Despite being in the midst of the worst crisis in cruise industry history, Geneva-based MSC Cruises has not only been in the vanguard of returning to sea, but has launched ground-breaking new ships, cut the steel of its second LNG-powered ship, MSC Euribia, and unveiled its new luxury cruise line, Explora.
In mid-August 2020, MSC was the first cruise line to resume sailing in Europe when its flagship MSC Grandiosa departed from Genoa, Italy for its first 7-night cruise in the West Mediterranean. Under the protection of the company’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, thousands of passengers have safely enjoyed sailings since then.
On May 20, the brand new MSC Virtuosa embarked on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, the first new ship to depart from the UK in 14 months.
MSC Virtuosa was the third MSC Cruises ship back at sea, joining the Grandiosa and MSC Seaside, already operating in the Mediterranean. All the MSC ships operate under the same industry-leading health and safety protocols, including universal testing upon embarkation.
MSC Virtuosa boasts the largest shopping area at sea, according to the company. It offers to “spoil guests” with 11 boutiques spread over 1,168 square meters of space, which offer more than 250 brands.
Adrian Pittaway, MSC’s Head of Retail, spoke to the media about how his staff prepared for the resumption of sailing, and what changes they have seen since then.
What changes did you make to the shops in terms of health and safety measures? Can you specifically talk about how you adapted the shops on board MSC Virtuosa — which recently restarted cruising in the UK?
For MSC Virtuosa, we were lucky as she is MSC Grandiosa’s sister ship, so we were able to take a lot of the learnings from our restart last year and put it in place for our newest flagship.
Fundamentally, 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. We also work with all our different suppliers and brand partners to make sure all guidelines on handling products are done safely, whether it be handling watches, jewelry, clothing, perfumes or make-up. Each of these products has very different and specific guidelines.
Then, we also include signage and information designed to be very easily understandable for guests, so that they understand where to go, where not to go, or what they can do and can’t do.
Did the crew receive additional training for operating in the shops?
The most important action for us was training of our Team. We organized multiple sessions on Microsoft Teams with our team on board MSC Virtuosa whilst they were in quarantine and went through various trainings with them.
We also teamed up with the Duty Free World Council and provided a ‘best-in-class’ academy program to all our team members, making sure they all received certification following the organization’s retail guidelines.
Our shop team on board is now doing a weekly refresher training to make sure they are always able to uphold these guidelines, since the health and safety of our guests is of the utmost importance. Luckily on our flagship MSC Virtuosa, we have a large retail area allowing us to implement these measures with relative ease.
How important is onboard retail for MSC Cruises and have you re-evaluated its importance in recent years, especially since the restart of operations in August 2020? How do you do things differently to other cruise lines?
Since we restarted last year on MSC Grandiosa, onboard retail has become more important. We are seeing guests spending positively and really reacting well to retail on board.
Firstly, guests have stayed at home for a long time, due to lock-down. When they come back on board our ships, guests are pro-vided with numerous entertainment opportunities, such as the Elegant Night, when they may wish to join in the fun and get all dressed up.
By visiting our retail area on board they can pick out new beauty products, a new piece of jewelry or a new dress, allowing them to appreciate the evening to a greater extent. Guests like to buy now to use now, therefore onboard retailing is very intricately linked to the experience of the cruise.
The second point is related to our team. Whilst we have fewer guests coming into stores at a time, the time spent per guests is even longer than before.
This allows our teams to offer even better service and to better understand guests’ needs through more one-to-one interactions. Ultimately, guests have a great retail experience provided by our team and this is an important reason why they spend money in our shops.
Our guests trust MSC Cruises to offer the perfect holiday cruise, and this sense of trust positively impacts our retail offering as well.
Can you explain what feedback you received from guests regarding their shopping experience? And how do you tailor the retail experience to ship itineraries?
Every week, our teams onboard connect with our team at MSC Cruises Head Office to share feedback from guests, including products requested, items they liked or didn’t like, but also items such as promotions, pricing, colors, styles, sizes, etc.
We focus on improving guest feedback and how to connect our learnings to subsequent actions. The beauty of offering in-house retailing at MSC Cruises is our easy connection between the shop floor and the team selecting the products for sale. This streamlined decision-making really helps us to evaluate what product ranges to put in our shops.
What do you think are the motivations that push guests to engage in shopping on board — including British guests sailing on MSC Virtuosa? Duty free prices or something else?
We have over 180 nationalities on board MSC Cruises, whether sailing in China, South Africa, Europe or anywhere else in the world. One of the things we do very well is designing our range of products to specific nationalities, everything from the assortment to the price, to promotions, to the way that the service offered by the team on board.
For MSC Virtuosa, we created a full training pack for our team, outlining the best service to British guests and including various interesting feedback from our British suppliers. We conducted a Best Practices sharing session with our colleagues, including the ones in operating in our UK market.
With all these ideas and suggestions in mind, we were able to adapt our retail offering, ranging from our special offers, the way we promote the products, where certain products are located, etc.
Things such as language and humor also come into play, because they all have a very tangible effect on guests. We always say ‘retail is detail’, so by building up these elements, we can offer guest a great experience.
Has retailing evolved in recent years and since the beginning of the global pandemic?
Retailing has evolved, and the pattern and the way that guests are buying is very different from what it was pre-pandemic.
Our experience from MSC Grandiosa has allowed us to make sure that the experience on board MSC Virtuosa is in line with what guests expect and what they would like to see as we restart. We are a “human power” business in cruise retail – for us it has been about we support and train our team to give the best service.
Guests are buying more areas like fashion, jewelry and perfumery, as they regain their sense of freedom at sea. MSC Cruises logo branded items have also become top sellers on all ships restarting, which in turn has made us invest more into this product area. That unique, service-focused approach is an important reason why people want to shop during their cruise.
Can you give us a hint on future plans for shopping areas on your upcoming new builds, including MSC Seashore?
Retail is one of the real, exciting elements for MSC Cruises. We started a different process with MSC Grandiosa and MSC Virtuosa and we are going to take a further step forward with MSC Seashore with a sensational, new, interconnected retail experience. The retail area will include an array of reimagined, redesigned spaces and will be much larger that her sister ships MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview.
Looking forward to next year, when it comes to MSC World Europa, we have pressed another reset button and we will further elevate our retail standards with an upcoming concept that is completely unique and never-before-seen in cruise retail.