to 94 days. We’re so happy. … People are corresponding with their travel agents, so it was very easy to send a quick email saying, ‘hey my cruise is ending, help me get home.’ So, the travel agent community has really stepped up to help rescue them.”
As travel advisors have been doing since the pandemic began.
Shulem said there are about 380 passengers on the Serenity.
Did he experience a sense of déjà vu that a World Cruise he was escorting once again was halted prematurely?
“This is way worse because the last one was canceled on Day 59, so we got to enjoy most of the cruise, and it was not even a pandemic then, it was countries closing and something called a coronavirus,” Shulem said. “It turned into one of my best years of my life being in Australia for 17 months. This is different because after Day 3, the whole thing went sour. Questions are will we get our money back, will the cruise line still be in business, and when are they coming back if they do? Those were not questions we had two years ago when we thought it was a temporary pause. We had no idea of the nightmare it would be to get our clients’ money back.”
But many clients did choose to return to Crystal when it resumed cruising in summer 2021. “It was a horrible year with Crystal, and yet the clients still wanted come back. They’re in love with Crystal and guess what? They did come back in 2021 and everyone was raving about it as if it never went away.”
So, the news is sad, tinged with anger, for many loyal Crystal passengers and Shulem, who was a top seller for the luxury line for more than 20 years. Crystal worked hard to build close relationships with travel sellers, from hosting lavish gala trips for top producers to being responsive to any questions.
“Like the staff on ship, shoreside people are very engaging with the travel agent community,” Shulem said. “It’s rare that you work with a cruise line and have a question about entertainment, and you can talk to the entertainment person. Or you can talk about food with the food-and-beverage director or hotel director. Crystal had all those fabulous galas all those years, which was a wonderful way for the travel agent community to touch the shoreside staff. So many travel agents, like Crystal clients, feel very connected to Crystal Cruises. I loved the way they have river cruises, the yacht, Antarctica – there’s a lot to sell, from seven days to a full World Cruise, they really did it all.”
As for Shulem, he hopes to board the Seven Seas Mariner for about 13 days. After that? Possibly head to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and then “just veg out in a bungalow on the beach in Mexico.”