Majestic America Sale

Ambassadors  International is still searching for a buyer for Majestic America Line, five months after CFO Blake Barnett said the river cruise line would be sold by the end of 2008. That plan was made, however, when the current financial maelstrom was just a ripple.

Joseph McCarthy, Ambassador’s vice president of corporate development, told Cruise Industry News that a buyer bad not been found yet, but that a buyer “able to ride through these rough years” will have success with the line.

Majestic’s problems came from an aggressive rebranding to a luxury product that alienated some of the line’s core cruisers, McCarthy said.

Ambassadors spent more than $10 million upgrading its fleet, only to find out that the line’s  traditional base wasn’t as interested in a high-end  product, or increased ticket prices, he said. “We were too aggressive,” McCarthy said. “We bought a bunch of under-performing assets and we thought that by putting them all together and rebranding them we could make them work.”

The line’s itineraries in the Northwest, Mississippi and Alaska; ship crews; and overall product, however, are exceptional, be said.

“I think the product we deliver today is much better than what was delivered before we bought in,” McCarthy said. “Mistakes were made, but at the same time, we did a lot of good things. Could we have done it better? Absolutely.”

Ambassadors estimates Majestic will have fixed assets of roughly $107 million when sold. Liabilities will be about $65 million related to the debt on the American Queen ($32 million) and Empress of the North ($38 million). Barnett said the line does not intend to default on the loans, although he said there would be no penalty for doing so.

Majestic has about 6.2 percent of the world’s river cruise market, with a total capacity of 61,680 – including the soon-to-be retired Delta Queen’s capacity. Back in May, CEO Joe Ueberroth said Majestic had bad a rough 2008 so far: A fire on the Queen of the West caused a scheduling snafu; high water on the Mississippi held back the Delta Queen; and Congress declined to extend benefits to exempt the 1926-built wooden-deck boat from safety regulations, meaning it would have to stop operating by Oct. 31. A bill before the U.S. Senate could save the ship. A similar measure failed in the U.S. House earlier this year.

Majestic stopped booking cruises past Dec. 31, 2008, Ueberroth has said, because new owners may not wish to continue the current itineraries. But new owners may be hard to find given the current financial climate.

The good news is vacation products, especially cruises, are fairly recession resistant. Also, oil prices are dropping, at least temporarily. The bad news is that credit markets have dried up considerably, making it harder for anyone to get financing.

And Majestic has not fared well recently. In July, Ambassadors reported Majestic’s occupancy rate had dropped from 83.7 percent in 2007 to 67 percent this year. The soft booking forced the Empress of the North  to cut short its Alaska cruises by almost two months and not sail the Columbia and Snake Rivers as planned. The Empress ceased service after it’s seven-night Alaska cruise Aug. 2. The American Queen trimmed seven of its final cruises from New Orleans, and will end operations Nov. 15 instead of Dec. 27 as originally planned.

A year ago, Ambassadors reported Majestic produced a pre-tax loss of $6.4 million on $33. l million   in revenue. Cruise Industry News estimated Majestic’s  per-person ticket revenue to be approximately $367.Recent History and Company Formation  Ueberroth said last month that he plans to step down as CEO, president and chairman of Newport Beach, California-based Ambassadors in September 2009, and will continue his current responsibilities while helping find a proper successor.

Ambassadors also recently named Arthur Rodney chairman of the company’s Audit Committee. Rodney was formerly president of Disney Cruises Line, which he helped launch, and before that Crystal  Cruises, and was CFO and president of Princess cruises. Ambassadors also owns Windstar Cruises, which it bought in April 2007.

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