After five months at the helm of Scenic Group USA, one factor is crystal clear, says Ken Muskat, managing director: “This brand is in an unbelievable place for where the industry is going right now.” First, he points to soaring growth in consumer demand for small-ship, luxury cruising. Second, he cites Scenic’s diverse portfolio of 26 river vessels, ocean yachts and expedition ships sailing this year for two brands—ultra-luxury Scenic Cruises and luxury Emerald Cruises. “This is the place to be,” he says emphatically.
He’s not alone in that view. While those types of cruise products were once considered niche, “not anymore,” emphasizes Kelly Craighead, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). She describes the industry's small-ship river cruise, yacht and expedition portfolio in this way: “I’ll tell you these products are hot, hot, hot.”
Made in Australia, Expanding in America
Based at Scenic Group USA’s corporate offices in Hollywood, FL, Muskat is now tasked with growing the U.S. market for the luxury tour-and-cruise company founded in 1986 by Australian businessman Glen Moroney. Muskat is highly experienced, having served in executive roles with MSC Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Royal Caribbean Group’s SkySea.
But now, his attention is centered on a more intimate, small-ship, luxury portfolio. So, Luxury Travel Advisor recently chatted one-on-one with both Muskat and Robert Castro, newly promoted to vice president of marketing, Scenic Group USA. So, what can U.S. travel advisors expect this year?
Muskat says his brands will do more to target U.S. luxury travel advisors who already have a portfolio of luxury clients. He also believes it's essential that Scenic’s and Emerald’s marketing and PR efforts closely align with the very targeted approach needed to appeal to those advisors and their clients. “Because obviously, this is not a mass-market, spray-and-pray kind of thing,” explains Muskat.
During our sit-down interview with Muskat and Castro, it was clear that a few things are “cooking." While some things are not yet announced, Muskat believes that they'll “really help us drive some significant awareness in the U.S. market."
That said, on May 1, Scenic Group USA kicked off Travel Advisor Appreciation Month with the launch of a new trade focused campaign, "Partners in Travel," as well as celebrating the contribution of valued travel advisors with bonus commissions and giveaways of free luxury river and ocean cruises—air included.
Two New Ocean Ships
This year is “critical” for the company’s success in the U.S. Muskat points to the launch of two new ships—essentially doubling the line’s ocean capacity. Scenic just accepted delivery of the new Scenic Eclipse II, its second Discovery Yacht. The new Emerald Sakara, which was "floated out" last week, will start sailing with guests aboard in August. And on some European rivers, the line also has extended its sailing season.
As for the new tonnage, “when you have new ships coming out, that’s got a nice halo effect with a lot of buzz and a lot of attention around the brand,” Muskat adds. “So, we’re going to take full advantage of that.” Scenic will benefit from experiences learned when first launching the sister vessels in 2019 and 2022, respectively, he says, but “we know that the market is strong and in demand for this kind of product."
Most notably, Muskat says he's “excited about the competitors coming into the category because that’s going to bring more awareness for the category.” He recently moderated a Seatrade Cruise Global panel discussion with executives from The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, which has begun sailing, and others such as Aman Resorts and Orient Express, which are entering the luxury yacht segment but not yet sailing. “We’re excited by the growth in the category,” he emphasizes.
Awareness, Demand and Growth
With a goal of making the U.S. market the fastest growing market for Scenic and one of the most significant in the company, Muskat's vision is about these three elements—to “increase brand awareness, as much as possible in the U.S., drive significant demand and continue to grow.” But he also knows that, at the same time, Scenic Group's brands are still relatively unknown to many U.S. consumers.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get the new-to-cruise [travelers] to understand who we are,” he acknowledges. “That’s why I’m so excited about the growth in the category overall, because with more and more brands pushing this ultra-luxury and expedition and river-cruise-kind of category, it’s going to bring more awareness to it for the new-to-cruise” guest.
Muskat also says that, at the same time, the company must be focused on those travelers who are doing African safaris, exotic ski vacations or glamping vacations. “Those are the people that we want to go after,” he says. “They’ve got the money. They’ve got the time, and if this year, they’re planning an African safari, next year, they’re going to…do Antarctica with us.”
Scenic has a unique portfolio with two brands. So, how do they differ? “Scenic is ultra-luxury, all-inclusive, discovery-focused,” he says. Scenic has butlers for every cabin. In turn, “Emerald is luxury with comforts included,” he explains. but while wine, beer and specialty dining are included in the Emerald cruise fares, not everything is.
Scenic’s ships sail the Mediterranean, Caribbean and beyond, but also go to the Arctic and Antarctica. In addition, on the culinary side, Scenic Eclipse and its sister vessel accommodate just 228 guests; that’s a small guest complement for offering 10 different dining options, most of which are specialty dining. “That’s unique for a ship of that size,” Muskat points out.
Emerald’s ships, in turn are what he describes as “warm water, very Caribbean, very relaxed and it’s very much like having your own yacht where you’ve got all the time in the world to do what pleases you.”
New to Cruise, The Culinary Draw
But while the two brands are different, one way for both to attract those ever-important, new-to-cruise guests is the culinary side. “It’s breaking through to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily have considered us,” emphasizes Castro.
Last year, for instance, Bravo’s “Top Chef” alumnus Bryan Voltaggio was tapped to host a voyage on Scenic. Castro reports that Voltaggio had a great time, Scenic’s guests asked for more, and the ship’s culinary crew members felt that chef’s appearance was almost a masterclass for them—drawing upon an expert in their field: “So, when the guests and crew members asked, ‘When’s the next one coming, that was really cool,’” Castro says.
Since then, Scenic has since secured Chef Voltaggio to sail on Scenic Eclipse’s nine-day Panama Canal sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, on October 31, 2023, as well as Scenic Diamond’s “Bordeaux Affair” river cruise itinerary, departing June 18, 2024.”
On the Emerald Cruises side, the company recently partnered with Chef Ben Robinson, known as a private yacht chef on TV’s “Below Deck.” He’ll host two eight-day, culinary-themed cruises on Emerald Azzurra and Emerald Sakara. One is the “Coastal Gems of Italy and Croatia” departing from Venice on October 28, 2023, the other is “Hidden Charms of the Caribbean” sailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 2, 2024.
Castro says that to some new-to-cruise guests, the private yacht sector such as what they see on “Below Deck” is very appealing. That said, “a lot of people think that’s really cool but maybe outside of their means or totally unattainable,” he says. “But by having that aboard Emerald Sakara, it allows us to bring this to reality much more in reach...They can still have this same experience" without chartering a private yacht.
Of late, both products—especially Emerald Cruises right now—are trending a bit younger. But Muscat also believes that moving forward the Scenic brand, too, will attract even more younger clients “especially on some of the more adventure expedition-type things, because younger audiences are starting to be very interested in that stuff.”
Castro says that the company has received much feedback from guests who’ve traveled on the brands who say: "You guys have a fantastic product, but I really would like to have the opportunity in the summertime to bring my kids and grandkids.” As a result, the company will offer two family river cruises this year with Emerald—one on the Rhine and one on the Danube. “While we always knew there was an interest from the market, this came from our guests,” Castro stresses.
It's all about continuing to grow the awareness about what river cruising is all about and, beyond that, the multigenerational appeal of it, Muskat adds: “We hope that it works because we really do believe that there’s an opportunity to bring more families.” He tells us that on two occasions onboard a personal river cruise, “we had teenagers with us, and they loved it. We all had no idea what to expect and were completely blown away.”
Deployment-wise, the line—as it grows, particularly on the ocean side—is constantly looking for new global deployment. The arrival of Scenic Eclipse II will allow Scenic to cover more of the globe. Especially as a brand rooted in Australia, Muskat says new sailings in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific equate to a “big point of pride back home.”
But what’s next? “Greenland is probably the next hot place that we’re visiting right now,” he explains, noting that it’s akin to Iceland's popularity for cruising, which began for many brands in the early 2000s. “Greenland is now that place—far and undiscovered, but really, it’s going to be very familiar once you get there.”
Castro said that he’d be personally interested in adding Papua New Guinea to the line's deployment (but noted that he’s not speaking for the company in that regard). But where the line picks to deploy its ships, it has to be the right fit, Castro notes: “Number one, the guest has to have an interest to go there, and number two, [it’s important that] we can go there with minimal disruptions to the infrastructure” and preservation of the local environment and cultures.
It’s a balancing act of sorts. Moving forward, Muskat stresses that the group’s itineraries must be about focusing on the marquee ports, “the ones that guests know and love,” because that’s what drives bookings. “But at the same time, we have a duty to find new ports that are unique, very remote, that people don’t even know about today, and figure out how to market those,” he says. “So, we have to find both.”
Scenic, for example, will operate new Japan itineraries next year, so it will visit those marquee ports, but also sail into some small, remote ports. Having small ocean ships also can open up new opportunities that big ships can’t tap into, the executives say. For instance, small ships can dock at St. Tropez, France or sail into the heart of Venice, Italy.
American Market Growth
Currently, Scenic Group USA employs approximately 110 people in its Hollywood, FL, corporate office. Many work in the firm’s U.S. contact center or sales and marketing. Plus, the team includes employees in IT, finance, human resources and other support areas. Travel advisors are now seeing “the commitment of what we want to do to grow in the U.S. and the U.S. travel advisor is definitely a key to our growth,” Muskat emphasizes.
One notable enhancement? To assist travel advisors, the company has added more employees in its U.S. call center and more sales and marketing support. “Answering the phones is the number one priority, so we’ve got no hold times today,” Muskat says, noting that the company wants to support travel advisors as much as possible.
Right now, the group is looking at programs in place to do that. It wants to assure the firm's staffing levels can support the desired growth. It also wants to make sure any travel advisor programs support the firm’s easy-to-do-business-with mantra. So, that not just about such trade resources as a regional sales director or BDM, but also tools, assets and a travel advisor portal web site.
“We’ve definitely seen trade penetration,” says Muskat, citing Scenic Group’s decision to build relationships with such companies as “Cruise Planners or other companies that have a very big distribution." That type of approach “continues to be a huge focus of ours because we know that there’s a big opportunity to further penetrate the trade, but we’re focused on the right trade – the luxury trade, the trade that has the luxury clientele that understands how to sell our product,” he stresses.
Any More New Ships?
What about more growth in the form of more new ships? “If we do our jobs and we grow the U.S. market incredibly well, my hope and goal is that we continue to grow,” Muskat believes. But as yet, he said that the company hasn’t announced any more new ships and “we don’t have any plans right now. We have to prove our success first but ultimately the company wants to grow. “
Still, Muskat was most surprised upon coming to Scenic to discover that even with the size of the company’s portfolio with 26 ships sailing this year, there is still a relatively low brand awareness for both Scenic and Emerald in the market. “As established as the company is, it’s surprising to me that there’s still so many people that haven’t heard of us,” he says. “That’s what surprised me.” And that’s precisely what he plans to change.