MSC Cruises, like all cruise lines, has suspended operations as it waits out the Covid-19 crisis. MSC Cruises USA COO Ken Muskat spoke with news editor Johanna Jainchill about the line's reopening plans, the importance of private cruise destinations and why looking out for travel advisors is so important to the travel industry.
Q: How are bookings holding up? Are you seeing strength in 2021, as some other lines say they are?
A: We are seeing similar, which is good. We are issuing refunds and [future cruise credits] as quickly as possible, with the hope that we can get people to use them to book a future cruise. That's where we're seeing bookings coming in for 2021: people saying, "I was supposed to sail in May, June or July, so let me move that to the same month next year." Summer 2021 is looking very strong from a demand perspective. There is a still a lot of uncertainty, and until the lines start operating again and start publishing what we're doing with health and safety standards, people will book more into 2021, which is expected. And it's good because it shows that people are not writing off cruising forever. We are seeing a lot of pent-up demand. People have a misperception that because cruises are not sailing that the cruise lines are closed. That's not the case.
Q: MSC is Europe-based; are booking and demand trends similar there?
A: It's very similar across the board. The European markets depend a lot on fly. So a lot will depend on the ability for airlines to get back and running. But we're looking at a future of more close-to-home, shorter cruises and seven-night cruises, both here and in Europe. We've got a lot of ships in Europe, and we're one of best-known brands there, with a huge following of past cruisers who will be the first to cruise again. The big difference is we probably won't see so many Americans going to Europe and so many Europeans coming to the U.S. in the near future. That will increase come summer '21. Before that, people will stay closer to home.
Q: When your ships sail again, where will they first go?
A: It's doubtful we'll start with 18 ships on the water at the same time. We're paying close attention to what's happening, country by country. It may be that Asia and Europe come back before the Caribbean, or maybe not. It depends on what's going on with airlines and other things that impact those markets. Clearly it will be a phased approach. It's doubtful we'll start with all four Miami-based ships at the same time. We are postponed through July 10, and there may be some cruises in some markets that start near that date and others that take a little bit longer to come online. We are working on [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] requirements and new health and safety measures and what we have to do to make people very comfortable.
Q: Will your new private island, Ocean Cay, be important to those first itineraries?
A: I'm happy we were able to open Ocean Cay [in January] because I think private destinations -- whether an island or a part of a port dedicated to a cruise line -- will be critical globally. In the Caribbean, Ocean Cay will be key for us. We have opportunities to stay there overnight and for multiple days. It's a huge island, and we have a task force working on how to make sure we have health and safety measures in place onshore as well as onboard. Because of the size of Ocean Cay, we have great ability to do things to make people feel safe and secure. The private destination is a big draw because we control it; there are no outsiders coming in and out, we control all the safety standards and logistics.
Q: How are you helping travel advisors navigate this crisis?
A: MSC is very much dependent on our travel advisor partners. To the best of our ability, we are trying to help them stay in business. One of the first things is we protected commission on any canceled sailings and on existing and future cruises. We are putting money in the pocket of travel advisors, which was critical from the start. We think that the vacation brands that are most engaged with travel advisors will come back full fold in the future.