Ex-Norwegian Cruise CEO buys Port of Palm Beach cruise business

The Grand Celebration, the cruise ship that takes passengers from the Port of Palm Beach to The Bahamas, might not be in the big leagues, but it caught the attention of Kevin Sheehan, former CEO and President of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.

Sheehan, 63, is a partner in a venture that purchased the business now called Paradise Cruise Line for an undisclosed amount in a deal that closed Dec. 22.

“The purchase of Paradise Cruise Line is a family investment with a strong executive management team. We have a great appreciation for the Port of Palm Beach and believe it is a fantastic port, which will contribute to the future success of the Grand Celebration,” Sheehan said on Dec. 27.

The 1,800-passenger Grand Celebration sails to The Bahamas three or four times a week, and it’s the only cruise ship at the port in Riviera Beach. It’s the largest cruise ship ever based at the port known for its exports of goods in containers and bulk commodities such as sugar and molasses.

Port officials are hopeful that Sheehan and managing partner Oneil Khosa will take the successful Grand Celebration two-night cruises to an even higher level and expand in some way. Khosa indicated to port commissioners last month that he and Sheehan want to enhance the operation and add capacity.

Sheehan resigned from Miami-based Norwegian in January 2015. He received a $13.4 million severance package, according to the company’s filings. In August 2016, he joined Las Vegas-based Scientific Games Corp. as its new CEO and president. Scientific Games is a leading developer of technology-based products and services and associated content for worldwide gaming, lottery and interactive markets.

During his seven years at Norwegian, Sheehan broadened the company’s reach with new classes of ships, including luxury cruising, and oversaw the improvement of on-board service and amenities across the fleet. He also used his extensive 30 years of experience in the business world to help Norwegian post a sharp turnaround in profitability in a difficult economic climate.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is a leading global cruise company, which operates the Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises brands.

With a combined fleet of 24 ships with approximately 46,500 berths, these brands offer itineraries to more than 510 destinations worldwide.

In contrast, the Grand Celebration, the largest passenger ship ever based at the Port of Palm Beach, makes the journey back and forth from the port to The Bahamas, a mere 73 nautical miles each way. It’s a fleet of one.

Port officials have sought an additional cruise ship, and are hopeful that Paradise Cruise Line will expand there. They say it would make sense for a company that already operates one ship there to add a second ship.

Jarra Kaczwara, the port’s senior director, business development, said earlier this week, “The berth is open and available every other day while the ship is in progress.”

Another ship could run two-day or even four-day cruises from the same berth, Kaczwara said. At 733 feet in length, the Grand Celebration is the maximum size ship the port can handle, so it couldn’t be any larger than that.

“We have spoken to other groups, which have an interest in bringing a ship here,” Kaczwara said. “In terms of having staff here, ticket agents, operational people and stevedores, it would be beneficial for a cruise operator already here to have a second ship here.”

Kaczwara said the two-night cruises have been highly successful.

“It’s a tremendous value and a tremendous cruise for the money, $129,” Kaczwara said.

From October 2015 through September 2016, 482,211 passengers took the cruise. The peak month was July, with 54,036 passengers.

Port commissioners approved the operating agreement with the new company on Dec. 15.

Khosa, managing partner and an owner in the venture, told commissioners that he and Sheehan are both cruise professionals who have spent a “considerable amount of time in this business.”

The port receives roughly $4 million a year in ship’s fees and passenger parking from the Grand Celebration.

The Grand Celebration launched in January 2015, replacing the Bahamas Celebration, which ran aground in Freeport on Halloween weekend in 2014. The 1,250-passenger Bahamas Celebration was sold for scrap metal. It had sailed from the port to Freeport since 2010, and carried about 350,000 passengers in its last year of operation.

Since Hurricane Matthew damaged Freeport in October, the Grand Celebration has been diverted to Bimini, but is expected to resume sailing to Freeport again after today, a customer service representative said.

The 750-cabin Grand Celebration has a crew of 600 and features 10 public decks, five restaurants, a casino, seven music venues, multiple lounges and an 850-seat performance center.

The ship also has five pools and whirlpool spas, a spa-beauty-fitness center, three stores and three children’s areas.

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