MSC Cruises will launch year-round cruises for the Chinese market, with the Lirica homeporting in Shanghai starting May 2016. MSC has entered into a unique two-year partnership with the CAISSA Touristic Group, a major tour operator in China.
“With tour operators assuming the sales responsibility in China, there has never been a two-year agreement before,” Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC, told Cruise Industry News. “This agreement is at the level of millions of dollars.”
He said that MSC and CAISSA will both market the cruises and MSC will also work with other travel agencies it has relationships with already in the Chinese market. But CAISSA will primarily be responsible for bringing the Lirica to Chinese consumers.
“We finalized the agreement last January, so we will have about a year and half of lead time before entering service in China,” Onorato added. “We have had an office in China since 2010, now with 50 people selling and marketing to Chinese traveling to Europe. So obviously the operations part is already in place.”
“We also selected the Lirica as the ship to be customized to the market. She just entered the yard yesterday as part of our 200 million euro Renaissance program, and remodeling the ship we will make her as suitable as possible to the market and to the requirements we have defined to be winning points for the Chinese. There will be a mix of hardware and software solutions based on our Mediterranean roots with a strong Chinese customization.
“Starting with the crew, there will be more than 30 percent who will be Mandarin speaking,” Onorato continued. “We already had a good number of Chinese crew working on our ships and have carried some 20,000 Chinese passengers in Europe. On top of that we are opening a training center in Shanghai.”
All communications with passengers whether in person, or by signage or menus, will be in Mandarin.
Adjustments to suit the market will also be done in the food areas, entertainment and shops, but along with what MSC calls “industry firsts in service,” Onorato said details will only be announced in China in October.
A brand performance director has also been appointed to look after the China product (MSC has six directors looking after its different cruise products).
Cruises will range from so-called mini cruises up to 10 and 11 days, with South Korea and Japan being the main destinations. “We are listening to what our partners want to do and they already have cruise experience,” Onorato said.
Sailing from Shanghai, he admitted there are some space issues, but said that these will be solved with new pier construction underway. “With some difficulty, we were able to program our itineraries as we wanted,” he added.
The 2,000-passenger (double occupancy) Lirica will be sailing from the WusongKou International Cruise Terminal.
He said he anticipated that MSC will carry from 120,000 to 140,000 passengers a year.
“When you start something like this it is because you want to be there - so with our sense of ambition, you can expect us to continue to grow in the market,” Onorato answered when asked what will happen after 2018 when the two-year agreement is up.
“China is part of our global strategy,” he said. “It goes along with our Cuba presence, new itineraries in the southern Caribbean with new embarkation ports in Barbados and Martinique, while building up the North American market, preparing for the arrival of the new Seaside (ship), and maintaining our positions in South America, South Africa, and in the Middle East in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“China is an additional step of the implementation of MSC’s global strategy based on our Mediterranean roots but with local customization.
“I don’t know if everybody will be happy about our arrival, but I think this will also help our competition. China is a new market like Europe used to be. I think China and Asia can be a new area of growth for everyone.”