MSC Cruises lays out plans for increased agent outreach

By Tom Stieghorst

FORT LAUDERDALE — MSC Cruises unveiled several marketing initiatives under a new “Serving You” theme.

Rick Sasso, CEO of MSC Cruises USA, said at the Cruise3sixty conference that the line intends to emphasize the human connection in its dealings with travel agents. It is in the process of filling 22 new sales positions to extend outreach to agents.

RickSasso“There will be more people on the ground face to face to be the partners with the travel seller, so together we can create new business,” Sasso said.

He announced that marketing and sales vice president Ken Muscat had been promoted to executive vice president of sales, marketing, public relations and guest services, and that several other executives had been promoted to strengthen oversight.

MSC will hold a joint promotion with Fiat to give away a $21,000 Fiat convertible to a consumer and a travel agent. An entry for the drawing will be made for each booking on MSC Divina from April 4 to May 18, good on departures from Aug. 2 to Dec. 27. Winners will be announced around the year-end holidays.

Muscat said a new bus wrap advertisement has been installed for April on 14 buses running a freeway route between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The wrap includes a travel agent call to action.

Under the “Serving You” banner, MSC will launch a 20-city road show in May to talk to travel agents on their home ground. There is a tentative list of cities to be visited, but it could change, Muscat said.

He also said MSC will offer a new wedding program on MSC Divina that for the first time will enable legal weddings to be performed onboard or in a number of ports, including Miami, Cozumel, St. Maarten and Falmouth, Jamaica.

Muscat said details of the program, which launches Aug. 2, will be available in the next several weeks.

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MSC to place two-ship order

By Tom Stieghorst
MSC Cruises ship renderingSTX France has signed a letter of intent to build two 167,000-gross ton ships for MSC Cruises that would be delivered in 2017 and 2019, plus options for two more.

The long-rumored order would expand MSC’s fleet from 12 to 16 if all four ships are built.

MSC Cruises USA’s president, Rick Sasso, said at the Cruise Shipping Miami conference earlier this month that MSC was ready to increase its North American presence from a single year-round ship if an order was made.

A statement from the two companies said the contract will be binding “when the financial package is secured.”

The companies did not give a value for the order, but said the two ships would provide 16 million working hours for STX France and its subcontractors. STX France genial manager Laurent Castaing said a competitiveness agreement signed with trade unions was “decisive” in reaching the letter of intent to build the ships.

Each new ship will have 2,250 passenger cabins for a double-occupancy capacity of 4,500, but MSC put the ship’s capacity at 5,700 passengers. The ships “will be able to call in most of the ports and destinations on earth, without compromise,” MSC said,

MSC President Gianni Oronato said the ships will boast “new panoramic spaces, a bigger theater and a spectacular amusement park connected to an outdoor aqua park as well as a two-deck inside promenade.”

The MSC ships will have specially designed cabins for families and an extended Yacht Club luxury area on each vessel.

Castaing said negotiations for the ships were particularly challenging “in light of today’s global competitive landscape in the shipbuilding industry.”

The main creditor for the troubled Korean company that owns STX Europe said recently it would like to divest the European asset by June.

MSC Cruises USA’s Rick Sasso

MSC Cruises USA’s Rick Sasso

By Tom Stieghorst
Rick SassoRick Sasso was appointed president of MSC Cruises USA in 2004. Earlier this month he spoke about MSC and its 3,502-passenger MSC Divina’s year-round presence in North America with cruise editor Tom Stieghorst

Q: Can the importance to MSC of homeporting Divina in Miami be overstated?

A: We’ve been gearing up for this for about a decade now as we started to introduce ships during the winter season only. Now we’ve made that decision to position our strongest hardware, a remarkable ship, and she’ll be very competitive here in this market. 

Q: How have agents reacted to the Divina?

A: We’ve just recently concluded an advisory board meeting, which represents about 80% of the cruise traffic that gets produced here in North America, and these very select, high-profile sellers of travel are very enthusiastic with us. They have offered their fullest support knowing that we’re bringing such a magnificent ship and we’re going to be here with some continuity. 

Q: What type of agents are you focusing on the most?

A: You have to have more than one front. You have to make sure you’re with the online producers, because that’s what the consumers are using very frequently to search for cruises, to book cruises. So you have to have your hand very tight on the big online guys. But there’s also a lot of opportunity in the group arena and the retail arena. We have done a good job penetrating the likely producers of groups and those who are looking for magnificent ships in the premium-plus category, and even those who want a luxury component, because we have Yacht Club on the Divina, as we do on the other three ships that also feature the Yacht Club. So I think we’re now able to set up a little more penetration for those who are looking for a very high-quality product. 

Q: Agents say they have to focus their business, and that means selling the cruise lines that have a big presence in North America. Your response?

A: I don’t think that’s something unusual. When you have the gorillas in the marketplace that have dozens of ships in one marketplace like North America year-round, there’s certainly a lot activity going on and a lot of relationships. But we offer an extraordinary alternative, because we are a serious group of managers, there’s incredible talent in our organization, so they like working with people they can trust. They also know that we are growing, that we have a presence in Europe, we’re the No. 1 cruise line in the Mediterranean in Europe. And that alone is a lot of source [business] in North America that’s going on for those products. 

Q: A travel agent said, “I did send some of my clients over on MSC and they came back and said, ‘This isn’t our cup of tea.'”

A: I think that was probably very, very true three years ago, not so true two years ago and a lot less a year ago, and today we have taken the steps to actually re-engineer the product. So there’s very few places to smoke on board. There is a very strong emphasis on all the culinary items that an American would want, whether they’re cruising in Europe or cruising in the Caribbean. We’ve super-trained our crew in fluent English, there is an abundance of TV channels in the cabins, and we really take quality and service as a main priority now. 

So I think we are a different cruise line than we were 12 months ago, and if you have some comments of a historical perspective, they can now start seeing the new MSC. And [after] Divina comes on Nov. 20, people are going to start talking about that