Crystal punctuates comeback with ambitious plan for new ships

ONBOARD THE CRYSTAL SERENITY — A year and a half after Crystal Cruises collapsed, the line roared back to life last week, debuting the first of two renovated ships and announcing a plan to build four more.

By 2029, Crystal plans to have six vessels in the water, including two expedition ships capable of sailing to Antarctica and the Arctic and four traditional cruise ships. 

For a brand that was on life support following its early 2022 bankruptcy, the line’s rebirth as a part of A&K Travel Group will make Crystal better than it was before, executives told about 100 travel advisors during a July 25 shakedown sailing from Venice to Marseille, France.

Travel advisors seemed to agree, saying  the line was at least as good as it used to be, aside from mostly minor critiques during the first sailing on its refurbished ship.

“The sellers have just exhaled,” said Alex Sharpe, president of Signature Travel Network. Sharpe had been critical of the new Crystal until the line agreed to develop a credit program for guests and advisors who lost money when the original brand shut down. Crystal is now a preferred supplier for Signature.

“You can look your customers in the eye and say Crystal is ready for them,” he said during the sailing.

The comeback

Crystal’s much-anticipated relaunch followed more than a year of uncertainty. The line stopped operating in early 2022 after Genting Hong Kong, its parent company, went bankrupt. Its ships were arrested in dramatic fashion, and the 30-year-old brand’s ocean, expedition and river ships were sold off piecemeal.

The Crystal brand and its two oceangoing ships were acquired last summer by A&K Travel Group, spearheaded by executive chairman and Silversea founder Manfredi Lefebvre, who had been vocal about wanting to return to the cruise industry after selling Silversea to Royal Caribbean Group in 2018.

Travel advisors on the Serenity said they have faith in Lefebvre and A&K Travel Group CEO Christina Levis, another Silversea alum, as they relaunch. But the message that was most important to them was the return of 80% of the former ocean ships’ Crystal crew, signaling a consistency in service in the line’s resumption and the return of the faces that repeat Crystal guests had gotten to know over the years. 

“The 80% of staff return is pivotal,” said Bitsy Clayton of Clayton Vacations, a Cadence affiliate in La Jolla, Calif. “They understand the heart and soul of this ship.”

Ricci Zukerman of Trip Matters Inc. in Tustin, Calif., said firsthand experience gave her confidence: When she asked a server for plain yogurt because she didn’t see any, the server returned to say the kitchen had made her a fresh batch. 

“That made me happy,” Zukerman said.  “It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing.”

Expansion plans 

Crystal’s next chapter includes re-entering the luxury expedition market, with hopes to begin construction on the first expedition ship and one of two traditional oceangoing ships by Q2 of 2024.

The ship order has not yet been finalized, Levis said, but executives are already working with lenders, naval architects and two shipbuilding companies. 

“We are quite advanced, in particular for the expedition ships,” she said, which would likely be Polar Class 6 and carry 220 guests. The 650-passenger oceangoing vessels would carry fewer guests than the 740-passenger Serenity, the largest of the current ships. 

To fill the new capacity, Crystal aims to expand its customer base. Its sister brand, luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), is a big part of that strategy.

Crystal, currently best-known in the U.S., plans to broaden its global reach, said Jacqueline Barney, vice president of global marketing, including in Europe, where A&K has strong brand awareness.

Peter Chipchase, chief marketing officer for the travel group, said that many A&K clients are potential Crystal cruisers: 41% of A&K’s target consumers have already tried a high-end luxury cruise, a third of its client base has considered a leisure cruise, and 8% have sailed on A&K’s luxury expeditions. 

Chipchase, who had never cruised before, said that other growth opportunities for Crystal include multigenerational travel to introduce Crystal loyalists’ adult children and grandchildren to the brand. While its core demographic is about 65 years old, Crystal will make an effort to attract guests who are retiring earlier in their 50s or are as young as mid-40s and attracted to A&K’s land tours.

Crystal also plans to offer short cruises to lure new-to-cruise customers who know the A&K brand or traditionally vacation in hotels. One such offering could include a five-night cruise in the Med coupled with an A&K land tour pre- or post-cruise, said Barney.

The line also plans to attract new guests by enhancing the product with excursions built by A&K, Chipchase said, such as a world cruise that would include leaving the ship to spend a multiday land trip in the Galapagos. Executives said it would take until about 2025 for those A&K add-ons to fully materialize.

In considering their growth plans, executives said they are sensitive to not displace Crystal loyalists.

“We will not leave Crystal cruisers behind,” Levis said as fireworks celebrating Crystal’s return exploded over Livorno, to the delight of advisors, loyal cruisers and media watching from the ship’s top deck. 

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