Privately owned MSC is currently the world’s fourth largest cruise operator and will soon overtake Norwegian to claim third place - they have a lot of big ships on order and ambitions to grow outside of their traditional markets of Italy and Southern Europe.
That expansion and ambition means that MSC frequently offers cruises, particularly on Caribbean sailings from Miami, at astonishingly low rates. In the Mediterranean, while not always particularly cheap, MSC can be an option for people who only have a few days to spare - many of their sailings allow embarkation and disembarkation from multiple ports, creating almost endlessly flexible itineraries.
And that’s all I’ve got.
MSC don’t seem to have a clear target market or clear brand ethos, so, other than cost and convenience, I’m not sure what MSC is offering to the sceptical cruiser. Oh, they will be basing a ship, the MSC Magnifica, at Southampton, for long periods, so there’s that...
UPDATE: 21 days after I sent them my new Eurostar ticket to ask for a refund, as instructed by their onboard customer service staff, MSC informed me that this was an issue for my insurer and not their problem. I mentioned that I had a recording of me discussing this matter with their staff, which they requested. Unfortunately, the audio file is too big for their mail server. As MSC seem to have no means of receiving a large file, I'm posting it here so that they can listen to it on my servers. If you have a spare 20 minutes and fancy a laugh, do listen - fair warning, the first few minutes are just background noise.
Pour yourself a drink and take a seat - like Ben Hur, this is quite the tale.
Last week’s four night cruise on the MSC Magnifica did not go as planned. The normal series of posts reviewing the ship, food and facilities will follow in due course, however, it feels as if the events of last Tuesday and Wednesday deserve some special consideration.
Around 1830 last Tuesday, the MSC Magnifica collided with the harbour wall when leaving Civitavecchia. 25 hours later, I found myself summoned to a meeting with two MSC staff members to discuss my social media activity.
Before delving further into this, I want to make two things clear:
Tuesday April 18th 2017
1830 - Scheduled departure time from Civitavecchia (Rome).
1830 (approximately) - Standing on the balcony of my cabin as Magnifica maneuvered out of Civitavecchia, there was a large bump, I thought we’d run over something, but wasn’t that worried. From the balcony, all I can see is the expanse of the harbour, so have no idea how close the other side of the ship is to any other obstacles. Aside from a very upset Mexican couple in the neighbouring balcony, it didn’t seem to me that much was happening, although the ship was still swaying a lot.
After about fifteen minutes I wandered up to the pool deck and saw that we had been blown against the harbour wall. I was told that the collision was much more dramatic for those on the open deck - the listing of the ship was clear to see. I was later told by table mates at dinner that they had seen the pool empty in one large wave, carrying swimming kids with it. Comments on some online articles appear to corroborate this.
Instagram footage taken from a passenger on another ship shows us stuck on the harbour wall.
After a few minutes I walked back to my cabin and watched as two tugs towed us back to the berth.
1900 (approximately) - The Captain made an announcement, informing us that we had hit the harbour wall and would be towed back to safety so that the damage could be assessed.
I appreciate that the Captain and his crew were busy here and never suggested that anything in this period could have been handled differently.
2100 (approximately) - The Captain made another announcement, informing us that we will remain in port until we are assured of the ship’s safety, but that our new departure time was in the hands of the Port Authorities.
Again, no issue here with them prioritising safety, but, for me, this is where some consideration of customer service could have been overlaid on the engineering process. The announcement itself creates more questions than answers.
By this stage, it seemed clear to me that we would either be missing the next port of call or, at best, arriving very late. A lot of uncertainty and stress for passengers could have been eliminated if MSC had decided then to miss Ajaccio and started on planning ways to make the most of an overnight and extra day in Civitavecchia. As it was, the dining room was full of upset people wondering what would happen to pre-paid tours and the rest of the cruise.
2300 - The rest of my dinner table, all first time cruisers, decide to approach customer services and enquire after any update - they find them "rude, defensive and uninformed".
Wednesday April 19th 2017
0800 - Overnight, a letter was posted through the door informing us that we expected to remain in port until 1500, before proceeding directly to Marseille and that, in compensation, onboard credit of €100 per person (€50 for children).
First, the compensation. I paid £778 for this voyage (around €950) and now, 50% of it is cancelled. Is €100 proportional? I was underwhelmed. Furthermore, I had a few bar bills, so could use the credit, but a lot of passengers had pre-paid for all-inclusive drinks so had a zero balance on their accounts. For them, all they could do was spend the €100 in the onboard Duty Free shop, so, given the margins on perfume, the actual cost to MSC is a fraction of the headline figure.
For reference, earlier in March, when extended refurbishment work disrupted a Carnival Glory voyage, the passengers were offered:
At this stage there was no Daily Programme or activities calendar provided.
Noon - Despite the fact that most passengers seemed to have remained aboard for the short day in port, MSC seemed to have staffed the ship as if the majority of passengers were ashore. Many of the bars were closed. Of the three that were open, two only had a single barman trying to serve hordes of customers.
Still no further communications from MSC.
1500 - It’s clear we’re not leaving - maintenance staff on cranes are still attached to the ship.
Still no communications from MSC since the overnight letter. No daily plan. Nothing.
I try to contact MSC through Facebook to ask for information, using my personal account - they still haven’t responded.
1530 - The Cruise Director announces that we will now depart at 1830, arriving in Marseille at 1130, three and a half hours late. Anyone who are going to miss onward connections should contact customer service.
It must have been clear for some time that we might not be leaving at 1500. I feel that the staff should have printed up clear written communications outlining their policy as regards to missed onward travel. To be clear, I think that policy should be “everybody gets home, just send us your original booking and new receipts”. It would also have been helpful if they’d offered free WiFi so that people could use their own devices to assess the travel options open to them.
1630 (approximately) - In what must rank as one of the oddest judgement calls ever made, MSC decide to use the extra time in port to conduct a staff emergency drill. Now, while I accept the need to maintain staff safety training, who thought that this ship of stressed and angry passengers deserved an hour of PA announcements about fires and emergency response teams? As I heard one passenger exclaim "this is going to send me over the edge!".
1700 - Wandering around the ship, I notice that the line for customer service has now receded slightly, so decide to join it. I’m approached by a staff member in the line who asks what my query is about. When I tell him that I am going to miss booked onward train travel, he tells me that customer services will not speak to me if I don’t have my ticket with me. He will not give me any indication of what their policy is on this subject.
1715 - Train tickets in hand, I’m back at customer services who, when I tell them that my ticket is semi-flexible and can be moved to a later service for £150, say that I should just do that then e-mail the receipt to MSC UK.
WHY COULDN’T THAT JUST HAVE BEEN COMMUNICATED AS A POLICY EARLIER???
However, customer service told me to hold off booking a new ticket until we have left port and the Captain has made an announcement confirming our actual arrival time.
Before I leave, I ask them if my pre-paid excursion in Ajaccio will be refunded. They are unable to say as they don’t know how the excursion office is handling arrangements that were made online before departure.
Two floors up, the excursion office tell me “not to be silly, of course we refunded you automatically.”
Nobody on this ship communicates with the frontline staff.
1830 - We have not left. However, disembarkation luggage labels have appeared in my room with no accompanying information or instructions.
Why not distribute the luggage labels at the same time as you distribute the confirmed disembarkation arrangements, that way passengers, particularly first time cruisers, aren’t left wondering what they hell they are supposed to do with them and asking your, already stretched, staff for information?
1845 (approximately) - The cruise director announces that we are making final preparations for leaving.
2000 (approximately) - We finally leave. There is no announcement from the captain, or anyone else, about a revised arrival time in Marseille.
I had received no response from my personal Facebook message, however, Cruise Hive have quoted some tweets from Cruise Sceptic, which, I assume, has prompted somebody at MSC to work out who I am...
As I’m on the balcony watching us depart, my cabin phone rings and I’m told that the Guest Services Manager would like to speak with me. The gent on the telephone cannot tell me why. I offer to come downstairs immediately.
Honestly, if I was an MSC staffer, I wouldn’t think that unmasking a blogger, who isn’t making any real attempt to be anonymous, was a priority when you have 3000 angry guests stuck in Civitavechhia.
At guest services, I am whisked into an office where a perfectly pleasant lady tries her best to execute a quite ridiculous demand from her head office.
She tells me that she has been informed that I have “made some posts against MSC” and that she only wants to understand “what has been published from your side against MSC”.
As the meeting starts, a giant of a man joins us, he is introduced as a “concierge” then stands staring at me, silently, for the rest of the meeting.
I ask for clarification of what she’s talking about and am told “you know what you have done.”
There is then twenty minutes of circular argument about how much MSC have done/haven’t done, in which, while assuring me that I am free to use social media, we split hairs over what “little communication means” and I am asked how I would feel if people started tweeting about a car accident I was involved in. Really.
I ask if I have said anything inaccurate on Twitter (I don’t believe I have) and it emerges that she hasn’t even seen the tweets and doesn’t know what they contain. I mention that MSc had ignored the message I sent them from another account and am told that I should have come through guest services - we then talk about my experience with guest services and debate whether or not guest services are in full possession of the facts.
However, the key points of information that I’m given in this meeting are:
1000 - It is clear for all to see that we are in the middle of the Mediterranean, but there is no information about a further delay.
1115 - Surprise! We’re not arriving until 1215 instead of 1130.
Honestly, I’m bored of writing this, I’m sure you’re bored of reading it.
In defence of MSC, disembarkation was only delayed by another 20 minutes, but there was a complete lack of communication over the PA or even visible staff in the assembly points.
Despite the best efforts of Uber, I arrived at the Gare St. Charles just as the 1400 train was leaving. Thankfully, I had taken the advice of the Guest Services Manager with a pinch of salt and booked the 1500.
In short, I never felt that I was in any danger, but I do feel that MSC don’t grasp the basics of customer service. The concept of an information void creating dissatisfaction should, by now, be a given. The ship itself seemed immaculate and, combined with the odd way some things are managed (details in the regular review), I very much get the impression that this is a shipping company that happens to operate cruise ships, not a leisure-focused organisation. The differing needs of people and containers do not seem to be fully appreciated.
Overall, while I spoke to a few passengers who were upset and stressed, the majority remained calm. I can’t help feeling that, on one of their new megaships, sailing from Miami full of Americans, this incident and the subsequent failure to own it would result in a full scale mutiny.
Needless to say, the Sophia Loren/Dolce Vita expectations we had, were not met.
We’re about to board the MSC Magnifica for a short voyage between Italy and France. I’m not 100% sure of what to expect from MSC, however, as Sophia Loren is godmother to all of their ships, I’m certain that the style and vibe will be something like a garden party hosted by Dolce & Gabbana (see video below). Anything less will, quite frankly, be a crushing disappointment.
As ever, we’ll be posting live, internet permitting, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - follow along!