Last updated: 10:57 PM ET, Mon November 30 2015

A New Captain for Costa

Neil Palomba is the youngest president overseeing the largest cruise line in Europe

Vacation Agent | Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Greg Shillinglaw

A New Captain for Costa

PHOTO: Neil Palomba president of Costa Cruises.

It’s just after 1 a.m. on the new Costa Diadema somewhere off the coast of Italy and the pool deck, now serving as a dance floor, is still full with partying guests. The theme of the night is La Notte Bianca, Italian for “White Night,” a party where everyone comes clad in white clothing. Cocktails are flowing with the Mediterranean night sky serving as a backdrop amid the flashing lights and heart-pounding music.

Dressed in a dapper all-white suit, Neil Palomba, Costa Crociere’s new president, smiles as he keeps a watchful eye on his guests. He politely declines drink offers and juggles requests from passengers asking for “selfies” and more traditional photos, offering a friendly hello to seemingly everyone at the party.

Palomba, 37, is the youngest executive running a major cruise line in the world. He also represents a new era for Costa, as Europe’s largest cruise company evolves following the deadly Concordia wreck in 2012 and the more recent terrorist attack in Tunisia in March that claimed the lives of several passengers on a shore excursion to the Museo Bardo.

Since coming over from rival MSC Cruises last year, Palomba has preached safety. He also has reemphasized the line’s Italian roots — something Costa has marketed before — and rolled out the 3,724-passenger Costa Diadema. We spoke with Palomba on board the vessel, the largest of Costa’s 16 ships, as his company hosted its top travel agent partners during a special cruise. The last question on the attack in Tunisia was added after the initial interview.

How much of a commitment does Costa have to North America and how would you recommend travel agents sell your product?

I think that North America is currently the largest cruise market in the world. So of course it’s an important market for Costa. But Costa is part of a larger company, Carnival Corporation, which has different brands in the North American market, so we don’t expect to gain a large share of that market. We want to gain our fair share of U.S. travelers who want to experience something different.

They want to experience what all the other cruise lines — all the other North American lines — do not offer, which is an Italian experience. We want our U.S. travelers to be able to experience Italy while they’re cruising either in the Caribbean or in Europe, or in the Indian Ocean, or wherever else our cruises go.

How are you trying to increase Costa’s appeal to North Americans? What are you trying to offer them?

English is our working language spoken on board. It’s required to also speak English on board for safety. So we definitely gear to the English-speaking guest. We also try to let them know that they are in Italy. Even on your cruise card, for example, you can see there is a little translation of different words, because when our waiters welcome you, although they speak English, we want them to welcome you in Italian.

That’s who we are and that’s what we want to be recognized for. If you’re going to Italy — whether it’s Florence, Naples or Rome — that’s the way people welcome you. And that’s what we want to represent — the best of Italy.

You’re the youngest president of a major cruise line. Is that an advantage, a disadvantage, or both?

I have only worked in the cruise industry. I was 15 on my first time on a ship. I was a night steward in the reception. My dream was to become a captain. I started to become a captain. I was an officer. That’s how I learned. That’s how I started. And now I find myself not to be a captain of a ship, but a captain of a company, which is an even greater responsibility. It’s my dream come true.

What defines the Costa brand today and what differentiates it from other major cruise lines?

The Italian experience is the core of our experience. (There’s) also the entertainment, which I like to define as the best entertainment at sea. Entertainment is not only what you see in the theater, but what you experience throughout the ship. Entertainment is also part of the dining experience. You are using your five senses to really enjoy what you experience every day throughout the ship. So the best entertainment and Italian food — recognized worldwide to be the best food, or one of the best foods. That’s what we deliver in our menus. True Italian menus, true Italian recipes, true Italian products and ships. So we believe that those differentiate our product from everybody else.

What has been your response to the incident in Tunis where some of your passengers were killed in a terrorist attack during a shore excursion? What policies and procedures have you put in place following the tragedy?

What happened in Tunis represents an attack to the values of friendship between cultures in which we have always believed. Our deepest sympathy and our condolences go to the victims and their families. We share their sorrow.

As soon as the ship’s command was notified about the attack at Museo Bardo, they immediately activated our company emergency response procedures, recalled all excursions to return on board, and a care team and company senior executives were deployed on site. All guests were given the opportunity to disembark upon arrival at the next port, Palma de Mallorca, and for those choosing this option Costa took care of their return to their home country.

In memory of all the victims of this terrible attack, a minute of silence was observed at Costa Crociere headquarters in Genoa, in all worldwide offices and on board our ships. After this event, Costa announced all future calls in Tunis were suspended.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the May 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.