After wintering in the Caribbean for the last nine years, MSC Cruises is looking to finally make a big splash in North America.
The fast-growing, privately held company has headquarters in Geneva and a global presence, with 12 ships spread all over Europe and in South America, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
With the arrival Tuesday of the 3,502-passenger MSC Divina in Miami, where the ship will sail year-round, the line is hoping to firmly establish itself in the cruise capital of the world as it looks toward future expansion in the region.
“We were never here year round. We’ve never had a ship the size or the quality of this ship here. We’ve never had, I would say, the kind of marketing you need behind that, because now we’re doing TV,” said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA and an industry veteran. “We’ve now found the full picture of what you would do to launch a product. Even though we’ve been here nine years, we’re basically launching MSC.”
MSC Cruises, part of the family-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company, says it has grown 800 percent over the last nine years and has welcomed eight new ships since 2006. The cruise operator does not release financial details, but Sasso said business improves every year and the company is profitable. MSC expects to carry 1.7 million guests next year, and Sasso said the company is “unofficially” in the process of negotiating new contracts for a new class of ship.
“We want to build more ships and we want to do a lot more in the next five years,” he said.
Divina, which launched last year in Europe, is the newest and largest of the company’s ships to sail in North America and will be the first to home port in Miami. Previous ships departed from Port Everglades, but MSC needed to lock down weekend berths for an extended period of time, and Miami had the option available. The three-year agreement with PortMiami has an option for two additional years.
To prepare for the introduction of year-round Caribbean voyages, the company known for sailing with a Mediterranean flair has been working hard to tweak the product in a way that will make its target audience comfortable. Sasso said he expects the Divina passenger mix to be 70 percent North American and 30 percent Europeans, South Americans and others.
That means announcements will be made in English, not five different languages as on its other ships; waiters will pour complimentary water at lunch and dinner; crew members will be more outgoing; menus and entertainment will cater to a North American crowd. TVs will feature ESPN and CNN, and smoking will be banned in all but the Cigar Lounge and some outdoor decks.
Even though the $774 million Divina is only a year old — the second-newest in the fleet — the company has also made some physical changes. The Tex-Mex restaurant is gone, replaced by two Eataly venues: Eataly Steakhouse and Ristorante Italia. There’s a movie screen on the pool deck now, and a sign of optimism: MSC built an area on the ship where guests can book future cruises during their current one.
The investments add up to “millions,” Sasso said.
For Ken Muskat, hired as senior vice president of sales and marketing in the US office earlier this year from Royal Caribbean International, the transformation is reminiscent of a project at his previous job as head of onboard revenue at the Miami-based line. To prepare ships to enter the Chinese market, he said Royal Caribbean had to change up the entire casino and spa for local tastes — similar to what MSC is doing for its new market.
“It is very interesting how all the lines are doing it as the industry has become more global,” Muskat said. “We maintain our identity, but you make these little tweaks based on who the sourcing audience is.”
Home-based travel agent Simon Duvall, of Plantation, said he hopes the brand doesn’t lose its “international flair.”
“It’s not the hairy chest contest on the pool deck, it’s not the raunchy comedian at night,” he said. “It’s a little more refined, a little more cultured.”
Duvall cruised on the MSC Poesia in the Caribbean earlier this year and found the experience relaxed and altogether different from other offerings. He will sail on Divina this week during a three-night introductory cruise for press and travel agents.
“The European feel is what sets them apart, so I hope they don’t completely eliminate that,” he said.
Muskat said the company has been aware of the balance it needs to strike to hold on to its identity while making sure American guests will be comfortable. So while the sports bar, for example, will serve chicken wings and mozzarella sticks, the ship will still offer pasta-making classes and Italian language lessons. And the company has established partnerships with several known Italian brands such as Nutella, Segafredo coffee, Disaronno liqueur and Eataly, the brand founded in Italy that has popular restaurants in New York.
“MSC’s identity of this Mediterranean-style cruise in the Caribbean is a big differentiator for us, so that’s not something we want to lose,” he said.
MSC considers itself a premium cruise line, which places it in competition with Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Celebrity Cruises. A comparison of seven-night cruises in late February shows MSC advertising fares starting at $599 a person for a Western Caribbean sailing compared to $549 for the Norwegian Epic, $799 for Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam and $599 for the Royal Princess, sailing the Eastern Caribbean.
In Europe, it also competes with Carnival Corp.’s Costa Cruises — and, earlier this year, hired former Costa president Gianni Onorato as CEO. Muskat said the line also competes in some ways with Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean in North America. But he said he believes MSC will add something new to the mix.
“Even though it’s going to be competitive, it’s a great opportunity for us,” he said. “We’re looking forward to being a big player here and showing the demand and the success. The idea is to grow here, go to more destinations, appeal to the wider North American market and this is just the first step.”
Some of the company’s biggest challenges are likely to be getting the message out about the ship’s presence in Miami — and helping previous customers forget bad experiences in the past. Industry watchers say, and Sasso acknowledges, that MSC has had some rough patches.
Industry observers said one of the complications was that MSC has always been a bargain, but bargain seekers might not have expected the European-style experience.
“The product was too European in nature, so the food and the service were not at the same levels that were being offered by other cruise lines,” said Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based cruise expert and CEO of CruiseGuy.com. “And even with extraordinarily low prices, they really didn’t give American passengers a reason to sail on them.”
Sasso said growing pains left “a less than perfect image of what MSC is.”
“We’ve taken a lot of time to correct all that,” he said. “Now we’ve already grown, we can focus on training more, on hiring the best people we can....We’ve come through this phase and we’re on a very very strong platform of quality.”
He highlights the freshly made pasta, bread and ice cream, the diverse entertainment and the upscale MSC Yacht Club, a 69-suite ship-within-a-ship.
To get initial attention, the line has launched an advertising blitz focusing on key American markets that includes, for the first time, TV commercials. Spots will air on cable channels such as Travel Channel, Food Network and HGTV in South Florida, Orlando and the New York metro area. Radio spots and billboard ads have also been placed in those markets and Chicago.
“This time [MSC is] really invested in courting the American market,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website CruiseCritic.com. “And I think that we’re definitely seeing a significant increase in curiosity about the line.”
She said she’s sailed on Divina and declared it “fabulous.”
“I adore this line and I love what they’re doing to make it more friendly to Americans but not to sell out the core product,” she said. “If you like traveling in Europe, you’re going to like MSC. If you really want to be where people only speak your language — and that’s ok — this might not be your thing.”
Chiron, who also plans to sail this week’s debut cruise, said he believes the company has poured the necessary resources into the product; now they just need to spread the word.
“It’s going to take some time for the word of mouth to get out,” he said. “For travel agents to get behind the product and understand the transformation that they’ve made and the significant investments that they’ve made.”