MSC Cruises is fulfilling a longstanding dream with year-round cruises from North America. Richard Sasso, president and chief executive officer, MSC Cruises USA, talks to Susan Parker
Sasso says the company has been contemplating such a move for a number of years, having been a seasonal operator in the US for almost a decade with mainly late fall and winter sailings. “MSC has begun to get a reputation here with the ships coming for eight years,” he remarks. But in order to develop a mature market like the US, he says, “you need the proper hardware.” With the addition of MSC Preziosa to the fleet this year, the company was able to put a Fantasia-class ship in North America.
“The reaction so far has been tremendous,” says Sasso. “We believe the Mediterranean flavour gives us a very distinctive position. We have great hardware and definition and that helps us to compete in a mature market.” In addition, he believes that MSC is one of the few companies to be able to bring new attributes and not offer the ‘same old, same old’.
When it comes to the company’s profile in the US, he says: “We have never really been able to spend the marketing dollars, being only here seasonally, but year-round we can open up to a different customer base, for example the summer. If we are here when all the kids are off then we have a valuable message.” MSC offers free sailing for children 11 and under when sailing with two full fare-paying passengers in the same cabin.
In the past few years, the MSC product has improved with its tremendous newbuilding programme. Sasso says lots of guests have been sourced from North America to the Europe-based ships. “We are now being recognised as a European operator in a mature market.” About 80 per cent of MSC guests are North American and 20 per cent international when the ships are in North America. On the other side of the globe, about 85 per cent are European and 15 per cent North American.
About five years ago, North Americans began sailing in Europe and with more ships, more extensive itineraries and additional ports of call, Sasso says the market for MSC is growing. “We are giving North Americans access to our European itineraries, which they find attractive and affordable. In the last two years we have more than doubled our North American business to the European product. It is a significant growth model. We certainly have the destinations they are looking for.”
This in turn is feeding into MSC in the US. “When people come back here and are looking for a Caribbean cruise they may have MSC as a reference point.” It works the other way round as well: “Now we have more than doubled our Caribbean presence so we have double the people touching us. They may then take a European cruise.” As the company expands into other regions such as the United Arab Emirates and Asia, so the pattern continues.
The reason MSC opted for PortMiami as the homeport rather than Fort Lauderdale was because the former had the berth the company required and could also offer weekend departures, which the latter could not. Sasso comments: “Miami have been very good to us. We are working on a long-term relationship with them.”
So far bookings on MSC Divina are very good and Sasso says he is happy the company made the decision to put her into the market. “I have always been one of the biggest fans of the travel agent community and that will never change. They are our brand ambassadors. We need them as a predominant partner. We pay commissions that are commensurate with what they do and we have loyalty programmes for every individual travel agent and customer.”
He is passionate about the product onboard, saying it “will give everyone a run for their money”. A lot of money has been spent on entertainment which he thinks is “probably the highest quality of entertainment at sea”.
Sasso regards the company’s partnership with the Eataly restaurant chain as of huge importance for MSC because it is becoming such a successful phenomenon in the States with one in New York and another due to open in Chicago later this year. “There are probably 15,000 people a day going there in New York. The customer target is a bullseye for MSC. They like variety, atmosphere and value. We already have restaurants on Preziosa but we are doubling it on Divina to make the Eataly relationship significant.” Hydrospinning is also being added and there is private sunbathing for adults only.
The Yacht Club – the luxury ship within a ship – is a whole separate discussion according to Sasso, who says it will become the best sought-after real estate on a cruise ship at the same time as being affordable.
The crew is vital to MSC’s success, says Sasso. “We have spent an inordinate amount of time and money handpicking every crew member”. Personality is key for customer service and language skills important in that they understand how to converse with a North American guest. Job-specific training has been accelerated.
“I dare anyone to walk on Divina and not see the quality of the building of our vessels,” he comments. “I will challenge them and stake my 41 years’ reputation that we definitely have the cleanest ships in the world. We have the youngest fleet in the industry, and we have great venues, entertainment and trained crew so I cannot imagine that we won’t be the best out there. We will have the best product year-round in the US and Caribbean.”
Other exciting developments are on the horizon. Sasso says: “Over the next few years we will most likely see a ship that will be seasonal in addition to Divina. It is certainly very possible and on our strategic agenda.”
This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2013 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.