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Ken Muskat on a year helming Scenic Group USA and what's ahead

Ken Muskat aboard the yacht Emerald Sakara last week — an eye-opening experience
Ken Muskat, managing director of Scenic Group USA, said 2023 — when its yacht capacity doubled, he built his team and raised brand awareness — laid the foundation for a record-breaking 2024.

'The US needs to be a leading source market [for Scenic Group] and we've already doubled bookings on a weekly basis versus a year ago,' Muskat said. Currently it's No. 2 behind home market Australia. 

When he joined in December 2022, Muskat found many big accounts knew Scenic for its river vessels but not its ocean yachts.

Showing off the ships

So, in a year when Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours added Scenic Eclipse II and Emerald Cruises added Emerald Sakara, Muskat took every opportunity to show off the ships.

Almost 100 travel advisors visited on day tours or sailed on familiarization trips, more than 100 attended a top producers' event in Miami that included a Scenic Eclipse tour and a couple hundred walked through Scenic Jasper as part of ASTA's River Cruise Expo in Budapest. Others were on hand for the namings of Scenic Eclipse II in Málaga and Emerald Sakara in San Juan.

'The two brands are fairly unknown in the US market so we put in support for sales, for more webinars and had a presence at major trade events like Dream Vacations and Expedia. Our No. 1 priority was getting in front of the trade,' Muskat said.

Today, awareness is 'definitely much higher, not only with the trade but with consumers as well,' he asserted, citing a 123% increase in registrations of travel advisers wanting to do business with the Scenic Group and consumer accolades including Emerald Cruises winning the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Award for best small ship cruise line of 2023. 

Just back from Emerald Sakara

Muskat spoke to Seatrade Cruise News on Monday, fresh back in the office from his vacation aboard Emerald Sakara with family and friends — a trip that, he admits, raised his own awareness.

'For all of us it was our first vacation on a yacht. We loved it,' he said. 'We've got to get the message out there that it's like having your own yacht without paying for your own yacht.'

Muskat extolled the privacy — at multiple ports, the Zodiacs landed on beaches the passengers had all to themselves, such as Princess Diana Beach in Barbuda where there's a Nobu restaurant, and at Jost Van Dyke where the crew set up 'an unbelievable beach barbecue where we were greeted with a glass of Champagne' and had kayaks, paddle boards and other water toys at their disposal.

And he was impressed by Emerald Sakara's 'amazing crew' and the flexibility that allowed the captain to 'surprise and delight' with an unscheduled stop at St. Bart's on New Year's Eve for the famous fireworks. There, Emerald Sakara was among scores of yachts owned by the rich and famous, including Jeff Bezos and Eyal Ofer.

'It really opened my eyes to how unique an experience a yacht can provide,' Muskat said.

Beefed-up sales team

A year ago the big-ship cruise veteran executive came to Scenic's US leadership wanting to ensure he had the right team in place. Key new hires included Liz Fettes to oversee all of sales and groups, supported by Kayla Corbett, director of key & national accounts, and Manny Celdran, senior director of field sales. A number of new regional sales directors were hired. Altogether, Scenic Group USA now has a 19-strong sales team which will soon go to 20 with the hiring of a Texas regional sales director.

Robert Castro was promoted to lead marketing and public relations, and the office was expanded to provide a dedicated marketing hub creative space. Another marketing team member will be recruited for the loyalty program.

Marketing and promotions

Muskat said the company leveraged the global launch of 'Maritime Masters – Expedition Antarctica,' which first aired on the Discovery Channel and is currently on Discovery+ and YouTube, to expose the Scenic Eclipse ships to the US audience. This stimulated interest, along with a focus on connected TV, increased direct mail and partnerships with culinary experts such as Chef Bryan Voltaggio and Bravo’s 'Below Deck' Chef Ben Robinson hosting a number of sailings.

Scenic Group USA also came out with its first dedicated MICE brochures for Scenic and Emerald.

In May, the company shifted its promotion and offer strategy to a two-for-one model which Muskat said pushed up demand month over month. This, combined with a Black Friday/Cyber Week offer, raised US bookings to a record level for November, Cyber Monday and Cyber Week. 

Now, wave season is 'kicking off strong,' according to Muskat.

Room to grow occupancy

With a record number of expedition ships delivered industrywide during the pandemic, brands have faced occupancy and pricing challenges.

Muskat said Scenic Group's river fleets continue to sail full, while Emerald yachts in the Caribbean — this is the first season both are there — are in the 80% to 90% range, 'a little soft, some sailings softer than others.' Next year's Mediterranean season is sold out, and Emerald has scored 'a lot of charters.'

For Scenic Eclipse I and II, occupancy varies at about 80% to 90%, with four Antarctica sailings at 70% to 80%, which the company is working to top off.

2024 plans

This year Scenic Group USA plans to launch two new consumer websites, enhance the travel advisor booking portal ExpressBook, forge new consumer marketing partnerships and further expand its reach in the travel advisor distribution system with additional national partnerships.  

The company will be highlighting new deployment such as Australia's Kimberley on Scenic Eclipse II and the Seychelles on Emerald Azzurra and hosting its first US loyalty member cruises on Emerald Sakara in the Caribbean in December.

Muskat intends to ride 2023's momentum with his goal to 'continue breaking records and sharing our amazing products with the trade distribution and our growing repeat client base, further establishing Scenic Cruises and Emerald Cruises as category leaders.'