The third time was the charm. After at least two previous attempts to buy Crystal Cruises, Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio (Forbes Billionaires, #1,929, $1.3b) has bought the bankrupt line’s brand and two ocean vessels, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. It marks his third venture on the high seas. In the late 1980s, his family sold Sitmar Cruises to P&O. He then launched Silversea Cruises as one of the first lines with purpose-built luxury cruise ships before selling it last decade to Royal Caribbean in two tranches for $1.25 billion.
Terms of this deal weren’t disclosed. However, trade publication Travel Weekly reports the Serenity, built-in 2003, was sold for $103 million, and the Symphony, which debuted in 1995, went for $25 million.
For three decades, Crystal racked up shelves of awards from publications like Travel+Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Cruise Critic as a top luxury cruise line. It was also an innovator in areas like specialty dining partnering with celebrity Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa. Well-heeled customers spent six figures securing the same cabin each year for round-the-world cruises and other exotic itineraries that lasted for two to three months.
This time, Lefebvre will be able to combine ocean-going luxury with Abercrombie & Kent, the white-shoe travel company he bought in 2019 and is best known for its silver spoon safaris and private jet tours led by its James Bond-like founder Geoffrey Kent, who still accompanies some journeys.
In a statement, Lefebvre said, “I am thrilled to start this new chapter and to be back in an industry that has always had, and always will have a special place in my heart.” He added, “When the opportunity arose to acquire Crystal Cruises, I did not think about it twice. Having next to me my incredible friend and inspiring leader Geoffrey Kent makes this venture even more enjoyable,”
A&K has hired a well-known cruise ship management firm to operate the ships. In a press release, the company said of the selection, “With their unique experience, global scale and passionate team, V.Ships Leisure was the natural choice.”
Crystal’s ships have been docked since January, when troubles at parent Hong Kong-based Genting led to a series of bankruptcies with its cruise industry holdings, including a German shipyard.
Mary Jean Tully, a top seller of luxury cruises and CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, says, “Manfredi is smart…I am sure he will hire the Crystal’s (onboard) crew back. That is what made the company so successful all these years.”
She notes the deal does not cover Crystal’s debts, including as much as $100 million in deposits for future cruises that were canceled when the line shuttered. “Many clients were burned by the demise of Crystal,” Tully adds.
Anne Sculley, a Partner at luxury travel agency EmbarkBeyond, says of the new buyer, “It couldn’t be any better. Look how Manfredi built Silversea from scratch to what was in a few years the top-rated luxury cruise line in its category. He’s a legend in the industry. I think it’s good for the industry.”
Sculley notes Lefebvre is popular even with competitors. Viking Cruises Founder and Chairman Torstein Hagen named one of the restaurants on his ocean ships Manfredi.
She won’t be surprised if there are some types of incentives or credits offered to past customers of Crystal and those that lost money. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to give them some type of thank you for your support. Manfredi is very savvy, and he has always built top teams, and everything he does has always been very customer focused. I expect another winner.”
James Shillinglaw, Editor of Insider Travel Report, adds, “It’s great he’s back in the cruise industry.” The veteran travel journalist believes more deals could be in the works. He calls Crystal’s five river vessels “a good fit” for A&K, which currently charters river vessels for its European river cruises.
He also expects future orders for new ships. “The (Crystal ocean) ships have been beautifully maintained, but the shelf life will be limited at some point. If he wants to make a true go of it, he has to order new ships,” Shillinglaw says.
According to the press announcement, global law firm Paul Hastings LLP acted for A&K Travel Group Ltd. Callenders Law acted for A&K Travel Group Ltd. in respect of Bahamian law, while HFW and Stephenson Harwood LLP provided maritime law expertise. CMC Capital, Limited advised A&K Travel Group Ltd. in the acquisition.