Ask most travel advisors if they sell MSC Cruises and the answer is most likely no. Advisors Travel Market Report has spoken to have offered several reasons for avoiding the cruise line.
Most commonly, we hear that MSC is too difficult to work with. There’s no support for advisors who need help. Only slightly less common is a fear that their clients will have a terrible time onboard. Outside of the Yacht Club, the line’s onboard customer service reputation isn’t great.
Other advisors tell us there’s not enough name recognition, making selling an MSC cruise harder.
What isn’t often mentioned, but is equally as important, is the price point. As MSC Cruises has rapidly expanded its presence in the United States, the line has relied on low pricing (outside of the Yacht Club) to fill its ships, keeping the commission earning potential for advisors low.
But with five ships scheduled to be sailing year-round in the U.S. by 2024, MSC knows it needs the trade to be successful. This past summer, MSC hired industry veteran Koreen McNutt as senior vice president and commercial sales officer. She has experience on both the cruise and retail side, having spent 13 years at Holland America Line and Windstar Cruises, as well as 16 years at Expedia Group. She has also served on several cruise line Travel Agent Advisory boards, including at MSC Cruises.
At last week’s MSC Seascape naming ceremony, Travel Market Report had the chance to sit down with McNutt to ask what MSC Cruises is doing to face the uphill challenges it faces, considering its reputation among the travel advisor community.
Committed to the Trade
“At MSC, we will raise our hand and say right away, we know we cannot do it without the trade, no question,” McNutt said right off the bat. “The trade is extremely important.”
McNutt didn’t try to deflect any of the questions TMR asked and, in fact, acknowledged the issues of the past, but insisted they are in the past.
“I’m never going to deny it. I was on the advisory board… I understand those challenges. But let’s be honest, would I have moved myself, my husband and my dog completely across the country if I didn’t believe in it? No, I’m not crazy.”
McNutt said she made it very clear that to accept the job she needed assurances that the line was going to be trade friendly.
“That was assured to me without question,” she said. “Yes, there were problems. But this is MSC today.”
According to McNutt, there are several things a cruise line needs to do in order to be successful with the travel agency community. One is being easy to work with.
“We need to be easy to do business with and this is something we are working on every day,” she said.
To start with, MSC Cruises plans to grow its trade-focused sales team by leaps and bounds.
“I’m hiring aggressively,” McNutt emphasized.
Already hired is a vice president of field sales, and among the hires planned are a director of trade engagement and another regional director for field sales. McNutt also plans to double the number of business development managers and add more sales support positions by the end of Q2 2023.
Under her watch, McNutt said, a travel advisor will never be unable to find help.
“I am very clear on my goals for the team and we will be accessible. We will be approachable and we will respond… We need to make sure that we are helping them understand and not just saying, look at the website. That’s not a good answer.”
McNutt said she’s looking to hire BDMs and sales staff with cruise experience. Just as importantly, she wants people who are excited about helping advisors grow their business.
“I don’t want people that are just going to drop off a brochure and say, I’ll see you next month. I want people that are going to sit down and do a marketing plan with them and reach back out.”
Event & Incentives Budget
McNutt also told TMR she’s been given a sizeable budget for incentives, overrides and events.
“What I think is really important is events. We will be at all of the trade events. We’ll be at regional events. Before we had to really limit that and could only be at the big national events.”
MSC will also be at consumer events, particularly as partners with travel advisors.
“There might be a regional event in Boston or Detroit or wherever, and I might not know about that event. But to an agency that’s heavily involved, they’re like this is the event. If I’m not at this event… But they don’t always have the funds and we need to be there. We need to support them by investing in that and putting money in the BDMs hands.”
Technology Upgrades & Training
MSC is also investing in its trade tools. In early January, McNutt is off to Switzerland to work on MSC Book, the line’s B2B tool.
While some of the changes will be technological, she also said the line plans to work on its training, both for the MSC sales team and travel advisors.
“It’s not just the product, it’s training. We need to make sure that we put our best foot forward with our product and make sure the agents are able to use it,” she said.
To start with, MSC needs to empathize with advisors who work with multiple suppliers all of whom have their own system. “They’re all different. We need to make sure we appreciate that fact.”
“We have a really good product,” she added, referring to MSC Book, something she’s sure of because earlier this year, the line put 3,000 travel advisors on MSC ships, but required those advisors to book themselves using the tool.
“Our usage of MSC Book to say hockey sticked up is putting it mildly... and we’ve seen it stay steady. The people that booked themselves are now the people that we have booking guests.”
Not Yesterday’s Customer Service
McNutt says the reputation MSC has for poor customer service is a vestige of the past.
“It’s not true anymore. That’s an old stigma,” she said, adding its hard to have a crew that’s adequately trained to meet North American customer service expectations when you don’t have ships that sail year-round from the States.
With ships stationed here full-time, the line, she said, has invested more in the training of the crew and the “upscaling” of the crew to ensure North American expectations are met.
“There is a distinct difference between what a European or South American guest wants the crew to be like versus U.S. In the U.S., they want to be touched more. They want, you didn’t offer me water for five minutes. If I do that in Italy, they’re like, you just offered me water. It’s a difference.”
The difference between then and now is already clear she said, adding that the vast majority of the 3,000 advisors that sailed on MSC this past year had nothing but rave reviews for their experiences. And none stayed in the Yacht Club.
To help advisors see today’s MSC customer service for themselves, the line will continue to offer travel agent rates, as well as seminars at sea.
“I have a hundred percent faith that it’s just a matter of getting enough people on board,” she said.
Higher Price Points
“We know that our price point is too low,” McNutt said when asked about pricing, adding that the advisors who sailed with MSC Cruises this year all said pricing should be much higher for what the experience is onboard.
“We’re going to continue to bring up prices to be what they deserve to be.”
Part of being able to bring up pricing is getting the trade onboard with sharing MSC Cruises’ value proposition with their clients.
“We need the trade to help with that message. We need the trade saying, this product is worth this.”
MSC is acutely aware it’s not a household name, McNutt said. The line is actively marketing throughout the Eastern and Southern U.S.
“We’re on TV. I love the music that we’re playing because you need that. You have to have marketing where when they hear the song, it triggers, oh, it’s that cruise line.”
And, as mentioned above, the line is investing heavily in attending events, including consumer events.
Even with all the marketing planned, McNutt emphasized MSC can’t do it without the trade.
“We can’t do it on our own. We have to invest in events and promotions and incentives and getting them onboard so they can share it. We can only do so much with marketing on TV.”