An eco-conscious pioneer for the cruise industry

Pierfrancesco Vago explains how MSC Group is creating revolutionary ships and guest experiences

An eco-conscious pioneer for the cruise industry
Pierfrancesco Vago and his team have turned MSC Cruises into one of the most successful brands in the global cruise industry

By Rebecca Gibson |

Widely regarded as a pioneering figure in the global cruise industry, Pierfrancesco Vago didn’t have the smoothest start when he first took the helm of MSC Cruises.  

“I worked in MSC Group’s cargo division and came from a business-to-business background, so I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about what was involved in delivering the best possible customer experience,” says Vago, who is now executive chairman of MSC Group’s cruise division and global chair of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).  

“In my old role, I could leave containers sat in the sun for 15 minutes without an issue, but I quickly learned that cruise guests don’t like it if you do the same to them! Moving to the business-to-consumer world was eye-opening as I had to learn about the importance of media marketing, branding, interior design, culinary offerings, itinerary planning and so much more.”  

The biggest game changer for Vago came in 2004 when MSC Cruises deployed a ship in North America for the first time. “I thought it would be perfect for us to offer an authentic Italian experience by freshly squeezing blood oranges from Sicily in front of guests at breakfast, so we went to great lengths to arrange that,” he says. “However, I hadn’t considered the fact that most had never seen the fruit before and had no idea what it was, so it was a wasted effort. At that moment, I realised that if we wanted to be a global player, we had to change our approach and better understand our guests so that we could find ways to cater to all their various needs and preferences. It was almost comical – we were a highly professional business with 300 years of seafaring and logistical knowledge but no idea how best to serve coffee!” 

Since then, Vago and the team have turned MSC Cruises into one of the biggest and most successful brands in the global cruise industry. In June 2021, MSC Group’s cruise division also launched Explora Journeys, its first-ever luxury brand which has been designed to redefine the concept of luxury travel. Both brands place customers at the forefront of every decision they make, striving to create smooth, seamless and enjoyable experiences that exceed expectations. Vago attributes much of this success to the fact that MSC Group is a family-run company with strong family values.  

“We’re a progressive brand that adheres strictly to five core values and we’re led by a hands-on management team that makes decisions to benefit our brand, our people, the environment and the wider cruise industry,” he explains. “Not only do our executive teams have all the skills needed to run a professional business, but they also have years of shipping experience so they understand everything from the technical aspects of operating ships to how to support our seafarers.” 

MSC Group’s family structure also gives it a business agility rarely seen in a company of its size, says Vago.  “We inherently trust each other, and we aren’t obliged to satisfy external shareholders, so we can make quick decisions and invest in whatever we believe will be best for the business and our people in the long term.”  

Another fundamental aspect of the success of MSC Group’s cruise brands is that they nurture employees’ personal and professional development. “We give them a sense of equality, belonging and ownership, which makes them invested in their role and fosters an entrepreneurial spirit that has led to many innovations over the years,” says Vago.  

One example epitomising the success of both this business approach and the group’s innovative spirit is MSC Cruises’ new MSC World Europa, which will debut in December 2022. Spanning 22 decks, MSC World Europa is the first in a series of four “trailblazing” World Class ships and will boast 2,626 cabins and more than 40,000 square metres of public space. The vessel, which has been touted as an “ultra-modern metropolis” and “unlike anything” the industry has ever seen before, will feature multiple innovations that Vago predicts will revolutionise the cruise experience.  

“MSC World Europa was built to usher in a new concept of cruising,” he says. “We have drawn on years of experience and knowledge to design our most sustainable and futuristic ship ever. It will push the boundaries of what is possible at sea, setting records and setting new standards for the cruise industry. From the outside, the ship will be an impressive sight due to the plumb bow and innovative Y-shaped aft, and onboard, it will offer a veritable world of different experiences designed to appeal to passengers of all ages.” 

Some of MSC World Europa’s onboard highlights will include seven swimming pools, seven dedicated children’s spaces, seven new cabin types, the largest and most luxurious MSC Yacht Club to date, and 33 restaurants, bars and lounges. The latter will include signature MSC Cruises venues and new concepts such as the line’s first microbrewery, a gin bar where guests can blend their own botanical cocktails, Mediterranean fish restaurant La Pescaderia, and the first hydroponic garden at sea for growing micro herbs, salads and garnishes. 

“Our chefs will prepare globally inspired dishes, taking guests on an authentic gastronomic journey,” says Vago. “Guests will also be able to enjoy high-quality entertainment, ranging from large-scale theatre productions to immersive performances in the aft lounge, interactive family entertainment in the Luna Park Arena, roller discos and Bohemian Street theatre all around the ship. Plus, the ship will have a glass-walled bumper car ‘bubble’ positioned 70 metres above the sea, which is another industry first.” 

Vago believes the “beating heart” of MSC World Europa will be a three-deck-high indoor World Galleria with shops, restaurants and an LED sky screen, which opens onto the outdoor World Promenade at the aft of the ship. The 104-metre-long World Promenade spans nine decks and features dining venues, the longest dry slide at sea (11 decks high), and much more. “World Promenade will be one of the most impressive spaces in this incredible ship due to its breathtaking sea views and its entertainment and al-fresco dining spaces,” he explains.  

MSC World Europa will also be one of the most environmentally advanced ships at sea, becoming the first in the MSC Cruises fleet to be powered by LNG fuel.  

“MSC World Europa is a statement of our commitment to building a brighter future for our planet and marks a significant milestone on our journey to zero emissions,” says Vago. “Using LNG fuel will cut emissions of sulphur oxides by 99 per cent, particles by 98 per cent, nitrogen oxides by 85 per cent and carbon dioxide by up to 25 per cent compared to standard marine fuels. LNG is paving the way for the uptake of sustainable non-fossil fuels including green hydrogen too. The ship will also have a demonstration fuel cell to test how efficiently it produces heat and electricity compared to the LNG engines.” 

The ship will also help MSC Group’s cruise division to fulfil its pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  

“Protecting our oceans is vital for our business and future generations, so it’s paramount for MSC Group to ensure that all of our operations are environmentally sustainable,” says Vago. “We’re educating our guests and key stakeholders so they understand how serious the challenges are, and how quickly we must solve them. I regularly engage with shipyards, technology suppliers, fuel providers and others to bring the conversation to the political arena and drive the development of the fuels and technologies we need to make zero-emission cruising a reality.” 

Between now and 2025, MSC Group’s cruise division will focus on implementing fossil-based fuels like LNG coupled with shore power, fuel cells and other technologies, before trying to transition to biobased and synthetic fuels between 2025-2035. From 2035 onwards, it will aim to develop zero-emission fuels and new power systems. 

“With our 2050 net zero pledge, we defined what we want to achieve and we’re now intensively working on how we are going to reach that goal,” says Vago. “We have a clear strategy and timeline for making progress, but each phase will bring unique technical and infrastructure challenges. We’ll need to solve these in collaboration with authorities, technology providers, infrastructure companies and other key stakeholders.” 

MSC Cruises is already making good progress, having installed dual-fuel engines, shore power capabilities, systems for advanced wastewater treatment, heat recovery, energy efficiency, exhaust gas cleaning, and much more. At the end of 2019, the brand recorded a 28 per cent decrease in carbon intensity compared to its 2008 baseline and remains on track to meet, or likely exceed, its 40 per cent target by 2030. 

The six ships in MSC Group’s new luxury cruise brand Explora Journeys have also been designed with the environment in mind. For instance, Explora III and IV will be powered by LNG, and Explora V and VI will feature a new generation of LNG engines with an industry-first system for containing liquid hydrogen so they can use the low-carbon fuel. Hydrogen fuel will power a six-megawatt fuel cell to produce emission-free power for hotel operations while vessels are in port. “Explora Journeys is using today’s latest technologies to build ships for tomorrow so they can be adapted to alternative energy solutions when they become available,” says Vago.  

Such investments demonstrate that the cruise industry, which represents roughly two per cent of the wider global shipping sector, is leading the way when it comes to researching, developing and implementing new solutions to reduce carbon emissions, claims Vago. “We’re continually pushing boundaries and showing the world how we can achieve sustainable shipping in a practical way, and that makes me very proud.” 

Despite the great strides the industry is making, however, Vago is campaigning for both industry regulators and governments to provide better support for the sector.  

“Everybody is working hard to decarbonise, but we don’t have an industry-wide strategy so there’s a risk everyone will go off in their own direction and that could be problematic,” he says. “We need governments to bring all the cruise operators, fuel providers, technologies companies, ports and other key stakeholders to the same table so we can better align our efforts and make rapid progress.”  

Vago is also advocating for central funding to support research and development programmes to accelerate the development of new technologies and fuels. “MSC Cruises’ ships already have dual-fuel engines that could be used with bio-based or synthetic LNG so we could theoretically start operating with zero emissions tomorrow, but these new fuels aren’t yet available at a commercial scale,” he says. “Suppliers need help to make this possible.” 

Ports need access to funding too. “By the end of 2022, more than half of MSC Cruises’ fleet will be able to connect to shore power and 93 per cent of newbuilds in the current global order book will have this capability, which means at least two-thirds of the global cruise fleet will be equipped by 2027,” says Vago. “However, there aren’t many ports that can meet this demand – only 0.6 per cent of Europe’s cruise berths are ready to provide shore power for example, so we need them to build the infrastructure.”   

Vago notes that it will cost an estimated €5 billion to install shore power facilities at just one-third of European cruise ports. “The scale of these investments must be addressed because EU rules may eventually force cruise lines to avoid ports that cannot provide shore power,” he says. “There are already many shoreside electricity collaborations underway between cruise lines, ports and public authorities, but we need to do more. The maritime industry’s transition to zero-emission operations is the biggest challenge we’ll ever face, and it will only be achieved by everyone playing their part.”  

To truly reduce the cruise industry’s environmental footprint, operators must also collaborate with ports, destination authorities, tourism bodies and shore excursion providers to promote sustainable tourism.  

“We want to take guests to the world’s best destinations but to do that we need the support of the communities we visit,” says Vago. “It’s crucial that we engage with key stakeholders and make port calls and onshore tours as eco-friendly as possible, while providing great socio-economic outcomes for the local communities.” 

One of MSC Cruises’ initiatives is to develop sustainable cruise terminals, all of which will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification standards as a minimum. In summer 2021, MSC Cruises began constructing a new terminal in Miami, Florida, which will open with two berths but potentially be extended to add a third in the future to enable it to cater for 18,000 passengers per day.  

“The facility will reach at least LEED Silver standards and we’ve put a comprehensive environmental and social management system in place for the construction and subsequent operation of the terminal,” says Vago. “Meanwhile, our new terminal in Barcelona, Spain, is on track to meet LEED Gold rating and will provide both shore power and LNG bunkering. It will begin operating in 2023 and we plan to seek LEED Zero Energy and LEED Zero Water certification within the first 12 months.”  

MSC Group’s cruise division also continues to support its industry partners’ environmental stewardship initiatives, while helping tour operators around the world to implement eco-conscious practices. Both MSC Cruises and Explora Journeys have partnered with Travelife, a training, management and certification initiative that helps tourism companies to become sustainable using specialised indicators based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Industry Standard criteria.  

“This partnership allows us to provide comprehensive online training and educational materials for our tour operator partners, so they can implement sustainable practices and achieve certification from a recognised sustainable tourism scheme,” says Vago. 

MSC Cruises has also developed a growing range of Protectours, which enable guests to directly contribute to protecting the environment. Some highlights include a half-day hiking experience with rescue dogs in Montego Bay, Jamaica; a beach clean-up and snorkelling experience in Croatia; a conservation tour and authentic Arabian dinner in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and a horse trekking and tree-planting experience at Guðmundarlundur forest in Reykjavik, Iceland. 

“Guests are increasingly worried about the environmental impact of travelling, so they’re prioritising holidays where they can make a positive impact on the planet and local communities,” says Vago. “Our Protectours allow guests to enjoy an immersive travel experience, while also giving them the unique opportunity to learn about conservation issues and play an important role in helping to resolve them.”  

MSC Cruises is also minimising the carbon footprint of its shore excursions by ensuring that around 70 per cent of its tours include low-impact transportation, such as walking, cycling or kayaking. “We’ve created MSC Bike Adventours in 21 countries, with a total of 150 planned for 2022 as part of regular itineraries in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and the Middle East,” says Vago. “Plus, we’re helping tour operators build fleets of low or zero-emission vehicles for transporting guests to and from the port to tourist attractions. For instance, the port of Barcelona in Spain is now using electric buses to make 20-25 journeys per day, which will save almost 10,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide annually compared to petrol vehicles.” 

Enhancing all of these efforts is the MSC Foundation, which supports communities in need, either directly or via partnerships with global organisations. In 2021, for example, MSC Foundation led 17 emergency relief initiatives in 14 countries, including response efforts for two volcanic eruptions, one earthquake and one wildfire. It also assisted with Covid-19-related projects, delivering protective personal equipment to hospitals and health ministries in 11 African countries and supporting national mitigation efforts in Brazil, Italy, Lebanon, Montenegro and Vietnam. MSC Foundation also provided Mercy Ships with free transportation and logistical support for delivering medical supplies, supported Italian marine conservation association Marevivo’s initiatives to educate school children about biodiversity, and helped Unicef to build 10 more classrooms on the Ivory Coast. It also trained 32 women waste collectors, which resulted in 400 tonnes of plastic being recycled into bricks that were used to build a further 44 classrooms. 

“We use our global reach, logistical infrastructure and maritime knowledge and experience to help protect the planet and its natural resources, while proving critical assistance, healthcare and high-quality education to people who need it most,” says Vago. “We hope to collectively build a better world for future generations.”  

Vago is buoyed by the success of the cruise industry’s post-pandemic comeback and all the investments operators and ports are making to secure the sector’s sustainable future. “We’re pioneering new solutions that are taking us closer to decarbonisation, building new ships that will transform the guest experience and we’re giving guests opportunities to explore new destinations while contributing to their long-term prosperity after two years of travel restrictions. Cruising offers unparalleled customer service, unforgettable experiences and great value for money – there’s no doubt it has an exciting future.” 

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