Retail Masters of the Sea— how MSC grows its people from within

One on One with Adrian Pittaway, Corporate Head of Retail, MSC Cruises


MSC Cruises — the Swiss-based family-owned and run cruise line, is determined to change the way most cruise lines operate, even down to its retail.

A global player with one of the highest growth rates in the industry, MSC introduced 16 cruise ships over the past 16 years, and plans to more than double its fleet in the next decade. In July, MSC celebrated a major milestone when it welcomed its 20 millionth cruiser on board the Miami-based MSC Seaside.

With plans to launch a new vessel each year until 2027, in 2019 the company launched the MSC Bellissima in March and the MSC Grandiosa is coming in November. MSC will also debut its highly anticipated new island destination, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, in November.

Adrian Pittaway (right) on stage at the Seatrade
Cruise Conference in Miami earlier this year.

Adrian Pittaway, MSC Cruises Corporate Head of Retail, in a far-reaching keynote address during the DFNI Cruise Conference held in Miami in June, detailed how the company has been disrupting the prevalent cruise business model, bringing a fresh perspective particularly to how it handles its retail operations.

While in Miami, Pittaway spoke with TMI about how MSC’s unorthodox approach even drives the company’s staff training.

“As a private family-owned, family-run, and family-committed cruise company, MSC is unique to this industry. We are a very young company, only 16 years old, and we are going to grow at a crazy rate over the next few years. Between 2017 and 2027 we have 17 new ships coming into our fleet and we will be running the retail by our in-house team,” says Pittaway.

To run this in-house retail program, Pittaway says that it is crucial to have the right staff in place.

“Obviously, it is really important for our success to have happy and enthusiastic staff members—no matter where they come from, no matter what their background, no matter what their education. So in 2018 we created a management development program called the Retail Masters of the Sea that was designed so that anybody, no matter what their culture, will have the opportunity to grow.

“If they show the right attitude, the right aptitude, and have a real hunger to grow, we will absolutely provide them with this opportunity. The first year we put through 30 people. This September, 18 months after we launched the program, we celebrated our 50th graduate.”

In his keynote address during the DFNI Cruise
Conference held in Miami in June, Adrian
Pittaway enumerated the ways in which MSC
Cruises’ in-house retail business model differs
from the more traditional concessionaire model,
and how MSC is disrupting this approach.

MSC’s Retail Masters of the Sea program has allowed the company to fill as much as 90% of its MSC retail management positions – from shoreside to across the fleet–through internal promotion rather than externally, says Pittaway.

“This is a huge change from how it is done in the rest of the cruise industry, and it is retail specific,” he argues.

“When we were hiring managers from other companies, we didn’t like the inconsistency. It wasn’t working for us. We really wanted to encourage and develop our own team. This is all about nurturing and growing our future talent and giving everyone a chance. This is the foundation and cornerstone that has become our model.”

Growing so quickly, MSC also needs to make sure that it has a place to encourage and challenge itself.

“The team on my ships are made up of 40 different nationalities, coming from backgrounds as different as slums in Sao Paulo, rural farming communities of Guatemala, and villages in Morocco. Many of them do not have equal opportunities. But they come all with their own stories and their own life journeys, and we need this diverse core of knowledge from them.

“So if we’ve got in Brazil a ship full of Brazilian passengers, we have a manager who speaks Portuguese, or if we are in China we have a Chinese manager who can negotiate and talk with the Chinese passengers. If I’m in Italy I have an Italian manager who can communicate adequately.

“It allows us to develop our team in a much more adaptive environment. Fundamentally it puts the human power at the heart of our business. We may not have as much retail expertise as some of the other concession operators, but we have a lot of energy, hunger, passion, and commitment from our team. And that generates the point of difference.”


Planning for the long term

One thing that MSC has that none of the other concessions has is long term vision, he says.

“I can tell you today that we will be running our shops 10, 20 years from now. This means that I can make a plan that is not restricted by a three year concession contract. I am not in a short term mind set.

“This long term vision allows us to plan more instinctively with the rest of our onboard themes, whether it be hotel or other revenue centers, and to make sure that we are connecting our retail together into something that feels holistic. We want our teams to live and breathe the brand. And as the brands grow, we grow.”

Pittaway points out that the family connection is integral to MSC’s business model. “Remember, MSC is a family company through and through. Everything you see on a MSC ship is run by the MSC team. We don’t outsource any part of our business. We may have partners and supporters. But first and foremost is the family and crew around us. My team’s core values, the captain’s core values, my values are all the same. We are really building our team’s professional growth by using the DNA of MSC.

“If a team member says that they want to be a shop manager, they will have to prove themselves and prove what they can do. We give that equal opportunity to every single member of our team, but it is all based on their own attitude.

“Our Retail Masters of the Sea program has been very exciting and very motivating. We celebrate success very visually. We love to share. We celebrate these people. They are really important to us.

“My retail team is going to grow from 800 colleagues to over 2000 colleagues in a very short period of time. So the capabilities and skills I need from my team are absolutely linked to what we are trying to do here. We get them in, drive them forward and I don’t have to worry about recruiting a lot of managers. And to be honest, the skills needed as a concessionaire are pretty different from those of an in-house operator. We have more synergies and more technical needs. So, for us, it is better to design and build this skill rather than buy it in.

“Our managers have a direct line to everybody, to every operator, to myself, to all the decision-makers, we know all of them on first name terms. My entire team of shop managers are constantly communicating and sharing best practices. We very much have this family passion running through everything we do, every day. We are all MSC after all, and that is the ultimate difference.”

This September, 18 months after MSC launched its Retail Masters of the Sea management development program, the company celebrated its 50th graduate.