Tuesday, 19 November 2013

MSC Cruises pinning U.S. market hopes on Divina

MSC Cruises pinning U.S. market hopes on Divina

By Tom Stieghorst
MSC DivinaMIAMI — Even though the MSC Divina made its debut in the Mediterranean 18 months ago, it will be met with fanfare when it arrives here this week.

The Divina is both the largest vessel in MSC’s 12-ship fleet and the first devoted to year-round sailing in North America.

For Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA, the Divina’s arrival marks the culmination of 10 years of effort to put MSC on the travel map outside of Europe.

The ship will be sailing a three-day preview cruise for thousand of agents, media and VIPs before launching seven-night cruises out of Miami to the Caribbean.

An aggressive and varied marketing campaign has been rolled out to prepare the ship for a successful North American debut.

Sasso said it will be a significant opportunity for agents to familiarize themselves with the MSC brand.

MSC has invested heavily in the Divina’s launch. For the first time, the company will advertise on TV in the U.S., and in another first, it will mount a consumer public relations campaign.

Much of the effort can be traced to yet another first: a day-long travel agent advisory council meeting in October.

Although Sasso and his marketing vice president, Ken Muskat, declined to disclose the promotion budget, they say MSC has opened its wallet.

“They understand what it takes to penetrate a market like this, especially when you’re a fairly unknown brand,” Muskat said.

The TV ads began appearing 10 days ago on cable channels including Discovery, Fox News, MSNBC and HGTV. There are also radio spots and billboards in key markets such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York and Chicago.

Muskat has directed a Twitter and Facebook campaign to publicize the Divina since June. MSC’s agent website features a four-part video introduction, and MSC has been giving away a cruise a day to agents since October, a promotion that will continue through the end of the year.

MSC is battling some headwinds in its efforts to become more established in North America.

Many agents say they cannot afford to focus too much on cruise lines that are not big players in North America. While a year-round ship with a 3,959-passenger capacity improves on the seasonal presence MSC has had to date, it is still just one ship.

Other agents say past experience has been discouraging.

“I’ve had a few clients go on MSC,” said Denise Rogers of Palm Beach Travel Genie in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “It wasn’t their cup of tea.”

Sasso said MSC has been rapidly evolving to address past service and product concerns and that the Divina has been specially tailored to American tastes in food, smoking and entertainment.

Crew training has been a big emphasis, and U.S. executives were allowed to hand-pick key staff for Divina’s redeployment.

The Divina is also arriving at a time when Wall Street analysts are voicing concerns about overcapacity in the Caribbean. Ten weeks after Divina arrives, the Norwegian Getaway will debut, adding another 4,000 berths to the market on a year-round basis.

To leverage its resources, MSC has been courting agents since Sasso arrived at the company in 2004. Even as it appeals to consumers for the first time, it has ramped up trade marketing.

Muskat has led a series of road shows this year in cities that included New York, Miami and Philadelphia and has participated in every travel trade show he could schedule.

In mid-October, MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago flew from Geneva to Miami to attend the travel agent advisory council, which included top agency groups representing 80% of North American cruise sales.

“It’s a big deal for us, and its something we’re going to continue to do twice a year, ongoing,” Muskat said of the advisory council.

MSC redid the audio from its European TV ads to feature a travel agent call to action. And by year’s end, it will have given away about 65 weeklong cruises to agents who achieve a specific level of sales activity, mostly targeted at the Divina.

“We know that our primary attention has to be focused on Divina right now, because if we make that ship successful, that halo effect to send North Americans over to Europe to experience our other ships will be a tremendous benefit for us,” Muskat said.

He added: “We know this is where many travel agents will see us, experience us, for the first time, and then we can really get their focus on the rest of the beautiful ships we have in the fleet.”