It might come as a surprise to North Americans that Europe-based MSC Cruises is close on Carnival Cruise Line's heels to compete for the title of world's second largest cruise brand, behind Royal Caribbean International, which overtook Carnival several years ago.
Carnival lost four ships in 2020 as part of parent company Carnival Corp's. pandemic-induced downsizing, while only adding one, the Mardi Gras. The brand currently has 25 vessels in its roster.
MSC has 18 ships, but it is the fastest-growing cruise line in the world. It took delivery last month of the 4,842-passenger MSC Virtuosa and will welcome its 19th vessel, the 4,540-passenger MSC Seashore, this summer. MSC has four more ships in the pipeline between now and 2025, with options for six additional ships in place through 2030, while Carnival is only scheduled take delivery of one more ship in that timeframe, the 5,250-passenger Carnival Celebration, which is due in 2022.
MSC is based in Switzerland, but its primary market is in Italy, and it is very well known to European cruisers. However, and despite its size, it has work to do to cement brand recognition in North America. And one of the key ways it had been doing that -- and plans to do even more once cruising resumes -- is by getting travel advisors on its ships. Ken Muskat, COO of MSC Cruises USA, said it is a major focus.
"In the past, when we had travel advisors onboard, they were five times more likely to sell MSC," he said.
Muskat knows that brands like Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line have each been around for about 50 years and "clearly have significant brand recognition."
"With MSC, our big push in the U.S. market was in 2013 when Divina finally came year round," he said. "The brand recognition is not where we want it to be and has huge upside potential. The good news is we're making fast progress. As we introduce more consumers and ships to the market and with the opening of Ocean Cay and having four ships here instead of one, all those things allow us to increase the brand recognition."
Ocean Cay, MSC's private island in the Bahamas, opened just before the pandemic hit, so few cruisers or travel advisors have had a chance to see it.
Also big, Muskat said, is MSC's plan to take delivery of two ships this year, a bright spot for the industry and U.S. travel advisors.
"Good news like this is very welcome," he said. "The fact that we have two new ships coming out this year and that the Seashore is coming later this year to Florida, is super exciting and it gives us something nice to look forward to and to talk about, which is great for travel advisors."
Muskat said that putting the new Seashore in the U.s. signifies MSC's "growth and commitment in the US market."
"When we start spreading more news about Seashore in next couple months, it will help us with brand recognition but also just get the excitement of the industry back up and going again," he said.
MSC was the first cruise line to launch service during the pandemic; it has operated in Europe since last summer carrying more than 40,000 passengers. Muskat said it has helped boost confidence in cruise and travel.
"I think it is adding to consumer confidence and helping the whole industry," he said. "We are showing that you can cruise during a pandemic and have a great time. That you can follow all the health and safety standards we have in place on our ships and still have a great cruise vacation."
But at the end of the day, nothing beats the actual cruise experience.
"We're very focused on getting travel advisors onboard and involved in MSC Academy and learning about the brand and really seeing what MSC is about today, which is very different than what it was even five years ago, let alone 10 years ago," Muskat said. "We highly depend on the travel advisor to experience the brand, and that's helping us bring the brand recognition up as well. When we do start up again, our goal is to get travel advisors back onboard."