Natalie Billington is PR Manager of MSC Cruises in the UK having worked at sea and in communications for many years after graduating from the University of Leeds.
With the exciting launch of Bellissima in the UK on the 2nd March (that I’ve been invited to attend, watch this space), I spoke with Natalie earlier this year about planning this 3 day star-studded extravaganza and her experiences so far at MSC.
This post is part of my cruise interview series that you can view under the cruises section along with ship tours and ports of call guides.
How did your life at sea begin and what was the most challenging aspect?
Natalie: I studied drama at University – graduated on Wednesday and went to sea on the Friday! My first job was with P&O as a youth staff member and then I worked with Princess Cruises as cruise staff (for 4 years) before becoming Deputy Cruise Director in my last contract. I loved the cruise staff role, it was super varied doing anything like Zumba, ball room dancing, choir and trivia.
Of course, working at sea means saying goodbye to family and friends for long periods, something Natalie found the most challenging aspect, but admits it would’ve been even harder now she’s in a different stage of her life…
N: I was so young I didn’t have things like weddings that I missed out on, but if it was now, I have 5 weddings this year, including my own, so I think missing major life events is probably the hardest.
Natalie met her fiancé onboard too, something which appears to be quite common in the industry.
Natalie declined a job in Property PR in Australia from a connection she made whilst at sea, but took an interest in communications and made her way up through the ranks at various agencies, eventually working with major brands like Coca Cola and McDonald’s. The lure of cruising was never too far away and when MSC advertised online for a PR Manager in 2017, Natalie enquired and secured the position the day after her interview.
What’s your first 2 years at MSC Cruises been like?
N: At MSC there’s so much going on, by March we’ll have launched 4 ships in 2 years! The launches themselves are these amazing huge scale events. I think there’s so much innovation in cruise now, we all can’t keep up, it’s amazing.
What’s been your proudest moment or campaign so far?
N: When Jane McDonald was on Meraviglia the bookings for the ship and website traffic were just massive and I think that’s a really nice tangible way to see how successful something has been.
If you’ve read my last cruise interview in this series you’ll be aware that this is not the first time Jane’s influence has spiked interest for a cruise line, showing that TV is a powerful platform for the cruise industry to use. I anticipate we’ll see a lot more TV shows, documentaries and adverts going forward, the latter being a recent venture for MSC Cruises with a UK Bellissima advert.
How does the UK market differ from the international side of MSC?
N: We have an amazing relationship with all the trade in the UK, I think they are crucial in helping us expand our market because cruise is still a misunderstood product and quite complicated, so it’s great to have the expertise of the travel agent to talk you through it and make sure you are choosing the right destination or cruise line.
We’re very clear of our identity, it’s an international experience – Natalie Billington, MSC Cruises
The thing is MSC isn’t for everybody, if you wanted to go onboard and want a very British product we’re not the right cruise line, whereas if you want something a bit more international, with international food offering and style then obviously MSC is the perfect choice.
Further reading: 6 things to expect from a MSC cruise
How much planning has gone into the Bellissima naming ceremony – and why launch it in the UK?
N: We announced in March last year that we would have the naming ceremony in Southampton, so probably over 15 months of planning. There’s a lot to do, it’s a large scale event [over 3 days], with a built stage and marquee.
The reason we chose to name the ship in the UK is that the UK is a very important market for MSC, it’s a very interesting and dynamic cruise market. There’s a lot of competition, which is great as it drives us all to innovate, everyone wants that competitive edge.
All the amazing things that are coming out of the cruise industry, especially in the UK, is because it is such a dynamic market – Natalie Billington, MSC Cruises
Natalie also appreciates the support of UK trade, media and travel agents in helping grow the business 50% year on year in 2018, so there was a natural desire to celebrate their new ship Bellissima with them in 2019.
Having taken up a degree in Drama, it’s no surprise that Natalie’s most excited about the Cirque du Soleil show on Bellissima.
N: I went to Montreal to Cirque du Soleil HQ back in November and saw the development of the show and the cast that will be in the shows onboard Bellissima were all there rehearsing, so I can’t wait to see the whole thing all together.
What’s your favourite MSC cruise ship and itinerary?
N: My favourite ship so far is Meraviglia, I’m sure I’m going to love Bellissima as well, I just love it can go anywhere because it’s got a lot of indoor facilities, so it’s perfect for those beautiful Northern Europe itineraries. One of my favourite itineraries is the Norwegian one, I think there are some places in the world that are perfect to explore on a ship and that area is definitely one of them.
I do have a soft spot for the Eastern Mediterranean as well, like Kotor, probably one of my favourite ports in the world – Natalie Billington, MSC Cruises
Further reading: What to expect on a Eastern Mediterranean cruise
Do you recommend people taking up a career at sea?
N: I think more people should consider working on cruise ships as a way to explore the world and earn money by having a job as well. I came off the ships at 25 and the skills you learn at sea; being adaptable, resilient, positive and creative are such important skills I call upon today.
Thank you Natalie for participating in this cruise interview series, be sure to subscribe to this blog or follow me on social media for future interviews and cruise industry content.
For more information about MSC Cruises visit their website or contact (UK) tel: 0203 426 3010