5 important things to know about the return of cruising from our conversation with MSC Cruises and Cruise Planners
The cruise industry was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and the pandemic continues to impact lines all over the world. Many major cruise lines have extended cancellations through November, and there's still a lot of uncertainty of when most ships will begin sailing again. Once they do, there will likely be notable changes in light of COVID-19.
Thankfully, there is some good news for cruisers, as limited sailings have restarted in Europe.
We had a chance to discuss this very topic on a recent, special edition of our TPG Talks webinar series, as our own Gene Sloan sat down with Ken Muskat, executive vice president and chief operating officer of MSC Cruises USA, and Vicky Garcia, the chief operating officer and co-owner of Cruise Planners.
Has MSC Cruises cracked the code of what it'll take to restart cruises on a wider level? And how are loyal cruisers reacting?
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Read on for some of the most interesting moments of the session — and scroll to the bottom for a full recording of the webinar.
How has MSC Cruises been successful thus far?
For starters, it's important to note that what we've seen thus far is a limited restart to cruising. MSC Cruises was one of the fastest-growing cruise lines prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with 17 ships and several more on order. However, at the time of our session (Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020), just one of these ships has started sailing again — the 4,842-passenger MSC Grandiosa, which resumed sailings on Aug. 16.
Thus far, it's been quite successful.
"We have already carried over 16,000 guests in our restart over the last couple of months," Muskat said during the webinar, referring to nearly two-months-worth of seven-night Mediterranean sailings on MSC Grandiosa. Most importantly, this is "a real cruise experience, with ports of call and things open onboard the ship and things open on the shore side," he added.
Of course, it's not exactly the same experience as before. There are a few important differences, including the fact that capacity is limited on the ship. In addition, all passengers are required to take a COVID-19 test prior to boarding, and guests will be denied entry to the ship if they (or anyone in their party tests positive).
But how stringently is this being enforced?
Muskat was clear that MSC is holding passengers' feet to the fire.
"We've actually turned away about 100 people out of the 16,000 that we've sailed ... because they tested positive or somebody they traveled with tested positive." Muskat indicated that the feedback from guests overall has been very positive, knowing that they are effectively entering a "bubble" when boarding the ship.
So is news of this success reaching the North American market? Absolutely, said Garcia. "Those avid cruisers, they are aware [of MSC Cruises' success] and they are watching it like a hawk. And they're so ecstatic. They can't wait for cruising to open up in North America."
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What is the onboard experience like?
In addition to limited capacity and mandatory testing (which also applies to crew members, who must take multiple tests prior to working with passengers), what else is happening onboard? Well, as would be expected, mask-wearing and social distancing are table stakes, and guests thus far are taking them in stride.
"It's become our normal, day-to-day [experience]," Muskat said, referring to these measures. "People onboard are abiding by the rules, and they're very happy that we're abiding by the rules."
And what about all of the services and amenities that cruisers have come to expect onboard?
"I'm very excited to say that the cruise experience is very typical," Muskat stated. "The restaurants are open, the bars are open, the outdoor spaces are open." He even said that productions in the theater continue, albeit with seats blocked for social distancing and additional shows to allow all guests to enjoy them.
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What's the shore experience like?
Another key aspect of MSC Cruises's restart in Europe has been the requirement that all excursions in a given port of call must be booked through the cruise line. Passengers are not allowed to explore the destinations on their own. Is this a potential hurdle to convince customers to get back to cruising?
According to Garcia, not so much.
"I thought we'd get some push back," she said. "And we've heard some comments here or there. However, people are so anxious to go on a cruise that in many cases, they're like, 'I'll go on that [excursion]' or 'I don't care, I'll stay on the ship.' So we're hearing a lot of that commentary."
Muskat weighed in on this as well, highlighting that MSC Cruises has worked hard to prioritize the best and most popular excursions. He added that "we've made sure that with the communities that we visit, that these excursions are provided by operators who are experts. They already abide by all our health policies. They've already been tested themselves, and the buses that they use to transfer the guests have already been sanitized."
And according to Muskat, they are enforcing this policy.
"Contained shore excursions make sure that what we do on board is also practiced shoreside, and we've had a couple of situations where families have strayed away from the shore excursion. And believe it or not, we've told them that they can't come back on board, because that has broken the bubble."
What does this mean for North American cruises?
Of course, there's still a ton of uncertainty with the pending restart of cruising in North America. Major lines have canceled most (or all) sailings into November, and some already have canceled sailings well into 2021.
While the chairman of MSC Cruises North America is aiming for a full fleet deployment by October 2021, Muskat was very realistic about a how a North American restart would look like.
"We will, of course, only start cruising when the time is right ... where we're following the necessary protocols and approvals and awaiting the final approvals from the CDC and other relevant authorities around the different regions. It's also important to remember that we need to work very closely with all the communities we visit, all the ports of calls we go to. We want to make sure that they feel comfortable."
He also pointed out that no cruise line is going to suddenly go from zero to 100%, MSC Cruises included. "We'll start with one ship at a time, we'll have low occupancy, and we'll build from there ... it will be a very well-thought-out, phased approach."
That uncertainty may be frustrating for all those cruisers out there with a future cruise credit from a canceled sailing this year. But Garcia highlighted how important it is to plan ahead with these vouchers — and Cruise Planners is helping customers do just that.
"We just take a very proactive approach as travel advisors to remind clients, 'Hey, don't forget, you have this future cruise credit with MSC. You got it from the last sailing. Let me help you book it for next year.'"
Her other major piece of advice? Do not wait. "Think about the Alaska season," she said. "The Alaska season was completely wiped out this year because everything got canceled. Well, there's only the same Alaska season next year ... so book your cabins now to get the location you want, the category you want."
RELATED: How to find the right Alaskan cruise for you
What can cruisers look forward to with MSC?
There are a lot of exciting developments on the way from MSC Cruises, and Muskat took the opportunity on our webinar to highlight some of these, including two new ships on the way in 2021. The MSC Virtuosa, a slightly-larger sister ship to the MSC Meraviglia, is slated for a spring launch in Europe, and then in the summer, MSC Seashore will arrive. The latter vessel will start up in Europe before heading to PortMiami in November 2021 for seven-night sailings from there.
He also discussed MSC Cruises' new private island, Ocean Cay in the Bahamas — a first for the line. After opening in December 2019, it only saw a limited number of guests before closing in March. Muskat can't wait for it to start welcoming passengers again.
"The immediate feedback we got from people was very, very positive," Muskat said. We basically transformed Ocean Cay into a one-of-a-kind destination with a flourishing marine reserve," highlighting numerous other activities like kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling – and even star-gazing at night. Since the island is just 65 miles from Miami, certain sailings will even overnight there and still make it back to port the following morning.
And every sailing from Miami and Port Canaveral — regardless of length — will stop at the Ocean Cay, giving guests plenty of opportunities to enjoy it.
RELATED: Everything you need to know about MSC Cruises’ loyalty program
Full recording of the webinar
Of course, Gene covered a lot of additional ground with Muskat and Garcia during the session, so feel free to check out the full recording right here:
TPG Talks is a series of live webinars hosted by team members from The Points Guy, covering various aspects of the travel, credit card and loyalty industries. Join from anywhere in the world on any device to learn tips and tricks that’ll get you closer to your next dream vacation.
For a list of previous sessions, visit our TPG Talks hub page, or click on any of the links below for individual recaps:
- TPG Talks #1: Online shopping portals
- TPG Talks #2: Under-the-radar loyalty programs
- TPG Talks #3: Future of cruising
- TPG Talks #4: Beginner's guide
- TPG Talks #5: Travel changes and cancellations
- TPG Talks #6: New era of flight deals
- TPG Talks #7: Credit card strategy during COVID-19
- TPG Talks #8: Advanced redemption tactics
- TPG Talks #9: Disney and theme park reopening
- TPG Talks #10: Aviation chat during COVID-19
- TPG Talks #11: Alternatives to hotels, including timeshare booking with KOALA
- TPG Talks #12: Credit card strategy during COVID-19 (revisited)