As Rick Sasso tells it, he should have ended up in the airline business.

Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA, is celebrating his 40th year in the travel business and his perch at the top of one of the fastest-growing large cruise lines in the world, and the only one of the "Big Four" not beholden to shareholders.

But as a college student in the late 1960s, Sasso worked as a ticket agent and ground agent for British Overseas Airways Corp., now British Airways. When he graduated at age 21, he interviewed for a sales job there. 

But fate had other plans for him.

Something in the water

"After the interview, I was waiting for the elevator; I looked over my shoulder and there was a sign on a door that said 'Costa Line Cruises,' " Sasso said. "I said, 'I got a tie on, I might as well see if there is a job.' "

Costa offered Sasso a job the next day, launching what became a four-decade career in the cruise industry.

It was 1971 when he started as Costa's sales manager for South Florida. Carnival hadn't launched yet, and the nascent Caribbean cruise industry was barely a blip on the vacation radar screen in the U.S.

Sasso served on the executive teams at Costa, where he moved up the ranks to serve as vice president of sales and Midwest operations through 1987, and Celebrity Cruises, which he helped launch in 1990. He later served as president of Celebrity for seven years, until 2001.

Sasso said that when he left Celebrity, he planned to retire from the industry. But once again, fate had other plans.

Gianlucci Aponte, owner of Italian line MSC Cruises, contacted Sasso in 2004, asking him to lead the expansion of MSC into the U.S. market. At first, Sasso declined: He was running a clothing business with his son and had said goodbye to the cruise industry.

"I didn't envision coming back in," he said. "At Celebrity, we started from scratch; we created a brand and got its name out there that was recognized for quality.

"It's hard to find something exciting after that," Sasso added. "But the MSC opportunity offered that, and I needed that excitement again."

The ABCs of MSC

The fact that MSC was privately owned and had financial backing from the Mediterranean Shipping Co., one of the world's largest container shipping operations, played into Sasso's decision to take the position.

"Not looking at the public or analysts makes us work better," he said. 

And, Sasso said, that freedom and those resources enable MSC to be the only cruise line that still pays travel agents commission on airfares and shore excursions.

"Travel agents spend a lot of time promoting and booking shore excursions, and they deserve to be compensated for that," Sasso said.

Travel agents who have known Sasso since his Celebrity days said that he has always championed retailers, and paying commission on shore excursions is just one example.

"Shore excursions are probably the most time-intensive part of selling cruises," said Robin Schneider, co-president of Twin Horizons Travel in Dublin, Ohio. "He should be commended for recognizing the effort it takes."

At the beginning of his 40-year stint in the travel industry, Sasso said, he would never have imagined how sophisticated cruise ships would get.

"The quality of hardware allows us to tap into new markets," Sasso said. "Where can we go? Wherever there is a population and there is water. That is our only limitation."

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