One on One: MSC's Ken Muskat Talks Brand's Evolution

MSC Cruises says its guest satisfaction ratings are “through the roof” and extremely positive when travel agents put the right people on its product sailing from Miami.

But on Internet bulletin boards, consumers have a mixed response – some love the line, others simply don’t. Interestingly, it’s usually one or the other, with little middle ground. So what’s up?

Travel Agent put that question to Ken Muskat, executive vice president and COO, during a one-on-one interview session last week at MSC Cruises’ North American headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

Bottom line? He believes some guests are simply on the wrong cruise product for their vacation style and personality: “MSC really wasn’t meant for them.”

And yes, qualifying the client is critical for agents, but there’s another important fact to consider, he emphasizes: “The biggest message I want to get out is that MSC is not the legacy MSC that many travel agents think it is.”

He believes some travel agents who trained about the product years back are still qualifying clients based on the “then,” not the “now,” of the brand.

While MSC has been sailing from South Florida since 2003, its first year-round home ported ship was MSC Divina in 2013. While agents likely remember that promotion in the U.S. market began for that introduction, "it's not the way it was five years ago,” notes Muskat.

“I can’t stress enough how we’ve evolved," he emphasizes, noting that he's observed the changes first hand. His first stint with MSC Cruises was as executive vice president of sales from 2013 to 2016.

He then left the line and spent several years in China heading up a project for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. He returned to MSC as executive vice president and chief operating officer, North America, earlier this year. 

Muskat works closely with Rick Sasso, the line's chairman, North America, and Robert Fusaro, president for North America, both also based in Fort Lauderdale. 

His role is to manage travel trade-facing functions as well as hotel operations, contact center, revenue management, marketing and communications.  

Old MSC Versus the New MSC

When the line first began promoting to the U.S. market in the early years, it took the approach – which many thought was the appropriate way to go – that it wasn’t an Italian product (like Costa Cruises), it wasn't a European product (despite European ownership) and many American elements were being added to the product, so it was becoming Americanized to some extent.

Also, pricing was low, given its need to build brand awareness. That appealed to Americans who may have sailed on or were aware of other contemporary products, such as Carnival, Norwegian or Royal Caribbean.

Yet, the difficulty was that often consumers (many of whom didn't book through a travel agent), boarded despite having no qualification for the MSC product. So, they expected a fully Americanized experience, similar to what they'd find on those other three U.S.-based lines.

Some were disappointed when they didn't get that or heard foreign languages spoken by other guests onboard. Even today, many do the same. 

MSC Seaside

Muskat also says that even today some agents (especially those who say they've taken a training program five or six years ago) are qualifying the client based on that out-of-date MSC perspective, 

He urges agents to take the line's webinars or one-on-one sales training sessions with business development managers to understand the changes.

Muskat describes guests who board an MSC Cruises' ship and leave happy as "curious travelers, sophisticated voyagers" or those who enjoying mixing and mingling with others from international cultures and allowing their children to do the same. 

They are not seeking a party boat. And, they're not seeking a fully Americanized experience.

New Brand Positioning 

Now sailing to 200 destinations across the globe, MSC is a "global player," with 16 ships in its fleet (17 when the MSC Grandiosa sets sail later this year). Four of its ships will sail from PortMiami this winter. So, it's tackling the old-versus-new positioning issue with the following steps:

First, Muskat says to expect new brand positioning to be introduced for the U.S. travel agency community in the next few months.

Following that, the effort will expand into a consumer campaign. Those efforts will more clearly identify exactly who is the right guest for an MSC Cruises vacation. 

Second, Muskat notes that until agents see and touch the MSC product by sailing on a voyage themselves, it's a big challenge for them to sell it.

The line's "Get on Board" campaign offers agents the opportunity to cruise from Miami to the Caribbean on MSC Seaside or MSC Meraviglia in a balcony stateroom for $499 per person (plus GFTs) with free unlimited drinks. Agents can choose from select sailings through April 5, 2020.

More than 700 agents have already done that. When agents who've sailed on that program return home, Muskat says that if they subsequently sell 10 cabins, the line will return that fare to them. 

"We know that travel agents are five times more likely to sell MSC Cruises when they see the product," says Muskat,

Sales Support Update

Between 2016 and 2019, MSC Cruises has increased the number of North American travel agencies working with the line by more than 50 percent. 

On the horizon? Look for MSC to beef up its West Coast and Mid-U.S. sales presence. It plans to soon add another business development manager in California and another in Texas. 

MSC is also adding more inside sales staffers to assist agents, including many home-based agents and those selling groups. "We intend to do more on the phones," Muskat says. 

The line also recently appointed Alex Acosta as manager of MICE (meetings and corporate events) and charter sales, and Muskat says that segment of customers should increase sizably moving forward. 

Four Ships, Stronger Clout

Today, MSC Seaside, which was purpose-built to sail warm-weather Caribbean cruises from South Florida, sails year-round on Saturdays from PortMiami. A part of the ship's Grand Piazza area is shown in the photo below. 

Grand Piazza Area MSC Seaside Editorial Use Only Photo by Susan J Young

Also, MSC Armonia, undergoing a major renovation/refit in November, sails year-round from PortMiami on Mondays.  

Two others MSC ships will sail seasonally from Miami this winter, the line's largest-ever North American deployment. MSC Divina will depart on Fridays and MSC Meraviglia will depart on Sundays.

Approximately three quarters of all guests sailing from PortMiami are from North America. In the past European policies and programs drove much of what was happening in North America, given the line's small U.S. presence.

But that's shifting. Muskat reports that many product concepts being adopted globally are now based on pilot programs undertaken in the North American market. 

Tweaking the Processes

Reservations training for North American reservations agents, who talk daily with travel agents and consumers alike, has been “not traditionally something we’ve done very well," Muskat acknowledges. 

He stresses that training and internal processes to assure that calls are answered promptly and questions handled appropriately with the right answers are being reviewed and seriously tweaked. Progress is being made, he said, with more to be done.

Analyzing that reservations process in its entirety to make positive improvements is one reason the line recently hired Claudia King-McWilliams as vice president, contact center, groups and process improvement. 

He also stresses that the line's MSC Book computerized system for agents, which is constantly being updated, is often the best way for agents to find answers to simple questions on a day-to-day, routine basis, rather than picking up the phone.

Muskat notes that agents often can avoid "holds" on the reservation lines by using MSC Book's chat function -- which has dedicated staff to provide answers that way -- and often with no wait. 

Look for reservations and groups to be two big areas of focus moving forward. 

Martha Stewart Partnership

Among the new offerings for MSC Cruises' guests sailing on several ships from PortMiami are those created via a partnership with Martha Stewart, including new culinary menus and shoreside experiences

That program is still in its early phase, and Muskat recently tried out one of the new branded tours in Grand Cayman; Noland Steward, the owner of Coral Stone Stables, offers MSC guests a 1.5-hour guided horseback adventure in Barker’s National Park.

Muskat (shown above on horseback) loved the new "immersive" adventure, and says that, thus far, guests seem to really be enjoying the newly introduced curated tours -- a cut above the typical shore experience. 

After riding and an ocean plunge into the surf on horseback, Muskat and other guests enjoyed lunch at the Vivo restaurant, run by Michele “Miki” Zama, who shares ways to eat organically.

They enjoyed a vegan tasting menu served with dishes as organic red beetroot hummus, guacamole topped black quinoa with sweet potato bites, coconut vegan calamari and homemade falafel.

Agents who book packages of MSC shore excursions in advance can receive 5 percent commission, and Muskat says the new Martha Stewart tours are a part of that. 

Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve

Opening on November 9, 2019, is Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, the line's new private Bahamian island experience; check out a video preview at the previous link.

The reserve is an island transformed from industrial sand mining use to a total eco-restoration with new tropical plantings and marine protection.  

Unlike other cruise line private isles with many thrilling features (like Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay), Muskat says the sheer beauty and tropical feel of the island -- the peace, serenity, gorgeous water, coral reef restoration and feeling of relaxation -- is what MSC hopes guests appreciates.

Still, from an experiential side, "it will be as private as you want, or as active as you want," he says, noting that there are many active adventures and a new spa program for the island, too. Guests will be able to get some treatments not offered on the ships.  

With the pier for docking, MSC says it has the ability to overnight at the island, so guests will stay all day and, in some cases, all night too. That means not everyone has to race off the ship first thing in the morning; they can leave during the day at their own pace. 

Muskat recently visited and walked across the isle in under 17 minutes, but of course, the line will also have electric vehicles to transport guests who desire that. 

Brightline and MSC

Muskat noted that MSC Cruises now has a partnership with Brightline, South Florida’s higher speed train service (a private entity backed by Fortress Investment Group) to conveniently connect its cruisers to PortMiami from West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

We asked about how that will work when Brightline completes a rebranding effort to Virgin Trains by year's end.

MSC is the official cruise line of Brightline,” stresses Muskat. MSC's guests depart from either West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale station, avoiding a traffic-heavy drive down I-95, and when they arrive at the downtown Miami Brightline station, their luggage is automatically transferred to MSC Cruises.

It's delivered right to the guest's stateroom/suite, making the entire South Florida trip a more carefree experience. Muskat took a Brightline train ride recently. (We snapped the photo below on a Brightline trip from Fort Lauderdale last year).

Brightline Train Fort Lauderdale Terminal By Susan J. Young Editorial Use Only

He raves about the new facilities and trains, and believes that MSC will do more with Brightline moving forward. He says there is talk of extending the South Florida service to a new, even-more-convenient station within PortMiami. 

In addition, construction is currently underway on Brightline's Phase Two efforts to connect the South Florida stations to Orlando as early as 2022; that would allow cruise lines to couple a South Florida cruise with an Orlando theme park visit.

Brightline also says MSC is its official cruise line, that it has a separate marketing agreement with Virgin Group -- hence the rebranding of the trains -- and that it also plans to work with other cruise lines.  

More That’s New?

In October 2022, MSC Cruises will open two new high-technology terminals at PortMiami. Muskat says the line will also have an office within the new facilities. That will allow for more close-up oversight of operations and customer service.

Few details have yet been released on the terminal =, but Muskat says it’s not the razzle dazzle of the terminal that counts, but rather the handling of those boarding and disembarking in a smooth, quick fashion.

He says the new terminal will be capable of handling 7,000 passengers and two ships at the same time and "will take the experience to the next level" in terms of customer service. Agents can expect facial recognition, high-technology luggage handling and more. 

So as the line evolves in a fast-paced manner and beefs up its presence in North America, Muskat hopes that some travel agents will become educated about today's MSC, not that that of five years ago. He hopes they'll try again with the latest training and newly added sales resources. 

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