Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Concerns: Apollo Management and Prestige Cruise Holding (NCL, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania)

I have hesitated to write about the effects of this poor economy on the cruise lines themselves because, in large part, we really don't know what the long term effects will be. While the issues of last minute discounts and more close-in bookings (ala post 9/11) on less than full ships are not beyond possibilities, the fact is that right now people who are cruising paid for their cruises before the bottom seemingly fell out and it is too early to really see what the next couple of months (post-election) has in store for us, the consumers and them, the industry.

Also, while some cruise lines are panicking, others are being creative and yet others are still figuring out what, if anything, should be done differently. So that too is not the focus on this post and speculating would not be fair or productive.

However, over the past three weeks there has been much in the industry news about NCL and Aker Shipyard having a "dispute" over Norwegian Cruise Line's new F3 ship. While Aker claims it has not stopped work on the first F3 (which is about 25% complete), it has been reported that they are now trying to sell the hull to other major cruise lines...and there is not much interest. Aker, though, has also stopped work on the second F3 ship.

Apollo and NCL have been silent claiming they do not discuss disputes or litigation. What has happened, however, is that their announcement of the new ship is not as clear in their taglines, mention of the F3 is all but absent from the NCL website, the F3 microsite has been buried (You you can still find it via http://www.f3.ncl.com/main.html.) and the person who was in charge of the PR for the F3, Susan Robison, has left NCL.

The word on the street is that Apollo has shut down the project as simply being too expensive. I think there probably is another, related, problem: Financing. Most entities like Apollo leverage their assets in order to obtain sufficient cash to improve products and then sell them off at a profit. If the product is losing value, or if a cash infusion will not increase its value, the desire to put money in drops. Banks and lenders - especially now - are not as willing to finance companies to put cash into a potentially unprofitable venture. Add to that the unexpected strength in the US dollar versus the Euro and some of the math turns upside down.

Here, the F3 ships have a radical - and unproven - interior design for a market that is being hit hard by the economic problems and, at least in the near future, probably are not going to be parting with as much cash on the holy grail of the mass market cruise business: onboard revenue. Add to that the downward pressure on pricing and the drop off in (long range) bookings, Apollo and its lenders have probably (my guess) said something along the lines of, "NCL's Hawaii plan seemed good, but we took a bath as it was unconventional and had unforeseen problems. NCL has lost over $350,000,000 in the last two years. Now we have a $1,000,000,000 (yes, one billion dollar) project which is now seeing cost increases (due to the loss in value of the Euro - the currency of the contract - as well as difficulties in creating the radical design elements) and we cannot assure a profit at higher prices with possible reductions in passenger loads...and NCL is bleeding cash flow as it is."

While that "magic" is playing out, the operationally pretty solid Oceania, through Apollo's Prestige Cruise Holdings (separate from NCL) is working hard to clean up the issues at Regent by increasing efficiencies on many levels and revamping the luxury line's ships from hardware to software to crew. We have seen the previously greatly publicized talk of a new ship for Regent being, quite obviously, pushed to the back...see the parallel here!...and, in its place, a $40,000,000 refurbishment of the Voyager and Mariner; leaving the Navigator for another day (if there is another day for that ship!) and there being talk on the street and some publications of the end of its relationship with the Paul Gauguin. Now, there is talk of the Voyager and Mariner refurbishments being scaled back as well.

I am not so sure these fiscally stringent moves are a bad thing. The concept of growth through huge increases in inventory has a great flaw: Not enough buyers of that inventory (i.e. cruise passengers). That, added to the cost of creating that additional inventory, can destroy a positive bottom line. So, Apollo and Prestige Cruise Holdings may just be saying that we would rather utilize what we have and utilize it well, possibly generating smaller profits, than growing ourselves (and our debt) right out of business.

I much prefer a higher quality product from a profitable cruise line than a less quality product from a cruise line trying to find its way out of a problem it created which, inevitably, would cause the passengers to pay more to get less.

It is going to be interesting to see how all this plays out.