MSC has potential but must work out the kinks

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Youve got to wonder when someone says they want to re-create the 70s, but thats what Rick Sasso has in mind for MSC Cruises.

That was my favorite era in cruising, said the former Celebrity president, who in April was tapped to head the North American operation of MSC. It was all about the experience then: the personality of the brand and the way passengers interacted with each other.

Experience is a word Sasso uses a lot, both to say what he brings to the table and to describe his idea of a classic, gimmick-free cruise line.

If you go to the root of whats happening in our business, he said during a cruise aboard MSCs new 1,756-passenger Opera, the problem is that ships have gotten so big theyve lost some of their personality. Its stretched too far.

In the 70s, with companies like Home Lines and Sitmar, there wasnt any spa, there wasnt even a real beauty salon. But still you had rich lawyers fighting to get aboard because they knew theyd have the experience of a lifetime.

Sasso knows how to build a cruise line. After stints at Costa and Chandris, in 1990 he became part of the team that launched Celebrity Cruises, an experience that figures prominently whenever he discusses plans for the new MSC.

Making adjustments

The parallels between Celebrity and MSC run deep, ranging from their origins (both sprang from European shipping concerns) to their early vessels (Celebrity had the Meridian, MSC the Monterey, Rhapsody and Melody) to the launch of new tonnage as an entree to the North American market (Celebrity with the Horizon and the Zenith, MSC with the Opera and the Lirica).

With the transformation from budget old-ship line to a megaship competitor in the North American market almost complete, MSC aims to emulate Celebrity again by remaking itself into a premium-class player with a consistent, worldwide identity.

It wont happen overnight. With the lines first two-ship Caribbean season launching this winter, a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Opera in October exposed a few problems.

Service is at the top of the list. While some members of the international staff were top-notch, service overall was marked by inconsistency: For every bar attendant who remembered a passengers drink preference, another appeared unaware that guests were waiting for service.

Cabin stewards, while friendly and efficient, seemed to lack training in cabin-to-cabin consistency. Some staterooms were not stocked with onboard phone lists and laundry bags, while others were.

MSC CruisesDining service also needs work. While MSCs marketing emphasizes its True Italian Signature, its Italian waiters dont yet merit the hype. They repeatedly failed to ensure diners had the correct silverware, didnt know menu ingredients, failed to replenish water and bread, were sloppy when serving cheese for pasta dishes and were off-rhythm when delivering multiple courses to large tables.

Its a work in progress, Sasso said, citing incremental lists of changes that will be implemented before and during the Caribbean season. Food service is at the very top of that list.

Near-term changes, such as reducing the number of tables covered by each waiter, will go a long way toward giving employees the breathing room to improve.

Were going to spend a lot of money on training, Sasso said.

He stressed that most of the ships problems can be alleviated through fostering a culture of individual responsibility. Top staff from all the ships will be rotated to the North American vessels, and new staff will be hired not just for their personality or their ability, but for their ability to think.

Other plans will address the differing expectations of Europeans and Americans.

Theres an Italian mind-set that you have to both work with and overcome, said Bob Keesler, vice president of hotel and marine operations and also late of Celebrity. As someone told me the first time I was in Italy, No real man would drink milk in his coffee after 8 a.m. Those are the kinds of assumptions we have to change.

Plans call for most adjustments made during the Caribbean season to carry over into the ships European itineraries, fostering a consistent product that serves the needs of both demographics.

MSCs Mediterranean itineraries skew 85% European and 15% North American and other, while Caribbean itineraries are expected to draw about 85% North Americans.

The silver lining

Software problems aside, theres a lot of promise in MSC.

Rather than trying to impose the concept of fun on guests through overt themes and pop-culture references, the Operas straightforward decor presents a venue in which passengers and staff can create their own idea of a good time. Public space is surprisingly large for a vessel this size, though individual rooms are more intimate and understated.

Think floral and geometric carpets; functional, solid-colored chairs and banquettes; blond woods; and a tasteful use of marble, brass and mirrors.

Up top, a large pool deck is separated from an outdoor dining area and indoor buffet. Downstairs, the two single-level restaurants are old-fashioned, foregoing the grand staircases, columns and chandeliers that dominate most dining rooms on megaships.

There is no alternative restaurant onboard, a major difference between the Opera and its North American competitors.

Entertainment is divided between the Cotton Club jazz bar, the cozy La Cabala piano bar, the Caruso show lounge and the Teatro DellOpera theater.

Theater shows are an odd mix of ho-hum Vegas routines and much more interesting material that draws on European circus traditions -- contortionists, acrobats and stilt performers get a big thumbs-up.

As with another Italian line, Costa, its that European influence (also evident in audience-participation shows and the lively disco) that distinguishes MSCs entertainment vibe from more standard U.S. cruise lines. 

Minor renovations being discussed will add uniqueness to the ships six bars and lounges -- for example, designating one a martini bar and dedicating another to Italian specialty drinks. Also under consideration is a beer bar stocking 50 to 60 brews, which would make it the best-stocked pub at sea.

Cabins are limited to four basic layouts: 140-square-foot balcony, oceanview and inside cabins plus 247-square-foot suites that would pass for junior suites on most modern vessels. Like public rooms, staterooms are simple and pleasant with good lighting and storage.

Wide glass doors lend an airy appearance to balcony cabins, with mirrors amplifying the sense of space. Bathrooms, however, are saddled with some of the smallest shower stalls in the industry -- the only serious (and probably irreparable) design flaw onboard. Suites have shower/tub combos.

Peer into the crystal ball

So, can Sasso make MSC a premium brand? Most agents and press aboard the Opera in October seemed optimistic, given the financial commitment of Mediterranean Shipping (which has invested some $3 billion in the line) and the track record of the new U.S. executives.

The Opera and the Lirica are up to the task, and minor adjustments (such as a rethinking of interior lighting) will add depth to their interior design.

At buffets, an increase in menu items, a larger staff and a switch to cloth napkins will help raise the ante on style.

Other changes on the to-do list include expanding room-service menus, expanding shore excursion options, offering Italian language lessons and lectures on sea days, improving the quality of hangers and other in-cabin wares and serving Italian specialties and Midnight Surprise finger foods from late afternoon to late night.

The goal is a quiet ship experience, oriented toward professional, well-educated passengers age 45 and up who are seeking an international flavor.

Premium class is things you do and things you dont do, said Sasso. One thing you dont do is shove a $12 drink in front of someone when they walk onboard or have announcements all day long.

Keesler said all ships have something in common.

We have one product to sell, on this ship or any other, and thats memories. Thats the one thing people take home with them, along with some bathrobes and towels, sometimes, he said.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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