Shipbuilding is a family affair for MSC Cruises’ approach, and every employee plays an important role.
“We have our own very particular brand when it comes to the design of our ships and that’s very much inspired by the owners of the company, particularly Rafaela Aponte, as well as our executive chairman Pierfranceso Vago,” says Trevor Young, the company’s vice president of newbuilding. “Under their guidance, the company style has evolved into a unique flavour that is now instantly identifiable.”
Discernible design characteristics include upmarket, contemporary and elegant interiors. “We’ve tried to convey these ideals throughout the interior spaces of all of our vessels, underpinning our design philosophy,” says Young. “This philosophy has evolved through us relentlessly pushing boundaries, driving innovation and stretching imagination. However, we always retain our unique style to satisfy the 190 nationalities that cruise with us.”
MSC Cruises ships are instantly recognisable, with an exterior architecture that often belies their size. “This will be particularly apparent with our new World Europa,” says Young. “She will be a 205,700gt ship with a cutting-edge design but she doesn’t feel big when you look at the pictures or when you’re flying around her in 3D on the computer. She’s going to be incredible.”
Although each class of ship is very different, they all share the same design language which is driven by Rafaela Aponte, who helps with the layout and flow, oversees material and furniture selection and the artwork. “Her vision helps to keep everything in harmony and on message and she drives the quest for perfection and invention,” says Young.
He notes that World Europa is a beneficiary of this relentless pursuit of perfection, although many details are still shrouded in secrecy. “We’re not ready to reveal the details yet but she has a variety of new venues and features reflective of the promise that her unique exterior design bestows.”
Good design must flow seamlessly throughout every MSC Cruises vessel to help guests transition between spaces. “When guests leave a restaurant to walk in the promenade or anywhere else, we want the transition to be seamless,” says Young. “It’s very important that we get the right balance – the new venue has to be very different, whether it’s a bar, restaurant, lounge, shop or somewhere else. However, it still has to precisely relate to our style.”
The same balancing principle applies when MSC Cruises is designing new vessels, says Young. “We consciously try to create something different to our existing ships so that when our guests move from one vessel to another, they get something new but with the same sense of style.”
Young continuously catalogues new ideas to make this process easier. “I regularly update both a book and a computer file with new ideas – it’s my personal research and development library,” he says. “We have our design staples, and we know that we need to include a certain number of lounges, bars, restaurants, but there’s always the opportunity to accommodate something different to complement what we have and expand the guest experience.
“There is an element of risk when you introduce new ideas, but it’s calculated and we have a lot of very good people who are experts in their field. For example, our head of food and beverage has amazing vision and incredible ideas. We’ve already been through months and months of work and presentations, continually refining our proposed ideas until we get them to a level where they’re ready to share with our chairman. And, if the proposal is good enough, he will sign off the investment.”
As would be expected in a family business, everyone at MSC Cruises is deeply involved in the shipbuilding process. “Vago is very much on the technical, layout and new ideas side whereas Rafaela Aponte is particularly immersed in our interiors and so is Alexa Aponte-Vago [Vago’s wife and chief financial officer of MSC Group],” says Young. “You can see that they love it. The family makes sure that we’re all working towards the same goal and staying true to the brand.”
With so much focus on achieving perfection being driven from within the family, it can be challenging for some of MSC Cruises’ design and build partners. “I wouldn’t say it’s a dream ride for them,” jokes Young. “We certainly challenge our partners but we’re fair and the work is immensely rewarding. We’re loyal too – we have worked with many of our trusted partners for 20 years or more.
“We’re fortunate to have such good design partners in De Jorio Design International, Tillberg Design of Sweden and SMC Design and AD Associates to mention a few – good relationships lead to great design. Over the years we have developed and maintained countless important relationships, down to the smallest niche suppliers.”
These relationships with smaller suppliers are apparent in the company’s approach to owner’s supply. “We take responsibility for a lot of items that would normally be considered as part of the shipyard’s supply contract because we’re quite specific about what we want,” explains Young. “For example, when it comes to loose furniture which might typically be included in the contract price where the yard has a budget, we’ll do it ourselves because we want to retain control of the design narrative. We organise a lot of the lighting and fixed furniture too – often working with the same subcontractors as the yard and of course it’s always completely transparent.”
When designing MSC Virtuosa, which debuted in May 2021, MSC Cruises improved a lot of design details from previous ships in the Meraviglia and Meraviglia Plus class. “The pub is a good example – in previous iterations the wood looked too new for the historied venue that we were aiming to create, so we searched harder for new wood that looks old and the impact is significantly better,” says Young. “There are a lot of similar tweaks and upgrades throughout the ship. Some changes are more obvious, like the fine dining restaurant which now has French-Asian flavoured design characteristics. Others are more subtle, such as all of the technology, which is continuously advancing.”
Some seemingly simple changes took considerable effort to implement. “We decided to increase the size of the televisions from 32 to 42 inches, which might sound simple, but it requires a fundamental redesign of certain things and so prompts numerous discussions, sourcing of samples, working with the shipyard and putting it into the processing line,” explains Young. “We’re working on a project to change the vanity seat and you might think it would be a straightforward choice, but it’s taken us months because we want to get it absolutely right. All of these little details together make a very big difference to the final outcome.”
Every design detail decision is meticulously considered to withstand hair-splitting interrogation. “When we’ve produced a mock-up cabin, we can be in there for hours with Vago talking about little details such as the width of the shelves or the depth of the wardrobe,” says Young. “These details have already been discussed in depth and resolved by our design team, but this type of design audit is critical to ensure that we hit the quality standards we are known for.”
Mock-ups represent a pivotal phase in the shipbuilding process and the implications of a design change at this point are significant. “The curtains may look great in the drawings and renderings but if there’s something not quite right about them in the mock-up, we need to change them and this triggers a whole new set of decisions,” says Young. “Not only do we need to choose which fabric, pattern and colour to use, but we also need to consider whether the new curtains need a blackout backing or lining, what tracks to use and whether to hide them, how they will fit with the carpet, whether they will hang lower over time – the list goes on and on. You can imagine the size of the task if we’re talking about changing a whole room where every tiny detail has to be scrutinised!”
MSC Cruises signed the agreement for MSC Virtuosa around seven years ago and the lengthy timespan created a different set of challenges for Young and his team. “We didn’t know then exactly what we’d want in seven years so there are mechanisms in the contract that specify deadlines for decisions to be made and contractual lump sums for significant components of the build,” he says. “Two classic examples are catering and lighting and sound.”
Explaining that a shipbuilding contract is typically signed with a block general arrangement Young adds: “We might know that the main lounge is here and the Japanese restaurant is there, but we don’t yet know what catering equipment we’ll need or where we will place lights and speakers. Our design teams and contractors work through the design and specification ready to present it to the family for sign-off before handing it over to the shipyard for planning, purchasing and build.”
Sometimes late changes are prompted by unforeseen factors outside of MSC Cruises’ control, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, which required the brand to update MSC Virtuosa’s air conditioning system to incorporate special filters. “This type of change falls outside the contract because we didn’t know about it seven years ago and so we have to pay extra for it,” says Young. “However, there are mechanisms in the contract for such amendments and modifications.”
Fickle fashion creates a challenge too. “You just don’t know what may be in or out, even with six months to go before launch,” notes Young. “If we decide at the last minute that we really must have the latest thing but the shipyard has already built all of the furniture, we might put a price to the cost of ripping out what we have, and maybe reuse it on another ship. Perhaps more likely, we’ll bring our own contractors in at a later date. But the options are always calculated to measure the cost, risk and return on investment.”
With two new classes of ship in the pipeline – the World and Luxury classes (the latter for MSC Cruises’ new cruise brand), Young and the team are under constant pressure to deliver. “We’re challenged every day working on the World-class ships – they’re all very similar with seven fire zones, seven vertical structures, 23 decks, 2,633 cabins and 205,700gt,” he says. “Once this framework was set, we moved on to the placement of the lifts, staircases, emergency escapes and other core components. Then we started building up the public decks, looking at anchors such as the location of the main restaurant and atrium. This is when the fun really begins as the ramifications of positioning decisions are far reaching.
“Quite often we work on the general arrangement with one of our design firms, like De Jorio Design International, and we can still be tweaking the layout for later ships in the same class because we want to make a room bigger, or we’ve found a way to improve crew access. Each change prompts a million questions that need to be answered.”
The first World-class ship is progressing well. “We’ve just finished the standard analysis where we’ve been through every room with the shipyard and we’re working with the shipyard and subcontractors to make final changes before confirming the design and materials specification,” says Young.
“All of our designers are working in close partnership – they know how we operate, have an intimate knowledge of our brand and are acutely aware of any budget limitations. When we’re working through the general arrangement, they may request more space or height but they are all conscious of the knock-on effect to other areas of the ship. Then it’s just about aligning with the shipyard and working closely with the operational departments to optimise space utilisation.”
Some innovations do create a greater challenge. “Implementing LNG engines on the latest Meraviglia-class ships was a big challenge,” admits Young. “The fuel tanks are bigger and in a different location so we had to make a lot of changes. They mostly impacted the lower cabin decks and back-of-house areas so won’t be particularly visible to passengers, although some rooms are a slightly different shape because we had to accommodate machinery changes. The end result will be a better ship because when we’re really challenged, we have to come up with even better solutions.”
It would be much easier to build the same ship again and again but that’s not the MSC Cruises way. “We’re committed to excellence, forever challenging ourselves to build better and more sustainable ships,” Young concludes.
This article was first published in the 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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