Few cruise lines are on as sharp a growth trajectory as MSC Cruises. Chief executive Gianni Onorato gives John Honeywell the inside track on its ambitions.
Could this be a more interesting and exciting time for the development of MSC Cruises? The company is launching the two biggest ships of 2017, is planning big things for America, and has completely re-organised its business in the UK.
It has already begun a breathless countdown to the June arrival of MSC Meraviglia – that’s Italian for “a wonder” – and can hardly contain its excitement for the December arrival of MSC Seaside, which will become the company’s first ship to be christened in the United States.
All this is part of an investment totalling €9 billion (£7.76 billion) that will add 11 new ships to the Geneva-based company’s cruise fleet by 2026, almost tripling its total passenger capacity.
Antonio Paradiso has been in place as the UK’s managing director for 12 months, having moved from his role as executive director in charge of emerging markets. He recruited Steve Williams – a Royal Caribbean veteran – to take over as director of sales, and they moved MSC’s headquarters from Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London to an office development in Uxbridge.
Already MSC chief executive Gianni Onorato is pleased with the results. “It’s bringing a new enthusiasm from travel agents in the UK and there is potential for much more growth. We are seeing increased visibility in the media, which is also encouraging.”
“Our product is well received and meets UK guest expectations. We will have a campaign to show agents there is a difference between us and other brands operating out of the UK. There is a different ambiance – it’s more of an international experience.”
Onorato joined MSC in 2013 from Costa Cruises. Unmistakably Italian and with the charm and style that comes with it, he speaks fluent English thanks to a degree in foreign languages and literature.
We met at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy, on the morning of a traditional coin ceremony to mark the start of construction of MSC Seaview, launching in May 2018. A few hundred yards away was her identical twin sister, the 4,000-passenger, 154,000-ton MSC Seaside, being readied for her launch this November.
Meraviglia – 4,500 passengers and 167,600 tons – is being built in France, at the STX yard, which is also constructing Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, destined to become the largest cruise ship in the world next year.
While Symphony is the fourth ship in the Oasis class, the MSC vessels are two completely new designs. Meraviglia will be the first cruise ship with a troop of Cirque de Soleil performers at sea, presenting 12 shows a week in a purpose-built venue. Seaside’s USP is its connection with the sea, thanks to a Promenade Deck seven metres wide in places, and closer to the waves than most other cruise ships.
Its revolutionary aft outlook unashamedly resembles a Miami condominium block with twin panoramic lifts, and a vertiginous upper-level walkway that – in a last-minute design change echoing Princess’s newest ships – will have a glass floor.
They will join MSC Divina in Miami, sailing to the Caribbean. “We are very small in the US, probably 1% of market share,” said Onorato. “Our ambition is not to become market leader but to extend the option of choices in north America. The plan is to grow to half a million US passengers a year. We will take a little portion of the market, probably about 3%, mostly those American guests who are looking for a European experience.
“The UK market is similar in many ways to the US. We have tried to include destinations that are familiar to UK passengers – Barbados and Cuba for example. We also have a great business with fly-cruises from the UK to the Mediterranean, and we have been expanding in the Arabian Gulf – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – while others have been downsizing.
“We have invested in Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas beach resort, and we are building a new resort at Ocean Cay Marine Reserve in the Bahamas, 65 miles from Miami, which will open this November.”
Even more significantly for the UK, the 2,500-passenger MSC Magnifica will be sailing from Southampton throughout the 2018 summer season.
All the more reason for UK travel agents to take note of MSC and its ambitious plans for the future.
MSC AT A GLANCE
The Mediterranean Shipping Company is a family-owned business founded in Italy and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It claims 350 years of maritime history.
The major part of its business is in cargo shipping – it is the world’s second largest shipping line in terms of container vessel capacity.
The cruise line began in the 1960s, and the current fleet numbers 12 ships. All were built since 2001 and each one shares Sophia Loren as a godmother. Another 11 are on order for construction and delivery between 2017 and 2026.