MSC Cruises is, at the moment, still working toward its North American restart and is awaiting word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get back to sailing.
“We are obviously working and we are actively engaged with the CDC to understand the guidelines so that we can meet or exceed them. We are laser focused on the restart on working on that process, when that will happen will be determined in the future,” Michelle Lardizabal, MSC’s SVP and commercial sales officer, told Travel Market Report this week.
While MSC is in the same position as a lot of its competitors in the North American cruise market, one advantage it does have is it has already began sailing in Europe. Since August, MSC has been successfully sailing European guests in the Mediterranean, with protocols that have kept guests safe onboard and onshore.
“We’ve delivered incredible experiences for over 30,000 guests in Europe. We’ve proven that we’ve been able to provide a really great cruise experience along with a safe experience,” Lardizabal said.
North American MSC guests can expect to see a lot of those same protocols once things do resume, with additions and changes possible depending on guidance from the CDC.
Travel advisor moves
Earlier this month, MSC announced that it was making two changes to its True Partnership advisor program. The first is that it is committing to protecting 2019 achieved commission levels in 2021, giving advisors a chance to earn commission on 2021 bookings at the level they started 2020 at.
The second is that MSC’s Get On Board program, which gives advisors a chance to get onboard with discounted rates or with a completely reimbursed sailing (the sailing becomes reimbursed with 10 FIT cruise bookings), will be expanded in 2021.
The changes were simple adjustments that can help make the relationship between MSC and advisors “seamless,” Lardizabal said.
“The trade is a critical part of our business. We rely on them to really help spread awareness of MSC Cruises and all we have to offer,” she said. “The primary question for us internally is always ‘how do we best support them?’”
MSC is also doing its best to keep its advisor partners educated on both how its fleet and onboard offerings are developing, and how the MSC experience is changing with COVID. Starting on Jan. 27, the line is launching a weekly training series that dives into service bookings on MSC and more.
MSC is also utilizing its European experience to help travel advisors market to their clients. Lardizabal told TMR that MSC is already providing information on what they’ve done in Europe on flyers and marketing material for advisors and consumers.
For advisors talking to clients, marketing that flexible policy and the insight into what North American sailings could look like when they do come back online, is a good starting point for those conversations.
“That really gives them as travel advisors that reassurance that clients can start looking at the value,” Lardizabal said. “They feel comfortable about the booking and they get excited.”
Lardizabal also added that the pent up demand will only increase once the CDC deems it safe to sail.
“Knowing the pent up demand that there is, whether it was a FCC that was issued or a refund, as soon as the restart happens you’re going to see that skyrocket,” she said. “The sooner you can book and lock in the stateroom that you want, the better.”
When MSC does get to sail in North America again, Lardizabal expects a pent-up demand to help drive initial bookings. She expects Wave season to drive some sales, but added that this isn’t a typical year.
“We are seeing a ton of pent up demand but at the same time we know that this isn’t going to be a typical wave season. We are very optimistic about what we are seeing for summer 2021, late 2021, and even 2022,” she said.
Part of that optimism is coming from how bookings are reacting to MSC’s flexible policies—the line has been allowing changes through its Flexible Booking Program up to 48-hours prior to sailing—and its promotional offerings, including “Your Cruise, Your Choice,” which offers up to $400 in spending credit.
“Valuing the flexibility with each booking as well as the value that we are offering with ‘Your Cruise, Your Choice. We think the combination of both are key to helping our advisors sell during Wave,” she said.
MSC also has a new ship sailing in the U.S. later this year—Seashore, a ship that MSC says is an evolution of MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview, is set to debut in August. That ship, combined with the continued launch of Ocean Cay in the Bahamas, which was opened for about three months before the shutdown, is giving MSC a chance to look toward a very bright second half of 2021.
For right now, the bookings that are coming in are primarily from drive markets and from closer-to-home ports for later this year and early 2022. Lardizabal said that MSC expects those cruises, including ones from a new homeport, Port Canaveral, to be popular, especially the shorter-itinerary sailings, which “we are seeing take the lead.”