Travel

Garrison Keillor’s Cruise Was Cancelled in March. Loyal Fans Still Waiting for Refunds.


When reservations for this year’s cruise with Garrison Keillor, the former public radio host, went on sale last May, Mr. Keillor’s loyal listeners rushed to claim passage. Cabins sold out in 23 hours.

The Veendam, boarding 1,350 passengers, was scheduled to leave for the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 18.

But a week before the cruise was set to depart, Mr. Keillor, who has corresponded with cruisers throughout the process, emailed the more than 1,200 guests, officially canceling the cruise.

“Events are moving rapidly,” he wrote. “And in the wrong direction and what was intended to be enjoyable has lost all aspects of pleasure.”

In the wake of the pandemic, would-be passengers who booked directly through Carnival’s nine cruise lines have been able to choose between a refund and rebooking with 125 percent credit, said Roger Frizzell, a company spokesman. But the refund process for those who booked through charters, like Mr. Keillor’s Prairie Home Cruises, LLC, is more complicated. The charter, which essentially rented the boat from Holland America, had already spent much of the money the cruisers prepaid.

Caught in the tangled relationship between the charter operator and the cruise line, more than two months after the canceled trip, passengers out thousands of dollars are still scrambling to determine if they will get their money back — and if so, how much.

It has left some fans feeling let down by their cultural idol, Mr. Keillor, who some six weeks after canceling the trip, sent a mass email that jumped from a personal anecdote about sheltering in place to Franz Kafka to plans for his own novel, “in which Lake Woebegonians catch a virus from eating cheese that causes compulsive admission of innermost thoughts and guilty secrets.” (He offered advanced copies of the novel “AT COST plus postage,” as well as a monetary prize for the winning title suggestion.)

But the email — complete with a limerick written by Mr. Keillor — left a lot of questions unanswered.

“There is a lot of red tape,” said Elissa Wolfson, who had spent $4,947 for reservations for herself and her daughter on Mr. Keillor’s cruise, and now wants her money back. For weeks she has gone back and forth with employees of Prairie Home Cruises. “It’s not only Holland America, it’s Prairie Home — and lawyers. Big ifs here,” she said.

Mr. Keillor, 77, a radio personality, novelist and comedian, is best known for creating public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” which he hosted on Saturday nights for some 40 years on Minnesota Public Radio. He has maintained a loyal following — outlasting two retirements (the first wound up being a sabbatical) and, in 2017, accusations of sexual misconduct.

Mr. Keillor, whose show peaked at 4.1 million listeners, is widely credited with helping shape public radio as we know it. (His final show before his retirement in 2016 included a phone call from then-President Barack Obama, who professed to be a fan.)

The next year, Mr. Keillor was accused of “unwanted sexual touching,” accusations later outlined in a letter published by Jon McTaggart, president of Minnesota Public Radio, in January 2018. Mr. McTaggart said a female colleague working on the show had accused the host of “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents.”

Responding to the accusations, Mr. Keillor then told The Times: “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement.”

Long before the accusations, Mr. Keillor’s brand had expanded from the radio airwaves to his own holding company — Prairie Grand, LLC, founded in 2002 — which includes a production company and now the charter cruise company.

On 11 cruises since 2005, what Mr. Keillor calls his “floating small town” had traveled to Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and the Canadian Maritime, among other locations.

Without American Public Media, which had chartered the previous cruises and held all financial responsibility, Mr. Keillor was uncertain if they would be able to continue sailing. But after hearing from interested cruisers, his small team worked to restart them. The cruise in March would have been the first since the accusations.

Dick Kaufmann, 80, a retired lawyer and businessman from Washington, D.C., and his wife, Barbara, are among Mr. Keillor’s dedicated listeners. They had attended every previous cruise and looked forward to sailing again.

“The reality for me and my wife was that we could go anywhere — or stay moored to dock and not go anywhere — and it would have been a warm and interesting experience,” Mr. Kaufmann said.

As with the previous cruises, this year’s was centered on performing arts. The ship was set to stop at ports in Jamaica and Cayman Islands, before turning back up through Cozumel, Mexico, and Key West, Fla. With 45 musicians aboard, time at sea promised performances of jazz, reggae and honky-tonk piano, as well as nightly shows with music and stories — sometimes in the stylings of “A Prairie Home Companion” — by Mr. Keillor.

Celebrity cruises, whether for fans of Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow or James Taylor, have become a popular part of the cruise business. Such niche cruises often have a patchwork of businesses in the background organizing the trip: charters, booking agents, cruise lines and others.

In Mr. Keillor’s case, the companies involved were his charter, Prairie Home Cruises, the booking agent, Executive Meetings and Incentives, Inc., and the cruise line Holland America, as well as dozens of performers and speakers.

With so many involved, the cruise’s cancellation led to confusion and angst among guests who started asking for their money back. Holland America offered the charter company the options of pushing the cruise “into next year” or to take a full refund, said Erik Elvejord, the public relations director for Holland America.

But with cruise ships quickly becoming a floating symbol of the pandemic and the industry’s future so uncertain, the charter opted for the refund, which Kate Gustafson, the managing director of Prairie Home Cruises, said would amount to almost $1.5 million — less than half of what passengers’ had originally paid.

Mr. Elvejord said the process will take “at least 60 days” from the request “due to the high volume we are processing.”

When passengers eventually receive a refund from Prairie Home Cruises, it will not be the full amount they laid out, Ms. Gustafson said.

The charter company had fronted between $700,000 and $800,000 for airfares, insurance, rentals and other costs, which they cannot afford to return to passengers, she said.

Instead, the money from Holland America, along with an additional amount — potentially as much as about $1 million — not already used for other expenses, will be grouped together and prorated to the cost of passengers’ cabins, she said, adding that she could not calculate the total amount passengers could expect to see.

Prairie Home Cruises said it has gone beyond its contractual obligations in trying to secure passengers even a partial refund. Eric Nilsson, the lawyer for the company, said its charter agreement’s force majeure clause, which considers uncontrollable catastrophic events, “allowed cancellation without penalty or forfeiture of payments made.”

Further, the terms of agreement in the company’s travel insurance specifies that a “governmental declaration of pandemic” releases it of liability — a standard clause in such insurance policies.

Ms. Wolfson said she finds the whole process “rife with bureaucracies” and told the charter company in an email that: “Waiting until June for an unspecified partial refund seems callous, unprofessional, and unacceptable.”

She said that while she was disappointed the cruise was canceled and would rebook if offered a refund, “I’d be really disappointed to be thousands of dollars in the hole because we could really use that right now.”

But that might not be a possibility. In an email to Ms. Wolfson, Ms. Gustafson said that the loss of cruise funds “has hit us in the knees.”

Prairie Grand, the holding company overseeing Mr. Keillor’s production and charter companies, has had just modest royalties and ticket and merchandise sales coming in since Mr. Keillor’s retirement in 2016.

“Prairie Grand itself I doubt would ever claim bankruptcy,” Ms. Gustafson said. “But we may just shut the doors when we’re out of revenue.”

David Bartlow, 77, of Richmond, Va., sailed on all 11 Prairie Home cruises and dates his introduction to Mr. Keillor to his show’s debut during Watergate. He was signed up for the March cruise with his wife, and said the cancellation was “kind of devastating.”

He had looked forward to seeing friends he had met on board, among them Chuck Eklund, 71, of Colorado Springs, and Mr. Kaufmann.

Shortly before the cancellation was announced, the three men hopped on a Zoom call to discuss their options.

“We were all on the horns of a dilemma,” Mr. Kaufmann recalled, adding that for him the eventual cancellation came as a relief.

At their age, those who had not already canceled were strongly considering it, the friends said.

“You could watch the age of the people go up,” Mr. Eklund laughed, recalling previous cruises. “And the number of people on walkers and little scooters have gone up.”

Indeed, when Mr. Keillor’s charter company was given the choice to reschedule or request a refund, Ms. Gustafson said the cruise’s demographics played a role in the decision: “With so many unknowns: the virus, the cruise industry, ages of passengers,” as well as that of Mr. Keillor, “we couldn’t in good conscience select a date that we could guarantee.”

Without another cruise on the itinerary, the company has considered other ways to get together “on land or sea, whenever the pandemic lets up,” Mr. Keillor said.

But for now, he said, he is glad they canceled the cruise. In his email to concerned cruisers on April 20, amid paragraphs lamenting the pandemic and asserting his company’s intention to refund them, he included a limerick:

“I’m glad we’re not on the Veendam

Trying to maintain aplomb

In Corona hell

Sprayed with Purell,

Reading the 23rd Psalm.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.



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