NEW YORK -- MSC Cruises' new president, Rick Sasso, has big plans, including dedicating ships to the U.S. market year-round within two years. He also has a big challenge: to build up MSC Cruises' brand recognition nearly from scratch.

"We're doubling our North American presence over-night," Sasso said last week during an interview with "One of the challenges," he said, "is people really don't know who we are."

Until recently, MSC Cruises was a minor player in the North American cruise market. The line operated one ship from Fort Lauderdale during the winter season.

The company, which is based in Genoa, Italy, and is a division of privately owned Mediterranean Shipping Co., the second-largest container operator in the world, concentrates mainly on the Europe market with a fleet of three older vessels.

Today, the cruise company is in the midst of what t estimates is a $3 billion expansion program. Last winter the line upgraded its seasonal offering in Fort Lauderdale by replacing the 1,072-passenger Melody with the year-old, 1,580-passenger Lirica. This year it is doubling its winter presence there by deploying the Lirica and a new ship, the Opera, for 11- and seven-day Caribbean cruises, respectively.

The line is poised to take delivery of the Opera in June. In March, MSC placed an order with Chantiers de l'Atlantique to build two 2,500-passenger vessels and has an option for a third. It also said it is negotiating with Italy's Fincantieri shipyard for two additional vessels.

In addition, MSC Cruises bought Festival Cruises' European Vision at auction, renamed the vessel the Armonia and plans to launch it May 30 with cruises to the Greek Isles.

MSC also could bid for the remainder of the Festival Cruises fleet, the European Stars and the Mistral, when those ships come up for auction.

But Robin Farley, a cruise industry analyst at UBS Investment Research, said building brand awareness in North America is a "long process."

"We ... point to the challenge it has been even for an established North American brand such as Celebrity to gain enough brand traction to get paid for it," she said in a research report.

Farley said that if MSC Cruises was to dedicate a ship to North America, it would likely need to be one of its new builds in order to be competitive in the Caribbean market.

"They've already set the stage; they've hired someone well-known [in Sasso]," said one cruise line employee. "People are talking about it. Rick's a smart guy. He's never been involved in a company that hasn't been successful."

Sasso, who was president of Cel-ebrity Cruises from 1995 to 2000, promptly assembled a U.S.-based team that includes several of his former Cel-ebrity colleagues.

Ares Michaelides was appointed chief operating officer; Jim Henwood, vice president of sales and marketing; Sy Hopkins, vice president of revenue performance; Robert Keesler, vice president of hotel and marine operations; and Irv Mednick, director of information technology.

Sasso said the company increased its sales team from eight people to 16 and will work with a $4 million marketing budget to spread the word to the retail community.

The plan, said Sasso and MSC Cruises' vice president of passenger services, Steve Hirshan, is to grow the percentage of North American-sourced guests to 90% in the Caribbean and up to 35% in Europe.

The hotel operations team, meanwhile, will work to "Americanize" MSC Cruises' onboard European experience.

"You've got an Italian ambience. You've got an Italian waiter in the dining room, but you'll also get your coffee right after dinner," Sasso said. "Europeans don't want their coffee right away. We're going to make sure all of these points are addressed."

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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