Gianni Onorato jumped from rival Costa Cruises in September 2013 to join MSC Cruises as CEO. The first ships to be designed under his command are arriving this year. He spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, where several of them are being built

Q: MSC is never going to be No. 1 in North America in passenger volume, so what does success look like for MSC in that market?

Gianni Onorato
Gianni Onorato

A: Let's say we have the possibility of having a reasonable level of market share, to have a different product, a more multinational, international product but with a strong American accent. [America] will see different ships with a different design and also get the opportunity to be part of our extensive program in different parts of the world, like Dubai, like in Europe. Most of all, with our new ships we can offer the possibility of some unique features, like Cirque du Soleil, like the (promanade on the) MSC Seaside, that can't be found on all ships.

Q: Brand awareness is a big challenge. Do you see any evidence you're making headway?

A: I think there are some signs. In the past, MSC was very focused on developing the business in Europe. The North American market in the past for MSC was not considered as a core market but more as a tactical market. This has brought a low level of brand awareness. Now we are starting a new phase. We are investing in marketing, in communication, in the organization. We are investing with new ships and a unique destination like Ocean Cay. So these are all things that will increase brand awareness.

Q: The name, MSC. The initials don't really connote anything. Have you ever thought of doing anything with the name?

A: This has always been debated internally. This is a family-run company, which is very proud of its heritage. We could choose a more fancy or more exotic name with more appeal to consumers, but we have decided to prevail with our heritage and tradition of shipping. Mediterranean Shipping Cruises in a way expresses the heritage we have. One is the Mediterranean, where we come from, and the other one is the shipping.

Q: Eleven big ships are on order over 10 years. MSC is growing faster than the industry's historical passenger growth rate. How can you do that?

A: We do that because we believe in the potential. Cruise is still underpenetrated. This one of the few industries where the supply attracts the demand, not the other way around. That's why even in difficult [times] ships have always been full.

Q: In Europe, the two biggest markets, Germany and the U.K., have cruise lines custom tailored to those countries. Where does the growth in Europe come from?

A: We are growing in Germany, where we are the first international cruise line, after [German brands] Aida and Tui. We have not tapped the U.K. market so far, similar to North America, and we are starting now. France can grow a lot. Italy can grow more. Then you have the rest of Europe that is totally untapped. Russia, the eastern European countries. So there is a strong potential.

Q: The Seaside is perhaps your most innovative ship. It's coming directly to North America from the yard. How do you expect North American travel agents to respond?

A: First of all, they need to see the ship. For the first months, we have a number of cabins fully dedicated to travel agents. Second, to be at least curious about MSC. To understand what MSC is. So I do expect big support from travel agents. If each one of them is selling a little number, many little numbers together is enough.

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