MSC Cruises is one of the most exciting cruise lines operating within the industry today. The company, still incredibly young when compared to its competitors, has undergone a rapid expansion over the last few years and now owns one of the most exciting fleets on the market today. It also has an offering which manages to both keep its Mediterranean routes, while appealing to a hugely diverse sector of the market. As testament to that, last year over 180 nationalities sailed on an MSC Cruises itinerary. So it must be doing something right, right? The company’s corporate operations officer Neil Palomba was at last week’s Columbus Day in Liverpool. We caught up with him to discuss the company and the impending arrival of its next UK managing director, one Giles Hawke…
Would you be able to introduce yourself within the context of MSC and give us some background on your profile too?
I’ve been with the company for 17 years after studying at the maritime academy as a deck officer to become a captain. During my career, I had the opportunity to go and work within the technical and new build department and I was there for two and a half years. I oversaw the building of the Lirica and Opera but my dream was always to become a captain so I went back onboard ships. I took my licence but of course it would take a long time to be promoted to such a role. While at sea I was called by MSC and asked to move to the US, which was an opportunity I took. Three years ago I was asked to move to Geneva to oversee a more operational role and now I’m being introduced to a commercial side of the business. The latter development has specifically involved the Anglo-Saxon market including the UK. Through that I am basically the interim managing director while we wait for Giles Hawke to start.
So you never got to become a captain!
No! I got to a safety officer role but I was called back on-land…
Where do you think MSC fits in within the market?
I think that the great strength of MSC is that it is able to cater to all segments of the market. Family is obviously one of our biggest focuses, with free cruises and the amount of entertainment onboard, but of course couples, singles and seniors are all very important markets to the industry and us too. In terms of product, we have developed something that caters to a huge variety of people. The fact that we have carried in excess of 180 nationalities last year is testament to that. Our soul is Mediterranean but depending on source market and where we’re cruising, we will make various alterations.
How important is the UK to MSC?
The UK is the biggest European market in the industry today. It has 1.7 million passengers and is a huge opportunity for us. It has grown substantially in the last few years and still represents a huge growth opportunity. I don’t just mean deploying ships from the UK but also being more reachable into the other destinations we cover – whether that’s the Emirates, Caribbean or the Mediterranean. In 2014 we’ll be bringing the Magnifica to the UK but a big part of our strategy is taking Brits onto our cruises around the world.
How do you plan on making MSC more accessible to the UK market?
Accessibility is key in order to succeed in the market. That can mean more UK departures – as with the Magnifica – but we can’t have 12 ships operating out of Southampton. So when deploying ships worldwide you need to make sure the accessibility for each of the sourcing markets is convenient enough for the passenger to book your project. Given that the answer to these problems lies in air travel, we have partnered with a number of carriers to combine our products. Our plan, up until 2014, is to increase these partnerships to add more regional departures and increase the number of seats available for UK passengers. For us, the holiday leaves when the passenger closes their front door. So if the customer relies on MSC for the entire package, it’s important that everything runs seamlessly.
For a UK customer that has traditionally been more familiar with P&O or Fred. Olsen, how are you changing perceptions?
We offer a different product so differentiation is key. We are not trying to replicate what our competitors are offering; we want to offer what we believe is our soul: which is the Mediterranean essence.
Have you set Giles targets for when he begins?
We have had some conversations yes, but I don’t want to give our competitors an advantage! The most important thing for him to do now is to become accustomed with the MSC brand. He is already very well known and respected within the industry and we believe he will be a great asset to the team. He will open a lot of doors for us that we weren’t able to do independently.
Through Giles are you hoping to start working more with UK travel agents?
Cruise lines don’t have a choice about whether they want to increase or decrease their involvement with travel agents. It all comes down to the customer and how they want to book, where they want to book and, most importantly, at what time. Years ago a customer would have walked into a travel agent at 4pm and booked their cruise. Now we’re getting an executive who goes home at midnight and looks online and will either call a travel agent or book through the web. It’s the consumer’s behaviour that changes – cruise lines and travel agencies have to move with those trends accordingly. However, having said that, we will of course look to strengthen our relationship with the trade. In these economic times it is important to remember that MSC Cruises pays the highest commission, we pay commission on add-ons like hotels, shore excursions and transfers including air. If a travel agent is looking at making money today then they have a very good chance of doing it with MSC Cruises.