Note: I don’t have any “insider info” about any upcoming changes to the loyalty program. This article is purely analytical and speculative as to what some MSC cruisers might like to see if a higher status tier should ever be created.
For those of us who love cruising on MSC and especially for we who didn’t get “instant top tier” status through the match from another cruise line or hotel chain, it was a special thrill when we got that email advising that we had achieved the highest level in the loyal program hierarchy: Black card.
MSC is not alone in designating the “black card” as a signal of prestige. Several credit card companies call their high-annual-fee, invitation-only “luxury cards” Black cards, including some cards that aren’t actually that color. In exchange for their $400-500 annual fee, these cards include perks such as airport lounge access (a privilege that can cost $500/year all by itself), travel insurance coverage, free checked bags on flights that usually charge for them, reimbursement for Global Entry fees, and more.
So to many of us, the black card conveys a sense of prestige and privilege, just as “black tie” implies upscale elegance. That’s obviously what MSC’s Voyager Club loyalty program was going for in naming its highest status level years ago. Unfortunately, however, that name has led to some awkward misunderstandings in online discussions.
“That’s not what I meant”
Multiple times, I’ve seen a conversation play out like this in cruise groups and forums:
MissMillionTimeCruiser: “Here’s a picture of my chocolate ship!”
NeldaNewbie: “How do you get one of those?”
MissMillionTimeCruiser: “I get it because I’m Black.”
NeldaNewbie: “Whaaaat? What does your race have to do with it?”
Ever since the first time I saw this happen, I’ve been extra careful to always say “Black card” when I refer to the loyalty status, but most people don’t. It might sound silly to those who are familiar with the loyalty program, but some of these folks seemed to seriously think that MSC hands out favors based on the color of people’s skin. And in today’s political climate, that could be a potential PR nightmare.
A few months ago the news began to circulate that the company was going to change the name of the Black level to Diamond. No reason was given, and certainly not the reason I mentioned above. In fact, Diamond is in keeping with the naming schemes of many other cruise lines so it makes sense from that point of view, too.
A week or so ago, some Black level members starting getting emails informing them that their status would be changing. Others (myself included) didn’t get the email but logged into our accounts one day and saw that they said “Diamond.”
You might notice, in the screenshot to the right, that the picture of the card underneath the status is still … black. And according to some reports, actual cards being issued on the ship this week are also still black in color, but say Diamond. Personally, I wish they’d keep it that way. After all, a black diamond has more cachet than an ordinary colorless one.
Time for a change
I have heard some criticism of the name change, but personally I think it was a smart business move. With racial tension prevalent, particularly in the United States at this point in time, no company needs its terminology to be misconstrued this way.
Sure, the venerable Black level has worked fine for years, but MSC didn’t have a big presence in North America until the Seaside began sailing out of Miami at the end of 2017. The Divina was here before that, for part of the year, but she – and MSC as a cruise line – was something of a “best kept secret” in the U.S. market.
Seaside changed all that. MSC built her specifically for the Caribbean and set out to become much more high profile here, with aggressive pricing and advertising and even boldly going where no cruise line had gone before by offering a status match program to lure customers away from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and other lines that were holding them hostage via loyalty status.
None of us want to start over at the bottom after working our way up the ladder for years, so many cruisers have stuck with the line they started with, continuing to “dance with the one who brought them” even if they grew tired of it, in order to avoid the stigma of the dread “blue card” on a new cruise line. MSC came along and upset the apple cart by giving people who had never taken a single MSC cruise high level loyalty status — all the way up to Black card — based on their status with another cruise line or hotel chain.
This upset more than the apple cart, though. It also upset some MSC cruisers, especially Black card holders, who had earned their status the “hard way” (not that one could really call spending all that time at sea, drinking and feasting and being pampered, hard – but you know what I mean). And their response was understandable.
MSC apparently listened to their feedback; recently it has appeared that they’ve started being far less generous with matching to top tier status. For example, last year Carnival’s Diamond members were getting matched to Black level. For the past few months, new status match applicants with Diamond status on Carnival have only been matched to Gold on MSC.
There are still a number of ways you can still come in with Black/Diamond, though. Those with high status on Disney, Cunard, Princess, HAL, and the luxury lines are still being matched to top tier, along with many who are at or near the top of popular upscale hotel chain loyalty programs.
The match program is a brilliant marketing tool and has brought in a host of new customers to try MSC, but that needs to be balanced with loyalty to the company’s own loyal cruisers. My personal opinion is that nobody should be matched to the very top tier. It’s great to give people some credit for their status with other companies, but don’t let them waltz in with the highest level card on their very first cruise on the line.
Something else that doesn’t seem quite fair to long-time MSC cruisers is that your progress on the loyalty scale essentially stops once you’ve earned 10,000 points. A Diamond member with 10,000 points gets all the same benefits as one who has 50,000 points. Some of the unhappiness with the name change has to do with disappointment that it was only a name change, rather than the addition of a new, higher status level.
Revamping the loyalty programs seems to be one of those things that many cruise lines promise for years before they get around to doing it. Let’s hope MSC listens to feedback from those who provide the highest revenues to the line and finally finds a way to reward them.
I’ll call this hypothetical new level Alexandrite (a gemstone more precious than diamonds, which also fits with the fact that Alexa Aponte is CFO of MSC) just for fun. What would this new top status look like? Some additional perks that have been suggested include:
- Free laundry service (something Carnival gives both their Diamond and Platinum cruisers)
- Free in-room babysitting services
- Exclusive dinners with officers or exclusive group tours of “backstage” areas for top tier members only)
- Meals served in your stateroom or on your balcony
- Free minibar, stocked throughout the cruise (something that Yacht Club guests currently get, but that may be going away soon according to some recent rumors)
- Luggage valet service, whereby your bags are picked up at your home and delivered to the ship, or picked up outside your cabin at the end of the cruise and delivered to your home or home airport
- An exclusive line or desk at guest services, and/or an exclusive phone number for top tier guests
- Reserved section in the theater
- OBC (on board credit)
Those who have been cruising with MSC for many years and attained Black card status before the status match program came along tend to just want back some of the perks that were lost when the huge influx of newly matched people were brought onboard. These include:
- Specialty dinner for two people for each top tier member, instead of just one per cabin (so that if two people in the cabin have that status, that would mean two dinners for two instead of only one
- 20% discount off the cruise price instead of the current 5% (although there is still an additional “up to 15%” on some select voyages)
- Bottle of Champagne instead of the Prosecco that’s now given
- Dinner with a member of the Bridge staff
Perhaps if a much smaller and more exclusive top tier were created, some or all of those lost and lamented benefits could be restored.
What’s your number?
One of the first decisions that would have to be made if a new tier was to be established would be the number of points required to reach it. In my opinion, to keep it truly exclusive (and affordable to extend some truly desirable benefits), that number should be fairly high, at least 30,000 points. Some have suggested 50,000 or more.
I think an important element would be that in order to gain entry to this rarefied status, it has to be earned and can’t be attained through a match. With a 30,000+ threshold, even someone who matched to Black and was given his/her first 10,000 would have to cruise enough on MSC to earn another 20,000 or more points. This would help alleviate some of the resentment toward the “infiltrators” who got all the Black perks on their very first cruise.
One final issue that comes up sometimes in regard to the loyalty benefits is how little it actually does benefit those in Yacht Club to attain high status. Many of the perquisites of Black/Diamond level are meaningless to you if booked the YC experience. Higher priority embarkation and debarkation already comes with YC regardless of your loyalty status. Ditto the complimentary sparkling wine and chocolate covered strawberries, and bathrobe and slippers.
The only extras you get in YC by virtue of being Diamond are the one free specialty restaurant dinner for two (per cabin), the chocolate ship, and an invitation to the Black (now Diamond) party. Late check-out has also been a Black card benefit, but I’ve heard in some of the groups that on some of the ships, it’s no longer available or has been moved back to earlier than before.
In a way, those cruisers who spend the most are given the least incentive, through the loyalty program, to cruise more often. Not that this bothers most YC guests, since the experience is so good that loyalty perks really don’t matter.
MSC has made a big splash in the U.S. market over the last couple of years, and their bold move with the status match contributed to that. But those have moved to MSC from other cruise lines expressly because the other line seemed to focusing all its love on attracting new cruisers and neglecting its most long-time and loyal fans need to realize that we are those newbies in the MSC community.
Our natural reaction is “Oh, wow, I don’t have to start at the bottom – this is great!” But the perspective of the long-time loyal MSC cruiser is very different. I’m very appreciative of the match points I was given – and to be honest, without the match, I might not have ever taken the step of giving MSC a try – but I’m also glad that I didn’t start out at the top, that I had to at least partially earn my way to Black/Diamond.
I don’t want it to be because of me that someone else’s experience has been diluted. So while I’m happy to be a Diamond, I’ll also be happy if and when those with many more points than I have get the new, upgraded status they deserve.