How MSC Cruises is pioneering post-pandemic recovery

MSC Cruises’ Gianni Onorato, Marialuisa Iaccarino and Adrian Pittaway tell Rebecca Gibson how the brand has safely resumed operations while continuing to grow sustainably

How MSC Cruises is pioneering post-pandemic recovery

MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises celebrated a major historical milestone on 16 August 2020. Just five months after the global cruise industry was forced to halt all operations at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the family-owned brand became the first major cruise line in the world to resume international sailings, with MSC Grandiosa embarking on a seven-night Western Mediterranean voyage from Genoa, Italy.

The cruise, limited to guests from the European Schengen Area, required MSC Cruises to collaborate with an external panel of medical and public health experts to develop a health and safety protocol to be approved by multiple local, regional and international organisations.

“The eyes of the world were upon us on that momentous day and the atmosphere onboard the ship was fantastic,” recalls Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises. “I was onboard for that first sailing and it was a relief to be able to return to what we do best – providing memorable cruise holidays. But it was the first step in a very long journey. I believe that we helped plot the course for the cruise industry’s resumption of operations as our protocol set the standard and was adopted by other parts of the travel and hospitality sectors.”

Since MSC Grandiosa’s return to the seas, MSC Cruises has continually monitored the effectiveness of its health and safety protocol, strengthening and relaxing measures in accordance with guidance from authorities. This has enabled it to safely reintroduce a total of 12 ships to the market (at the time of publication), with itineraries in the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea, the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia, and North America and the Caribbean.

One notable deployment was for new flagship MSC Virtuosa, which has been sailing the line’s first-ever domestic cruises in the UK since May 2021. “Every major cruise line was eager to start operations in this traditional market of seasoned cruise customers and under a strict regime of rules and regulations,” says Onorato. “We decided to deploy our newest ship to show our commitment to British guests and we couldn’t have been prouder than when MSC Virtuosa took the honour of being the first deep-sea ocean vessel to sail in British waters in more than a year. MSC Virtuosa has been a tremendous success for us in the UK and perhaps this has paved the way for future domestic sailings in British waters.”

To ensure a safe restart, MSC Cruises created protected shore excursions for guests. “Going ashore is a really important and enjoyable aspect of a cruise holiday, so we wanted to ensure that we had measures in place to protect our guests and the communities we visit,” says Marialuisa Iaccarino, head of shore excursions at MSC Cruises, noting that the line’s protocols surpass the requirements of European authorities and that guests are refused re-embarkation if they do not adhere to these mandatory rules.

“We had to contact every tour operator, transfer provider and individual attraction to properly vet them and put the right health and safety measures in place. It was painstaking work but worth it to enable our guests to go ashore safely.”

The strict measures have been warmly welcomed by guests and many of the protected shore excursions have completely sold out. “Guests have come back to the ship from these shore excursions happy and clearly not afraid to go ashore,” says Iaccarino. “They were reassured by the fact that the tour operators and guides had the same high standards towards health and safety as we did onboard our ship. This has been very rewarding. When we introduced protected shore excursions there was no precedent that we could benchmark ourselves against and when we announced them, there were a handful of commentators who doubted whether guests would choose the land tours.”

Now that more ships are returning to service, Iaccarino’s team is planning protected excursions in multiple regions of the world. “The undertaking is substantial, but we work with tour operators and suppliers that know us well and we have had a great relationship with in the past,” says Iaccarino. “They are all aware that they must have health and safety protocols in place that mirror our own, and most have already done just that. So, when other parts of the world where we’ve traditionally operated open up, we’ll be ready to offer a great range of attractive excursions ashore.”

Changes have been made to further improve health and safety onboard the ships too, particularly in highly interactive spaces, such as shops.

“One of the most important measures in the shops from a health and safety point of view is enforcing social distancing and not allowing too many people in the shops at the same time,” says Adrian Pittaway, head of retail for MSC Cruises. “We also work with all our different suppliers and brand partners to develop specific guidelines for handling products safely, whether it be watches, jewellery, clothing, perfumes or make-up. Plus, we have signage so guests can easily understand where to go or not go, and what they can or cannot do.”

MSC Cruises also trained crew to familiarise them with the new guidelines. “For example, we organised multiple sessions on Microsoft Teams with our team onboard MSC Virtuosa while they were in quarantine and went through various training with them,” says Pittaway, adding that this included sharing guidance on how to tailor service to British guests.

“We also teamed up with the Duty Free World Council and provided a ‘best-in-class’ academy programme to all our team members, making sure they all received certification. Our onboard shop team is now doing a weekly refresher training to ensure it is always able to uphold these guidelines, since the health and safety of our guests is of the utmost importance.”

While adapting to the pandemic and restarting operations have been MSC Cruises’ top priorities for the past 12 months, the brand has also continued to invest in the long-term, sustainable growth of its business.

“Two new ships joined our fleet this year – MSC Virtuosa in February and MSC Seashore in July – both of which are significant achievements given a backdrop of an evolving pandemic that forced so many other lines to put ships up for sale and, sadly, sail vessels for one final journey to the scrapyard,” says Onorato.

MSC Cruises also strengthened partnerships with ports and destinations worldwide. “We are very proud of our recently announced long-term commitment to operate Red Sea cruises from the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a new area that has great potential both as a destination and a future source market because the Kingdom is putting great emphasis and resources in developing its overall tourism infrastructure,” says Onorato.

“We also announced further investments in ports all around the world with developments of new cruise terminals in Miami – which is bound to become a landmark in the world’s ‘capital of cruising’ – as well as in Barcelona, Spain, and Ancona, Italy. Plus, later this year we will open a new facility in Durban, South Africa. We also signed a joint venture with the Palumbo Group to operate the Palumbo Malta shipyard.”

In June, MSC Cruises expanded its business by launching a new luxury cruise brand named Explora Journeys and starting construction of the first two of its four ships at Fincantieri’s yard in Monfalcone, Italy. The first vessel, EXPLORA I, will sail her maiden season in 2023 (read more in CFR’s interview with Explora Journeys CEO Michael Ungerer on page 40).

This September, the brand also progressed its decarbonisation journey, pledging to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Already well on track to hit the cruise industry’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, MSC Cruises joined the ‘Getting to Zero Coalition’ to accelerate the decarbonisation of the global shipping sector. It is also helping the CHEK Consortium explore how to design innovative ships with progressive energy technologies to attain low-carbon shipping.

MSC Cruises continued working with French shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique to build three LNG-powered cruise ships equipped with pioneering new solid oxide fuel cell technology, which will potentially reduce GHGs by a further 25 per cent compared to a conventional LNG engine. The first vessel, MSC World Europa, will be delivered in October 2022, followed by MSC Euribia in 2023 and a third vessel later.

It has also partnered with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri and energy infrastructure company Snam to develop the world’s first ocean-going, hydrogen-powered, zero-emission cruise ship and related supply chain.

“In spite of the pandemic ashore, we have laid down many new markers for the future over the past 12 months,” says Onorato. “And our proposed growth must be done – and will be done – in a carefully managed approach towards the protection of the environment in which our fleet of ships operates – an essential component of the DNA we inherited on day one of the business thanks to our maritime heritage. These bold strides are all crucial for the decarbonisation of cruising and shipping.”

Onorato attributes the cruise line’s recent success to his employees. “Our achievements over the past 12 months would not have been possible without the dedication of our employees – both onboard and ashore – and the support of their families and loved ones,” he says. “Their commitment, spirit, endeavour and loyalty, I believe, is what sets us apart.

“And I have to also praise and thank the incredibly hard-working travel trade. It has been a very difficult time for them, and we could not be in the position we are today without their boundless and professional enthusiasm to be very willing and able partners.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
29 October 2021

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