Chief Executive Officer
Cruise Division, MSC Crociere
The saying goes, “better late than never”. In the case of MSC Crociere it might be “later is better”. One of the world’s top shipping companies, Pierfrancesco Vago is Chief Executive Officer of the Cruise Division. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan visited the company’s Geneva, Switzerland world headquarters to talk about the line’s luxury push. They discussed MSC’s luxury concept, MSC Yacht Club and how it’s changing the luxury cruise industry.
ET: Tell us about the company.
Pierfrancesco Vago: We are the second largest shipping company in the world with freighters, ferries and cruise ships with 450 ships. We are family run and privately owned so decisions come fast. We are vertically integrated which makes us efficient. Because we are a family run company, we pay attention to the details instead of the stock price (executives of public companies follow). In the case of our cruise division, MSC makes a promise to customers and we want our customers to be happy. It is the family making the promise. We’ve always been in shipping. That’s what we know so that what we stay with.
ET: However cruising was not always part of your portfolio?
Pierfrancesco Vago: We started in 2003 as the last kid on the block. By starting late it allowed us to design our ships with today technology and with a vision towards today’s future. We have an ultra-modern fleet of 11 ships at an investment of $5.5 billion euros.
ET: What’s the concept behind MSC Yacht Club?
Pierfrancesco Vago: Cruising has become a broader market. Cruising had been for cruisers, but now it is tapping into the broad vacation market. Last year we carried 1.3 million passengers and we are present in 45 countries with a staff of 12,000. We realized there is a demand for six-star service on a cruise ship. So we created MSC Yacht Club. It is a dedicated area you cannot see. It’s nested up forward at the top of the ship. It’s a concept of exclusivity not class. We designed suites specifically for this area and they are with high quality materials and finishes. There is a fantastic private lounge with the best views on the ship, private bars, a restaurant and a dedicated spa. There is a private elevator to the pool and spa so you can go there in your robe and nobody will see you.
ET: What about the soft product?
Pierfrancesco Vago: There is dedicated butler service. A Yacht Club butler meets you when your car pulls up to the port if you drive or we will send a car to get you at your home or the airport. So you pull up, get out, the butler escorts you to your cabin. There are no lines and then when you get to your cabin your baggage is delivered, and if you want, the butler will unpack for you. You have a minibar that is replenished daily and is all included in your fare. Drinks, champagne and wine are included. We give you a choice of pillows. You can have any daily newspaper in the world you want, printed out on paper, in the middle of the sea. It’s included. There is a dedicated staff for the Yacht Club. For shore excursions we can arrange private touring my car and even helicopter. We will book a table for you in the restaurant where it is hard to get reservations. When you get on and off the ship you are escorted so you don’t have to wait.
ET: How does MSC Yacht Club differ from the luxury cruise lines already out there?
Pierfrancesco Vago: There are luxury cruise ships but they tend to be small, and they tend to be boring. There is one restaurant. Nothing happens. There is limited entertainment. But the added experience with MSC Yacht Club is you are on a new 150,000 gross ton ship will all the entertainment and amenities of the newest big ships. So if tonight you feel like Japanese food, you can dine in the Japanese restaurant, or the Mexican restaurant. If you have families, or children of different ages or multiple generations, we have our Formula One simulator, there‚s a bowling alley, movies and all sorts of activities. Anything you want you get priority on the ship, and if you want to go to the Japanese restaurant, if you want a butler will escort you to the restaurant.
ET: Is MSC Yacht Club attracting new customers?
Pierfrancesco Vago: Some customers are existing customers, others have come from other cruises lines and then many are new to cruising and see MSC Yacht Club as something that fits what they want that wasn’t available before. We had a mystery shopper service rate the Yacht Club service. It is the same company that rates luxury hotels around the world. If we were a hotel we would have placed Number Nine in the World. Number One was the Four Seasons George V in Paris so that gives you an idea about the quality of our product. Our clientele is very global. We have Americans, Germans, Russians, South Americans, French, Chinese, Japanese. It is the same mix you find in top luxury hotels.
ET: Does MSC Yacht Club appeal to family groups or corporate meetings and incentives?
Pierfrancesco Vago: This is a key area for us. If you look at the traditional luxury cruiser, they tend to be older. But if they travel with their children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews, the traditional luxury ships don’t have the types of things I mentioned before in terms of activities for all ages, and of course the VIP luxury element. We have had both families and companies take over the entire MSC Yacht Club, which ranges from 60 to 70 cabins. It is an amazing value, including meals, drinks and everything we talked about, and the price starts at €2,200 for a week.
ET: What is the expansion plan for MSC Yacht Club?
Pierfrancesco Vago: We introduced MSC Yacht Club in 2009 on the MSC Fantasia and MSC Splendida and we will feature MSC Yacht Club on the MSC Divina that will be christened in May 2012. We will add a fourth ship with MSC Yacht Club in 2013 and the Divina will come to North America sailing to the Caribbean from Florida so we will have MSC Yacht Club available in the Eastern and Western Med, the Baltics and North Europe and North America.
ET: Will you extend MSC Yacht Club to your other ships?
Pierfrancesco Vago: No. It’s very complex. You must do it at the time you are building to really do it the right way. Others have converted areas of existing ships with soft product and branding, but you don’t get the same experience.