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
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.
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).
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.
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.
Dining 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.
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
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.
Mediterranean itineraries skew 85% European and 15% North American
and other, while Caribbean itineraries are expected to draw about
85% North Americans.
aside, theres a lot of promise in MSC.
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
Think floral and
geometric carpets; functional, solid-colored chairs and banquettes;
blond woods; and a tasteful use of marble, brass and
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
There is no
alternative restaurant onboard, a major difference between the
Opera and its North American competitors.
divided between the Cotton Club jazz bar, the cozy La Cabala piano
bar, the Caruso show lounge and the Teatro DellOpera
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].