Interview: Gianni Onorato

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As MSC Bellissima is named in a lavish ceremony at Southampton, Sara Macefield talks to MSC’s chief executive Gianni Onorato about Zoe, a new digital assistant


When MSC Cruises’ latest ship MSC Bellissima sailed into Southampton on March 1 for a star-studded naming celebration, it was the first time its newest (and most expensive) crew member had the chance to show off her skills to an expectant audience.

I’m talking, of course, about Zoe, hailed as the world’s first virtual personal cruise assistant, which was waiting in every cabin to answer questions that guests may have.

As MSC’s chief executive Gianni Onorato admitted, she wasn’t able to demonstrate the full range of her knowledge and abilities as the launch event wasn’t like a normal voyage. So guests couldn’t expect details of shore excursions or port calls, but if they asked Zoe about the ship, this latest high-tech piece of kit was able to regale them with useful information in seven different languages.

It’s a technological revolution, not just for MSC, but the cruise industry at large and as Onorato explained, this is only the beginning.

“We are investing in innovation in hardware and software to enhance the guest experience and we are always looking to employ the latest cutting-edge solutions,” he said.

Zoe has been primed to understand up to 30 different accents and cope with more than 800 of the most commonly asked questions, giving advice on life aboard and ashore.

Passengers who ask this cylindrical assistant to check their cruise account will find that the details appear on their TV screen, while questions about shore excursions will prompt further information to automatically run on the cabin TV.

MSC bosses are now looking to further develop Zoe’s skills for MSC Grandiosa (which launches in November) to be more proactive.

“Perhaps she would suggest that passengers may want to try the spa, or if a light bulb breaks she could call the electrician,” Onorato explained.

“It’s all about making life for our guests easier and to make them feel comfortable. We want to show guests who are less familiar with such technology that it is easy to use.”

For anyone suspicious of Zoe’s presence, there will be collateral material in each cabin explaining how the device works and guests do not need to use the technology if they are not comfortable with it.

Onorato also had reassurances for any crew members who might worry that Zoe could lead to staffing cuts: “This will benefit the crew because it will help them to do their job.”

While Zoe is the focal push of the line’s MSC for Me digital platform that was introduced with MSC Meraviglia in 2017 via interactive touchscreens around the ship and in-cabin interactive TV, other enhancements will also be rolled out with the launch of MSC Bellissima.

For the first time, passengers will be able to download the MSC for Me app in advance and once aboard will be able to try the new family and friends locator and chat facility.

MSC bosses are confident that these enhancements will give the line a firmer foothold in the UK market.

Speaking of the Southampton christening by screen legend Sophia Loren, Onorato added: “This shows the UK market that we are committed. We have grown from a Mediterranean company into a global one and the UK is such a big market, but has not been a big focus for us before.

“Now it has and we need to show the travel agent community and consumers that we are here and want to grow in this market.

MSC Bellissima is a further sign of our commitment. We are here and we are not going to walk away,” he stressed.

Read the latest issue of Cruise Adviser

Read the March 2019 issue of Cruise Adviser.The latest issue of Cruise Adviser, the only destination for those selling cruise. In this issue, Anthony Pearce joins Uniworld on the Rhône; Sara Macefield checks out Princess Cruises’ Ocean Medallion; Sam Ballard explores the rise of small-ship cruise; plus, Jane Archer takes a closer took at St Petersburg, the jewel in any Baltics cruise

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