Meeting Zoe: MSC Bellissima’s brand new AI companion
In March this year, MSC Cruises unveiled its newest ship, MSC Bellissima. while on board, guests will experience the world’s first digital cruise assistant, Zoe, a voice-enabled AI device fitted in every cabin. Frances Marcellin finds out what Zoe offers guests, how her personality was developed and how MSC Bellissima enabled MSC Cruises to increase its global reach.
he launch of MSC Bellissima has marked something of a sea change for MSC Cruises. But as one of a fleet of 16 cruise ships the company now has in operation, and with 13 more new ships to come by 2027, Bellissima is far from being just one of the crowd.
Part of a €13.6bn investment plan from MSC Cruises, Bellissima features 2,217 cabins, 1,418 of which have balconies, and the capacity to accommodate 5,686 guests. The largest ship ever to be launched in the UK, the 315-metre-long Bellissima is a vessel through which MSC Cruises is already seeing increased market growth in the UK due to a carefully-targeted marketing strategy.
Image: MSC Cruises
High-profile UK event designed to grow the market
The company has also succeeded in attracting global attention through its innovative technology, sustainability achievements, the brand’s star power and bringing thousands on board to experience MSC Cruises’ latest product.
“Willoughby’s association automatically brought MSC Cruises into the conversations of a wider UK audience ”
The high-profile christening event, held on 1-3 March 2019 in Southampton (for which Sophia Loren was godmother, as she is to all MSC Cruises’ ships), saw TV presenter Holly Willoughby host the evening’s celebration, for which chef Raymond Blanc – one of the UK’s best-loved French chefs – prepared the gala dinner.
A TV sensation, Willoughby’s association automatically brought MSC Cruises into the conversations of a wider UK audience. A strategically organised three-day event, where 2,400 travel agents were invited on board to have the MSC Cruises’ experience for themselves on Bellissima, also helped to alter cruise misconceptions, especially because many were not specifically cruise agents.
A direct impact for travel agents
Antonio Paradiso, UK managing director at MSC Cruises, says that the number of agents booking a cruise with the company increased significantly following the christening.
“March 2018 on March 2019 there was a 35% increase in bookings ”
“I had an agent from TTNG on board who usually sells one or two cruises a year full stop,” he explains. “The same agent, the weekend following the naming ceremony, sold eight cruises in a weekend, so she made more than £25,000 of bookings in a single day and they were all MSC Cruises.”
The difference being that following her experience on Bellissima, the agent proactively suggested cruises to customers where she wouldn’t have done before.
“I can tell you many examples of agents who have been doubling or tripling their production,” he says. “March  on March  there was a 35% increase [in bookings].”
Image: MSC Cruises
Record numbers of cruisers in the UK
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has just reported that the cruise market has grown by 2% in the last two years, with the industry hitting a record of just over two million passengers in 2018. This takes the UK market over the long-awaited threshold and making it the fourth country in the world to hit the two million mark.
CLIA’s #ChooseCruise campaign has been working hard to expand the UK market, and with popular television programmes such as Cruising with Jane McDonald getting such rave reviews, cruise is more accessible than ever in the UK.
“The perception of a cruise experience is changing year after year and we’re using technology to break some of those barriers ”
MSC Cruises’ strategic approach to growing the UK market feeds in to many of the current trends that CLIA’s report for 2019 highlighted.
Travellers going solo, conscientious travelling, more Gen Z passengers, and guests using technology to improve and personalise their experience are all key trends driving the cruise market, which are also key aspects of Bellissima and the strategic marketing plan.
“We are presenting our product differently and engaging with customers in a different way,” says Paradiso, explaining that MSC Cruises is working with more influencers on social media than they were in the past. “The perception of a cruise experience is changing year after year and we’re using technology to break some of those barriers.”
For the launch of MSC Bellissima, MSC Cruises has added new features and functionality to its multi-channel MSC for Me platform, as well as introducing the cruise industry’s first AI-powered virtual voice assistant Zoe.
Created in partnership with Samsung and Harman, Zoe is situated on the vanity desk in a cabin, at the optimum audio distance from the bed, so that guests can relax, avoid queuing at guest services, and get their questions answered from their own stateroom. Zoe communicates in seven languages – each is slightly modified to create alignment between the different languages – and can answer more than 800 questions. She was asked more than two million questions during training and, because of machine learning, she will continue to improve her knowledge every day.
“Zoe communicates in seven languages and can answer more than 800 questions ”
Creating Zoe was more complicated in reality than the team had first realised. Chief business innovation officer Luca Pronzati, who was leading the project, said that at the start they didn’t realise they would need to create an identity for Zoe.
“The basic personality type for us is respectful, formal, simple, open, warm and enthusiastic,” he says. “The second major step was bringing the personality to life through expression.”
Another challenging aspect for the team was deciding what the 'wake-up word' would be given so that Zoe could have the same activation command in each language. The team decided to go with “Ok Zoe”, as it is recognisable in all languages. Then they had to train the voice.
“We have selected different voices to align between the different languages,” explains Pronzati. ”We train a synthetic voice in order to get same kind of pronunciation. At the time we didn’t even know you could train a voice,” he says. “I realise now how many parameters there are.”
While Zoe is designed to optimise the time guests and guest services spend answering questions, the MSC for Me platform is also making ship life easier on board, especially for Millennials and Gen Z cruisers.
Mobile check-in assists the embarkation process and the 3,050 beacons on board help guests to find their way around the ship with blue-dot wayfinding. The upgraded app also includes a new chat feature so that friends and family can stay in touch on board, and there is also a family and friends locator, which will show guests where people in their group are just by checking on their smartphone.
Image: MSC Cruises
A marketing match made in heaven
Paradiso puts part of MSC’s increased growth down to the different ways they are approaching the customer, such as working with more influencers, in different sectors of the market.
“The global outreach basically made the entire market talk about MSC and that’s priceless to me ”
A key partnership for MSC Cruises is with Chelsea Football Club. With tens of millions of fans around the world, it is a way to open up a new holiday market as MSC Cruises’ research has shown they have a strong interest in vacations.
Their research into Chelsea Football club further showed that if the club recommended a holiday, fans would trust the recommandation. A fair share expressed an interest in cruise holidays, he says.
“Being a global partner of Chelsea means I can engage with the women’s team, the men’s team and the youth team, so I’ve got automatically three different audiences,” he says. “The women’s club is probably the most successful team in women’s football in Europe,” he stresses.
“If people do not get to see what MSC is all about and experience what we have to offer it will always be a barrier to our business,” says Paradiso. “The global outreach basically made the entire market talk about MSC and that’s priceless to me.”