The last time MSC entered the year-round Caribbean market, the timing was particularly bad for any newcomer, let alone a player with limited consumer awareness in the North American market.
Coming on the heels of 2 years of bad publicity for the cruise industry, rates were low for most major players in its largest market, and often even lower for MSC. Now MSC is returning to year-round Caribbean cruising, and this time it’s a different story.
First of all, it’s a good thing for both the industry and MSC in particular that the Caribbean is shaping up to be much stronger in 2016 than it was in 2014. And, MSC is doing business differently on both the agent and consumer side. As one retailer told Cruise Week, “They're doing everything they can to help us - 18% commission on Groups and FIT business with a bonus 2% for using MSC Book for FIT business.”
MSC has challenges, but they are also stepping up to meet them, as evidenced by an unusual loyalty program. As part of MSC’s current road show, Executive V.P. Ken Muskat addressed the new loyalty program at a recent meeting with more than 100 agents. “There’s 2 parts of our new loyalty program,” he said. “One is that we launched a new loyalty program for the typical reasons that anybody does: we want to reward our past guests.”
But the program’s differences become apparent with the addition of a new Welcome Level. “This means that, even if you haven’t cruised with MSC before, when you make your 1st booking you get points for that 1st cruise. You don’t get any onboard benefits until your 2nd cruise, but the points for the cruise and the points for the onboard spend start to count from your very 1st cruise.”
But the aspect of the program that really caught everybody’s attention was MSC’s new Loyalty Match program. “If you have a client who has a loyalty level with another brand whether it’s land or sea, all-inclusive, hotel, land, cruise, etc., we will match whatever level they’re at,” explained Muskat. “So if they are at level 2, with a brand that they vacation with all the time, they will start with our level 2 benefits from that time forward.”
Muscat explained that, “It may not be the exact amenities, but if you’re at a level 3 with brand X, you will get the same amenities that our 3rd level - gold level - would get. We just have to see proof of your loyalty card.”
One veteran agent in attendance commented to Cruise Week, “Before, I thought MSC might just go away again, so there were some misgivings about partnering; but now that’s not happening. They're here to stay.”
And, Muskat noted, “When MSC Seaside comes out November 2017 for the 1st time, MSC is going to have a ship leave the shipyard and go directly to Miami to stay, forever, doing year-round Caribbean cruises. These ships are going to 154,000 tons, bigger than any ship we have in the fleet right now: over 2,000 staterooms, 4,100 guests.”
MSC Divina will already have been active in Miami. “Seaside will be joining Divina in Miami, not replacing her. We have 2 ships that are going to be doing Miami-Caribbean cruises for the North American market.”
This is no passing fancy. As Muskat points out, there’s infrastructure commitment: “We just signed a deal with Port Miami to have an enhanced cruise terminal dedicated specifically for MSC Divina and Seaside.”
Muskat noted a lot is going on at MSC since last summer’s road show to top markets in North America. “We are growing so fast, so big, that we are going to be a major, dominant force in the market, in North America, and in the overall cruise industry." He said MSC has invested $6 billion in expansion and renovations, and has 7 ships coming out between 2017 and 2022. Those new ships go on sale approximately 2 years in advance.
“The 1st one that comes out, MSC Meraviglia, already went on sale July 5th,” said Muskat. “The 2nd one, MSC Seaside, is going on sale early Q1 2016.”
Muskat finished up by saying, “People say to me, ‘Why do you spend so much time on the road with travel agents and building relations with travel agents?'
“It’s because we need you more than ever," Muskat told agents. "We depend on the vast majority of our business coming thru travel agencies."