Explora Journeys, MSC Group’s entry into the luxury cruise segment, today announced the inaugural season itineraries for its second vessel.
Speaking at the 21st International Luxury Travel Market, being held this week in Cannes, France, Chief Executive Officer Michael Ungerer tells Forbes, like its first ship, which enters service in 2023, Explora II will offer guests the ability to string together a series of itineraries to create extended journeys without backtracking to the same embarkation port.
“No roundtrips,” he says.
From August 2024 through April 2025, the sister to Explora I will visit 82 different ports in 26 counties, starting in Barcelona before working its way through the Med, visiting Israel and Egypt, transiting the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, India, and then down the coast of East Africa.
Ungerer, who started with his family’s hospitality business in Austria before cutting his teeth at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company under its legendary founder Horst Schulze, says the goal is not to simply steal share in the crowded luxury cruise market, but to attract guests from the larger luxury travel space.
He cites research from McKinsey showing luxury cruising has an addressable market of 800,000 guests valued at $6.7 billion, while the TAM for luxury vacation travelers is 29 million consumers who spend $230 billion annually.
About 50% of bookings so far include multiple voyages and Explora is drawing a higher-than-expected percentage of guests under age 50, both signs that the plan is working.
For training, Explora has partnered with leading hospitality management university École Hôtelière de Lausanne. It’s also recruiting staff and executives from luxury hotels, cruising and luxury goods. “If you want to do something different, you can’t just hire the same people,” Ungerer says.
Accommodations aboard the 461 cabin all-suite ships – six are planned as part of an overall $3.5 billion investment – start at 377 square feet, which the CEO says will be the largest in the market.
On each of the first two vessels there will be 18 food and beverage outlets, 12 bars and lounges with seven different music venues, and three pools, along with 64 cabanas. There’s also an outdoor gym.
There are “no big restaurants” and venues are intimate with lots of cozy spaces.
“It’s similar to a high-end resort,” Ungerer says, adding one other noticeable difference is there will be none of the usual shipboard announcements that are a staple of cruises.
Rates for Explora I’s inaugural season average $650 per person, per day, about twice what sister MSC Cruises charges for its MSC Yacht Club, a VIP section within the mega-ships. However, prices for both Explora ships are going up, the third price increase so far.
Mary Jean Tully, CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, a major force in the luxury cruise space, says, “They are trying to attract non-cruisers with ultra premium luxury who are new to cruising. The renderings look more like an upscale boutique hotel. The ships look stunning, and there is a lot of money behind them.”
She is already getting “a great reaction from our clients and lots of bookings.”
Ungerer, who spent 15 years at publicly traded Carnival Corp. before launching Explora in 2019, says being at the privately held MSC Group offers the opportunity to take a long-term view.
“It’s like coming full circle, coming back to a family business,” he says.
MSC Group, which traces its roots back 300 years, today is key player in global shipping with over 700 vessels, starting with just one cargo ship in 1970. Its MSC Cruises brand has 22 ships, competing against the likes of Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.
“Being able to do it all from scratch, with the backing of (ownership), ticked all the boxes,” Ungerer says.