Two years ago, Giles Hawke was one of the trade’s most controversial figures. Six months into his new role at MSC Cruises, he tells TTG why agents are now the future
Giles Hawke is not an easy man to pin down. In his new role as MSC Cruises’ UK, Ireland and Australia executive director, he spends his weeks jetting between the firm’s London offices and its Geneva headquarters - with a day working from home in between.
With a line so focused on expansion, it’s easy to see why Hawke’s new life is such a whirlwind. Just hours after he talks to TTG, MSC Cruises announces that it is to build two new 5,300-passenger ships - a move that looks set to cement its position as the third-biggest cruise line in the world (in terms of capacity) for several years to come. And with Hawke at the helm, MSC has its eyes firmly fixed on the UK to fill a big chunk of this market.
Today, however, expansion is not the only matter on Hawke’s mind. The UK boss of MSC Cruises wants to talk travel agents - and specifically, just how important they are to the line.
It is a point that is likely to have some in the trade raising their eyebrows. In his role as sales director at Carnival UK, he was loved and loathed in equal measure. Some agents praised his move to tackle discounting, while others lambasted him for slashing their earnings. But today, firmly ensconced in his new role, Hawke insists he enjoys a very different relationship with the trade.
“Our focus is travel agents,” he tells TTG proudly. “Our focus is truly, squarely, planted with making bookings through travel agents, and everything we do carries the ‘contact your travel agent’ message.”
Hawke says he is now looking to potentially increase commission on shore excursions, despite MSC still being the only cruise line to pay commission on this element of cruise bookings. It is a move that he concedes is still in the proposal stages - a decision will be made imminently, he says. However, that it is even being suggested is evidence of just how serious Hawke is about MSC Cruises’ commitment to the trade.
“We’re talking to agents about what would make a difference to them. What would it take to help them to change behaviour and sell more shore excursions for us? If we pay more commission because we know we’ll get something differently and travel agents will act different as a result, then there’s a lot of value and benefit in that.
“We recognise that agents are running a business and that they want to make money. It’s all about how they can make more money - and if we can help them to do that, it helps us as well.”
“It’s all about how agents can make more money. If we can help them to do that, it helps us as well”
Such comments will bring a smile to those agents who remember Hawke as the man who told agents at the UK Cruise Convention in 2009 that those who “wanted to drink champagne should start thinking champagne”, and that “nobody owes anyone a living”. He admits that “some agents were concerned about what I did when I was at Carnival UK and what that might or might not mean for MSC Cruises”.
“But I’ve been here for six months now, and I’ve been very clear all along that MSC is a very different business to P&O and Carnival,” he adds.
“You do the right thing for the company that you work for at the time. What I was involved in doing at Carnival UK changed the model a lot - it was the right thing to do at the time for Carnival UK and I stand by that. MSC is a different brand in a different position.”
Hawke insists the trade has reacted largely positively to his new role. “We’ve got more travel agents wanting to work with us now, and we’re establishing new relationships [with the trade]. We’re improving what we do and the relationships with the people that we work with.”
MSC Cruises’ new focus on the trade is being realised through new agent online training, which Hawke says is due to launch “imminently”, as well as the launch of a new MSC agent advisory board in early July, which will be a “listening process to understand the views of our company and our ships and will let the trade know where we are up to,” he explains.
The line is also looking to expand its sales teams, which Hawke concedes is currently “spread very thinly”.
“We have a total of six sales reps in the UK and one in Ireland - we have a very good sales team, but they are very small. We want to grow our team to look after our travel agents better.” He will not confirm how much the team will increase by, but says it is “definitely growing”.
All this is part of a strategy to boost MSC Cruises’ brand in the UK, despite the line pulling its sole ex-UK ship out of the market for 2015. MSC Opera will spend six months undergoing a revamp as part of the line’s “Renaissance” programme, and will then remain in the Mediterranean for the rest of the summer.
In retrospect, Hawke admits this is now a “wise decision” - 2015 will also be the year that P&O launches its newest and largest ship Britannia, while Royal Caribbean’s latest addition, Anthem of the Seas, will also be calling Southampton home next year.
“The smaller, slightly older ships for all brands risk being overlooked with the big new ships, so it’s worked out well,” he says.
Hawke is close-lipped about whether MSC will be returning to the UK in 2016, but acknowledges that if the line wishes to grow its market share in Britain, the line will need a “ship sailing ex-UK cruises in the longer term”. And he has stiff targets to reach. “The UK goal is to grow the market from its current annual 60,000 UK passengers to 200,000 by 2017,” he says.
Currently, the UK lies within the “top 10” of the line’s core markets, with Italy, France and Germany comprising the top three positions.
“We’ve been focused on growing as a business rapidly over the past 10 years, and now we’ve got a limited growth for the next few years it will allow us to focus on our brand and where we stand in the UK,” he says.
This “limited growth”, however, now includes two 5,000-passenger ships due to launch in 2017 and 2019 - MSC’s “Renaissance” programme, which will see four ships being “stretched” in dry dock, adding 1,600 new lower berths - equivalent to a new medium-sized ship - and the two additional 5,300-passenger ships announced last week.
Such confidence in the cruise sector can only be good news for agents, especially with a line so ready to look at increasing commission. It seems Hawke and travel agents may finally be able to “think champagne” together.