|Photo by Susan J. Young|
MSC Divina will reposition from Miami to Europe for summer 2015, after the ship completes its winter 2014-15 season. The ship will operate new seven-night itineraries from May 16 through October 3, 2015.
Cruises will sail roundtrip from Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) on Saturdays and call at La Spezia, Cannes, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Naples. Guests also have the option of instead embarking in Barcelona on Wednesdays. Pre- and post-cruise options will be available in both Rome and Barcelona.
While the ship is expected back in the U.S. during winter 2015-16, MSC Cruises’ (www.msccruisesusa.com) announcement late Thursday about the shift in schedule was a surprise to some in the trade. That’s because MSC has widely touted the ship as a year-round product, both in media materials, travel agent communications and, most recently, at cruise3sixty in Miami.
So why the shift? Travel Agent went right to the source – talking to Rick Sasso, the line’s president and CEO, North America. He said the shift in itineraries is designed to actually enhance the line’s commitment to the North American market.
|Rick Sasso, MSC Cruises president and CEO, North America, at a press conference at this past cruise3sixty // Photo by Susan J. Young|
What’s important for people to remember, he said, is that the Caribbean has become overcrowded, even in summer. Pricing simply isn’t where it should be for the line or agents. Similarly, challenges in Caribbean pricing were mentioned within Royal Caribbean International’s first quarter 2014 earnings report issued yesterday.
Sasso stressed that Europe is a place where North Americans want to go in summer. The line will definitely position this specific ship as a product for North Americans although Europeans and other international travelers will certainly be able to book.
He was adamant that MSC Cruises isn’t pulling out of serving North Americans – just the opposite. “After exposing MSC Divina to thousands of guests in the Caribbean, customer surveys are showing an increased desire for North Americans to sail onboard MSC Divina in the Mediterranean,” said Sasso.
He said the changes made to the onboard product at the start of the Caribbean season last fall will be retained; that includes menus that appeal to a North American taste, English language speaking crew, an Americanized service style and entertainment that appeals to U.S. and Canadian travelers.
Sasso said current guest feedback marks for service have trended high, the crew is now familiar with how to deliver a product for North Americans, the product has been finetuned and all is going well in that regard.
“Our biggest problem [in the past] was keeping a consistent product [when the line sailed from Europe and then brought one winter season ship to Florida,]” said Sasso. But by retaining the North American onboard product while the ship is in Europe, the return to North America should be smooth.
Sasso emphasized that nothing has changed about the line's plans to expand in North America, as evidenced by recent moves to double staffing levels in the Fort Lauderdale office and to add executives.
|Photo by Susan J. Young|
While he couldn’t as yet provide details, Sasso said upcoming announcements by the line about North America will “really blow people away and they’ll say, ‘wow, MSC is serious.’”
Could it be a new ship or a second ship coming to North America? Is the year-round operation just taking a “time out” and it will be back in a future year? Or is something different planned?
In the line’s press release, Ken Muskat, executive vice president, sales, public relations and guest services said: “Our recent sales force expansion was not only for MSC Divina in the Caribbean, but a strategic long term decision given the opportunities we have with Europe and expectations that future new-builds will be coming to our market.”
Sasso reiterated that agents will have to wait for the official announcements, but said MSC Cruises has a five-year strategy for North America. "We obviously don’t recruit 25 people [new staffers] overnight to abandon the market," he stressed. "We’ve basically almost doubled staffing in anticipation of things to come.”
MSC Cruises’ Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago also has had high visibility recently at this year's Cruise Shipping Miami and cruise3sixty conferences. At both, he was part of executive panel discussions with leaders from Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
|Photo by Susan J. Young|
Marketing-wise, “we are very excited to extend to our travel agent partners the ability to now offer the best of MSC Divina in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean,” said Muskat. He said the line will offer agents extensive training about how to best sell MSC Divina in the Mediterranean.
Sasso noted that MSC Cruises had briefed major travel partners prior to the announcement and that they understood the strategic approach the line is taking by moving the ship. Michelle Fee, president and CEO of Cruise Planners, characterized the decision to shift the ship to Europe for summer 2015 as “opportune,” noting that the ship has become more established in the North American market and demand is rising for European voyages.
Agents will have access to a new online toolkit that includes ready-made marketing and selling materials for the MSC Divina’s Mediterranean season.
If fares for the European product are higher, which historically they should be, agents could earn more money on the product than what they have been earning in the Caribbean, although the new fares were not available at presstime.
MSC Divina's 2015 Mediterranean season will first open for pre-sale to the line’s past guests next Tuesday, April 29. Bookings will open to the general public on Thursday, May 1. Bookings made by July 31 of this year will be eligible for an exclusive balcony upgrade plus an onboard credit.
To show just how challenging Caribbean pricing has become, MSC Cruises’ fares for a seven-night Caribbean cruise from Miami departing May 3 start at $299 per person double for an interior cabin, $449 per person double for an oceanview cabin and $649 per person double for a balcony stateroom.
As it repositions from Miami to Europe in late spring 2015, MSC Divina will operate a Grand Voyage to New York; King's Wharf, Bermuda; and then on to Ponta Delgada, Lisbon, Cadiz, Barcelona, Naples and Civitavecchia, where it will begin its Mediterranean season.
MSC Cruises said that upon completion of her Mediterranean season which will conclude with a 10-night cruise, the ship will enter drydock in Europe.
“It will receive some surprise enhancements specifically for the North American market before returning back home to South Florida for a third season of seven-night Caribbean cruises starting in November 2015," the line's press release said.
Sasso added: “More announcements about the North American experience and commitment are coming soon.”