Storylines was founded in 2016 to create and market floating retirement homes for those who wanted to live in the world’s “first affordable residential community at sea.” However, in one bizarre twist after another, the wannabe cruise line promoted ships that it failed to secure, sold cabins on a ship before it had a design or contract in place to build one, and ultimately abandoned its plan to buy old ships and convert them into floating condominiums. But while Storylines’ credibility has had trouble staying afloat, the company’s executives seem to believe the COVID-19 pandemic may be just the lifeline it needs.
The original concept behind the creation of Storylines was to redevelop existing ships into floating retirement residences, mainly because old ships were cheaper to buy and refurbish than building new ships. According to the company, two years of market research showed that there was ample demand for a floating retirement home, particularly if it came at an affordable price point. At the time, MS The World was the only large-scale floating condominium in the market, and it catered to ultra-high-net-worth individuals with net assets of more than US$10 million.
So the founders of Storylines, property developers and constructors Alister Punton and Shannon Lee, formed a company, hired some maritime consultants, and began promoting the concept of turning old ships into retirement residences at sea. It wasn’t long before a community of people interested in buying came together in a group called ‘The Founders Circle’ to share ideas with the management team about what should go into the new ships.
By 2018 the company had commitments from about 100 people to buy cabins and was eager to move forward with plans to build and refurbish an old ship. It’s about this time when the Storylines’ concept began to take on water.
After looking at several old vessels, Storylines settled on the Marco Polo, a 53-year old ship which was under lease at the time to Cruise Maritime Voyages of Greece. But after creating design plans for the required major refit and starting to market the ship, it became apparent that its age and size were not suitable for what “future residents needed in terms of value and quality of lifestyle.”
Why anyone at Storylines thought refurbishing a 53-year old ship was going to be cheap and easy remains a mystery. It retrospect, it appears that the company’s founders, who had never worked in the cruise or maritime industries, didn’t fully appreciated the significant difference between rehabbing old buildings versus rehabbing old ships.
Storylines soon found a more suitable 27-year old ship called the Grand Classica (formerly the Costa Classica) that was sailing under the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line banner, and began the redesign and marketing processes again. But after consulting with various countries to schedule the ship’s inaugural itinerary, it became apparent that new environmental laws coming into effect the following year would prevent the ship from visiting some ports. Once again Storylines had to do an about-face, stop marketing the Grand Classica, and face the reality that the only viable option was to secure a new, purpose-built ship. So Storylines hired Tillberg Design of Sweden to partner with them on designing a new vessel, which it released images of in late 2019. However, at this point there is no information on the Storylines’ website to indicate that a shipyard has been contracted to build the ship.
This change of plans pushed back the maiden voyage of the Storylines’ first ship by three years — from 2020 to 2023. It also increased costs for cabins, and resulted in confusion for prospective buyers who kept finding outdated pricing and deck plans from previous planned ship acquisitions on internet searches.
Other credibility issues damaged Storylines’ reputation, including the fact that it set up a company in the U.K., then dissolved it, then set up business in the state of Delaware, lacked a permanent address for its corporate offices, and initially seemed reluctant to share much detailed information. By now, there was also an active thread about Storylines on Cruise Critic that pointed out many of the company’s flip-flops, and cast doubt on its ability to deliver on its business plan.
In defense of Storylines, like many start-up companies that stumble in their early days, they did eventually deliver a concept that looks more appealing and viable. And design plans for their new ship, to be named the MV Narrative in keeping with the literary theme of the Storylines brand, show significant upgrades over the original model.
For example, the new build will have a lifespan of 60 years as opposed to 24 years for an older used ship. It will be a more environmentally friendly ship with a ‘Liquid Natural Gas’ (LNG) dual-fuel powered engines and onboard power generation. The cabins will be larger, 87 per cent will have balconies, and there will be more space dedicated to public areas.
The ship will also feature a number of sustainability initiatives, including the first-ever zero-waste food market at sea called ‘Sustain.’ In this store, residents will be able to shop for produce grown onboard without pesticides, including salad greens, vine-grown vegetables and strawberries for use in cooking home-made meals.
The MV Narrative will also be much more affordable than its older rival, MS The World, which was launched in 2002 and features 165 luxury apartments.
According to an article from Bloomberg, prices for the outright purchase of cabins on MS The World range from US$1.8 million to $15 million (about$4,285 to $6,200 per square foot). Maintenance fees, which include operations, crew compensation, and food and beverage onboard, range from about US$240,000 to US$900,000 per year. Ownership is restricted to people with at least $10 million in assets, and buyers must be endorsed by two existing owners and pass background checks. The ship sold out in 2006, but re-sales occasionally come on the market.
In contract, prices for one of the 627 cabins on the MV Narrative start at US$308,616 (for a 12-year lease) and all-inclusive maintenance fees start at US$2,365 a month per person (based on 2 people per cabin). Prices for a 24-year lease or an outright purchase start at about US$1.5 million, and sales appear to be brisk. Deposits are required to reserve a cabin, and the funds will be held in escrow until the vessel is complete.
For people who enjoy being at sea, and are prepared to place a bet on an upstart challenger rather than a more established brand, Storylines could well be a smart choice for a permanent home at sea. But despite their recovery from a shaky start, the Storylines’ management team continues to walk into sharp objects.
For example, in order to juice the appeal of its concept, the company recently implied that unlike the traditional cruise industry, the MV Narrative would be more immune from the impact of pandemics like COVID-19. In part, the statement, which appeared under the headline “Where is the safest place to be during a pandemic?” said:
There has been a lot of press lately on cruise ships and health during the epidemic. People are concerned for their safety and that of their families. … Large pleasure ships, cruise ships, often contain over 5,000 guests, have large food buffets, and visit a new country every few days. The turnover of guests on a weekly basis is problematic. It’s a constant battle against a tide of people, which certainly sounds appealing to a pandemic, as well as to vacationers, and of course, makes for great news stories when something goes wrong. The new purpose-built Storylines ship could not be further from this image. … We can control our own destiny and that of our families by choosing the safest possible living accommodations. Storylines’ state of the art air and surface purification systems make it the cleanest community on the planet.
What the authors of this statement seemed to have overlooked, however, is that MS The World – a smaller and more exclusive vessel – had to disembark all passengers and non-essential crew in March over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, and at this writing has not yet deemed it safe enough for them to return.
In any event, Storylines may still live up to its future promise and deliver “the first affordable residential community at sea.” But if it can’t, the company may need to change the name of its ship from the Narrative to the Farce.
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