ELISABETTA DE NARDO, VP PORT DEVELOPMENT REVEALS WHAT GOES INTO ITINERARY PLANNING FOR MSC CRUISES
What does the entry of a new itinerary mean to you at MSC Cruises and the wider cruise industry?
New destinations and new itineraries are really important as we want to continue to innovate with our offering for guests, and at MSC Cruises one of our strengths is our global footprint and international appeal.
Creating new and inspiring itineraries is a constant ambition and challenge for us and whenever there is a brand new destination on the horizon it chimes well with us and the rest of the industry.
For us to then take a further step by opening up new regions such as our proposed Red Sea cruises from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia for next winter demonstrates our resolve to continue with our growth strategy despite the challenging times that the sector faces.
To what extent do you believe cruise consumers have historically chosen a cruise based on its itinerary rather than other factors?
A cruise is by definition a holiday that offers the attraction of a wonderful hotel resort with a wide range of on board experiences, including fine dining, varied entertainment, a range of different activities and total relaxation combined with the ability to visit different countries without ever having to repack and unpack luggage.
Undoubtedly, the majority of cruisers focus primarily on the itinerary on offer although it’s true that as the industry has grown, more experienced cruisers have looked more attentively at new builds coming into the market and some will specifically want to sample the new hardware.
While the itinerary tends to be the driver, the actual ship and all that they have to offer will always be an integral factor when choosing a cruise holiday.
What are the essential attributes of an itinerary?
There’s no real ‘one size fits all’ with itineraries. Popular voyages must always include ‘must-see’ destinations and these itineraries tend to include a different port every day but still with, of course, a great variety of on board attractions for days at sea.
Others prefer slightly off-the-beaten track itineraries, longer and slower cruising such as our grand voyages, in some cases more overnights and overland experiences.
The key for us to have as strong a portfolio of options as possible in the many parts of the world that we have traditionally served.
Do you think that the influence of the itinerary will become more important in holiday decision-making for this year and beyond?
The itinerary will continue to be important in the future as people look for different ways to discover the world and what better way than by sea?
In the short term people are looking at itineraries that are closer to their homes and they can embark at ports that are accessible. With much of the tourism world effectively shut down in 2020, people now want to travel once more and we’ve adjusted some of our itineraries accordingly.
For example, we’ve added Siracusa in Sicily and Taranto in the Italian region of Puglia to some of our Mediterranean summer sailings and deployed our flagship MSC Virtuosa in the UK for voyages around the British Isles.
Looking further ahead we will see people want to cruise at more far-flung destinations.
As guests prioritise the itinerary, we’re seeing many ‘rising’ destinations in the world doing a great job in advertising their attractiveness and authenticity for holidaymakers and they are investing in port infrastructures that are capable to berth different sizes of vessels
Many ports and destinations now have a long-term vision and associated investment plan based on the clientele they wish to attract and are able to forecast visitor numbers to make sure that their tourism plans and opportunities are conducted and developed in a sustainable manner.
Have you changed your approach to itinerary planning in light of the global pandemic?
The fundamentals of itinerary planning remain the same, although currently there are variants depending on the localised evolution of the pandemic and what health and safety measures are in place at ports and how they relate to our own protocol.
In general, we will look carefully at the source markets for guests, the main homeports to be utilised in a sailing season and inter-porting where we conduct partial turn-arounds.
The viability of air, road and rail links to the cruise terminals is crucial, as clearly it would be self-defeating to create a beautiful itinerary if the ships are not easily reachable for embarkation.
And open-jaw voyages always allow more opportunities for our guests to combine their preferred itineraries with the exact destinations that they want to visit.
Which ports and destinations do you anticipate will have the most positive impact on encouraging consumers to cruise again?
While we have resumed operations in Europe following approval of our health and safety protocol for guests and crew from the relevant local authorities, for other areas of the world we will only restart operations at the right time and when conditions allow in they must be and will be in full alignment with local regulations and with the approval of the relevant authorities.
Destinations and regions all around the world are working tirelessly to resume their appeal and the successful ports are those that work collaboratively and have in place a like-minded, robust and rigorous protocol for the well-being of our guests and, of course, for their own employees.
We have worked strenuously with ports and the relevant authorities in Europe that have played an important part in our safe return to cruising and that will have to continue to be the case in other parts of the world, as we see our sailing programmes develop.
Our contracted tour operators and tour guides for destination visits have in place the same high standards of health and safety as we do on board our ships and the ports we wish to serve in future must, and I have no doubt, will have the same. There will be no ‘wiggle room’ and no compromise.
We have set a very high bar, which our guests and the ashore communities we’ve served to date have welcomed. The ports we wish to serve in the future understand that and I’m extremely confident that they will match our exacting standards.