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 TravelWeekly.com. "One of
the challenges," he said, "is people really don't know who we
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
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
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
But Robin Farley, a cruise industry analyst at UBS Investment
Research, said building brand awareness in North America is a "long
"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
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
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%
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].