South Floridians seeking a quick island getaway could soon have more options to cruise from Port of Palm Beach to the Bahamas.
The Riviera Beach seaport has secured a new 10-year agreement with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line — its sole cruise operator which intends to add a second ship to its schedule of two-night cruises by June 1, officials said Friday.
The deal was sealed late Thursday with Bahamas Paradises new ownership led by Kevin Sheehan Jr., and president and CEO Oneil Khosa.
Sheehan, whose family acquired a majority stake in the company in December for an undisclosed sum, is the son of Kevin Sheehan Sr., the former president and CEO of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line. Minority owner Khosas resume includes stints as CEO of an Indian cruise line and as a first officer for Royal Caribbean.
The second vessel described as Grand Classica would join the cruise operators 1,900-passenger Grand Celebration ship now operating short-hop cruises to Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, port documents show.
That ship has surpassed our expectations, said Manny Almira, the seaports executive director, of Grand Celebration. Having a second ship is a welcomed idea as the product theyre selling is [resonating].
For more than seven years, the seaport has had a successful year-round cruise operation to Freeport, Bahamas with one vessel under different operators, officials said.
Thats in stark contrast to its on-again, off-again day-cruise gambling sailings that failed despite attempts by a variety of operators to sustain them.
Were out of that casino day-cruise business, Almira said.
The port expects the new agreement, which has two, five-year renewal options, will produce an extra $15.1 million in net income in its initial term.
Officials are optimistic Bahamas Paradise’ expansion plans given strong consumer demand and a management team of seasoned cruise executives.
For me, thats the main thing, the experience that theyve got, said Blair Ciklin, chairman of the ports board of commissioners. The other owners were timeshare guys, not cruise guys.
The second ship, also referred to as NeoClassica, is expected to be a lot nicer and will be top of the line for us, Ciklin said.
In port documents, the 1991-built NeoClassica is listed as a 654-cabin Costa Cruises vessel with three restaurants, theatre, disco and bar, casino and two swimming pools, among other offerings.
Grand Celebration, which began operating in 1987 as a Carnival ship, has 750 cabins, multiple restaurants, music venues and lounges, casino, theater, spa/salon, kids play area and fitness center.
Sheehan Jr., who has a private equity and Wall Street banking background, said the business is doing great after eight months.
Weve been pretty much full, added Khosa. Were not seeing any weakness in our bookings.
Since taking over, the cruise outfit relocated headquarters from Fort Lauderdale to Deerfield Beach to be closer to the Palm Beach County port. Its also made onboard and portside improvements.
Enhancements include a revamped website, improved check-in and disembarkation process and a new specialty seafood and steakhouse restaurant, which cruisers can enjoy for $29 per person, Khosa said. A new caf serving specialty coffees will open soon.
Bahamas Paradise will keep its two-night cruises and longer cruise-and-resort stay vacation package focus, he said. Thats our core business philosophy and we dont want to deviate from that niche as its clearly working.
Cruise-only summer rates, which include most meals, water, coffee and juices, started at $149-$169 per person, while fall rates should start around $129-$149, Khosa said.
The company expects Grand Celebration will carry about 250,000 passengers this year, Khosa said.
As the new owners advertise the improvements and its expansion, it will likely face lingering consumer dissatisfaction issues tied to past operators.
One such company is Royal Seas Cruises of Fort Lauderdale, which has numerous complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and also Yelp.com for cruise packages offered aboard Grand Celebration.
Khosa said Bahamas Paradise, which under prior ownership took over the Freeport route from the defunct Celebration Cruise Line in early 2015, is not affiliated with Royal Seas. He said previous owners were slow to respond on social media and not focused on growth.
Our mindset is very different, Khosa said. Were a cruise line and cruise business. Were on a growth trajectory and guests like what were doing.
Analysts say time will tell.
Well have to see where it goes from here, said Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based cruise industry specialist. Its certainly good for Port of Palm Beach. It does bring tourists into Palm Beach County and itll provide jobs, especially with the outlook for a second ship.
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