The cruise line has unveiled a new agent booking portal and a bigger sales team ahead of a possible return to UK waters in 2017 or even sooner. Hollie-Rae Merrick speaks to executive director Giles Hawke

MSC Cruises is changing the way it works with the trade as it strives to more than treble UK passenger numbers from 60,000 this year to 200,000 by 2017.

Fresh from announcing plans for four new ships, the Mediterranean cruise specialist this week revealed an improved online platform for agents and the trial of a new commission structure for 
shore excursions.

Both new aspects, together with better account management and a consistent message on deals and pricing, are part of MSC’s new Serving You campaign, which aims to ensure agents can easily access all 
they need to book.

Executive director Giles Hawke claims the changes are akin to a complete relaunch of the line to agents.

The developments are part of Hawke’s aim to reintroduce ex-UK cruises by 2017, or earlier if there is enough trade support.

Hawke conceded that MSC in the past had been difficult to work with, adding: “As a business, we probably haven’t got everything right in the past.”

But this week MSC hosted its first UK and Ireland agent advisory board, with 16 partners learning how the line hopes to increase passenger numbers.

They heard about MSC Book, the line’s new booking portal, to be launched in the UK, Italy, France and Germany this month ahead of a planned rollout to all international markets. MSC Book will allow agents to make and manage bookings, create their own packages with flights, and access marketing materials, training and images.

The new system will work with Amadeus Air so agents have access to real-time data on cruises and flights.

Hawke said: “It’s as good as, if not better than, anything else in the market as an agent booking tool.” He added that giving real-time data on cruise prices and availability would make the booking process “a million times easier” for agents.

“We don’t want our message to be muddled,” he said. “It needs to be clear and consistent – not changing every five minutes.”

MSC will pull its ex-UK sailings after this season as it begins its programme to lengthen its Lirica‑class ships, but Hawke said the plan was to return in 2017.

There is a possibility a Fantasia‑class ship will offer ex-UK sailings in 2016, if the trade helps the line reach its target.Until then, MSC is focusing on fly-cruises to the Med.

To boost capacity the line is offering three chartered flights a week from Heathrow – two to Genoa and one to Venice.

MSC Cruises to double UK sales team to 10

MSC Cruises is to double its UK sales team and will have a further team of 20 on the road promoting the line to agents.

Giles Hawke, the line’s executive director for the UK, Ireland and Australia, said the sales team will increase to 10 by January, allowing more focus on key partners.

Referring to agents not working with MSC, he said many remembered the “old ships and old tonnage”, adding: “The feedback I’ve had is that in the past MSC Cruises has been quite hard to work with; our systems aren’t good; we don’t follow through on things; and we don’t deliver in terms of great account management. But that’s changing.”

A new head of sales, Janet Parton, starts next week, joining from Carnival UK. The line is also working with former Barrhead Travel director Trevor Davis and his marketing and support company 3For, which is creating a 20-strong field team of ‘MSC Ambassadors’ to train agents nationwide three or four times a year.

Hawke added: “They will be shouting about us to agents. The ambassadors will go to those we haven’t worked with or who make a couple of bookings a year.”

The line wants a closer relationship with high street agents.

“It has been difficult for high street agents to sell our product because it’s not been easily packaged. We want to make it easy.”