How MSC Cruises Wants to Conquer The Americas
Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises
Last week at Seatrade Cruise Global 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Sasso (pictured above), president & CEO of MSC Cruises USA, and Luca Biondolillo, the line’s chief communications officer about what’s coming from the international company for the U.S. market.
MSC Cruises has been wildly successful in its growth in the global market at a rapid pace, but in the Americas, it’s more of an underdog story. When it first introduced the MSC Divina to year-round sailings from Miami in 2013, the ship was not ready for primetime. The hardware was pristine, but the software, read service, was decidedly subpar. Thankfully, within a year, the company dramatically turned things around and began firing on all cylinders with a premium product that better suited American tastes.
Now, the cruise line is more dedicated to the U.S. market than ever before, and its executives could not be more jazzed about the future. Sasso said, “I’m 67, and I’m like more excited than I’ve ever been.” He reflects proudly on how in just the last 18 months, the company has ordered seven ships, rededicated itself to year-round sailings from Miami (after the Divina left for awhile) and announced the new MSC Seaside – one of two new prototypes currently under construction by the line – to join her and a private island destination to service its Caribbean itineraries.
How do they do it?
“We’re private. We do things for the guest,” said Sasso. “We don’t think about other things except how to make this better, how to do it the right way. Don’t be influenced by competitors. Just do what we think is right for our brand, and it works. And it’s working for us here in a profound way.”
Biondolillo refers back to international roots as well, discussing how European cultural organizations are looking to bring some of their works onboard MSC’s other prototype – the MSC Meraviglia. He asks, “if people trust such expensive pieces of art to cruise ships, doesn’t that speak of security?”
He said, “we try to do things taking it from a different angle. It’s sort of like bringing a certain Mediterranean elegance and way of doing things but then at the same time sort of making sure that we have a number of elements that also meet certain needs that a U.S. consumer of course has.”
In the Caribbean, MSC Cruises has a presence with foreign travelers, already taking them to Cuba even, but there’s still potential to grow its international clientele there as well as its American one. Biondolillo recognizes that it’s an opportune time for MSC because geopolitical instability in the Mediterranean makes the tropical region more attractive. He said, “we’re coming with a product that is so different, that it’s actually going to bring more people to the Caribbean because we’ll have more Europeans.”
Not only is the new MSC Seaside ship going to be a draw to both markets but so will the new private island. Sasso describes it: “We own the whole thing, and the way it’s being developed is it’s going to be this merging of the sea, the land and the ship. It’s not just get on a tender boat, spend a couple of hours on a beach. You’ve got the ship there…There’ll be shows onboard, on the land. There’ll be a variety of sea events, sea activities. It’s going to probably be the icon of bringing people to the ship.”
In regards to the marine reserve aspect of it, Biondolillo adds, “to mention one detail, we’re bringing back to the island 80 different types of original plants that over the years have disappeared from the island. We’re closing out the entire island to fishing which will bring back a lot of species, so even [improving] something as basic as snorkeling.”
Sasso speaks of recruiting some of the most talented people in the industry, and Biondolillo focuses on partnerships as a means of differentiating from the competition, saying, “it’s about a company that feels that it has certain areas of running a cruise completely under control…and then there are some other areas where we realize that we may not be the best.
“So, we partner with somebody who really brings best practices in a sector…typically a world leader in that particular area, but not just to have them sign off on the product. It’s let’s sit down two years ahead of time and design together end to end what this aspect of our product is going to look like. Let’s make sure you’re continuously involved in this.”
And that’s exactly what MSC Cruises is doing with celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi aboard the MSC Seaside – just announced in partnership at the conference last week – and also Cirque du Soleil aboard the MSC Meraviglia. “Somebody else has been associated with that name before, but we’re doing something that’s not comparable,” said Biondolillo. Interestingly, after Sasso’s time there, Cirque du Soleil had a previous collaboration with Celebrity Cruises, his former company earlier on, but it was poorly implemented in a retrofitted venue and not well received.
In contrast, Biondolillo was just up in Montreal several weeks ago, and the creative process is beginning by co-designing a dedicated space and exclusive experience. He explains, “not any show can be translated into something that can be played onboard a ship. So, these guys are really pushing themselves to really design something that’s their brand, their content, their excitement, but that can be articulated in a proper way.”
In the end, each one of the four forthcoming Meraviglia-class ships will have two exclusive shows designed from scratch that can only be seen onboard and not anywhere on land, and that’s above and beyond the entertainment that will be showcased in the main theater.
Still, Biondolillo admits, “when you look at certain services onboard, they’re not outsourced to other people. We do it ourselves. So, some of the restaurants, the service and such, that’s our field…So, it’s a mix of where our strengths are and where we feel we’re not strong enough. Then we bring in the best in the world.”
Sasso concludes, “this is a cruise line that’s basically ten years old, and we have five series of ships. And we’re going to double our size to 80,000 berths in the next few years. It’s a remarkable story…The story’s never really finished being written, so that’s a good thing.”
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