Today is the day MSC Splendida will be christened in Barcelona. As I sit typing I can hear the stage crew just outside my balcony balancing the sound for the full orchestra currently rehearsing. The tenor is warming up his larynx and getting a microphone sound check. The orchestra keeps playing a few bars of Maleguena over and over again with flourishes from the flutes. There are some 2500 seats for the audience, a full stage and the entire front half of the ship will be lit by floodlights.
This morning I had a chance to interview Rick Sasso, president of MSC America, the division of responsible for sales and service to American cruisers. Here is how our interview went:
The Rick Sasso Interview:
(Me) Rick, I read and hear a lot about MSC Cruises as editor of CruiseMates. There seems to be some confusion and perhaps misconception about based on what I read vs what I have experienced here..
(Rick) The real problem isn’t that people have the wrong idea about us, it is that they don’t really know us. MSC Cruises has grown from almost nothing to the most modern fleet in the world in just six years. We now have 11 ships and have gone from carrying 100,000 passengers per year to carrying 1,000,000. Things have changed for MSC, so if you haven’t tried us lately then you probably haven’t really tried us.
(Me) So, it sounds like you are saying Americans may have the wrong expectations. What would you tell my readers about MSC to give them a better understanding?
(Rick) I would tell them not to look for the American cruise experience on our ships. We are not a typical American cruise line and we don’t want to be. We are a European line with everything that entails. When you come onboard expect a difference and try to embrace it.
(Me) And what exactly does “European-style” cruising mean? Where are the differences?”
(Rick) The first place is the food; risotto, pasta with cheese, our seafood, our selection of European beers and wine. A person can learn a lot about European culture on our ships. Look at our Wine Bar for example. It is an excellent way to try French, German, Italian and Spanish wines with the food that accompanies each one the best. The menu reads like a user’s guide to becoming a European wine and food expert. Everything you need to know is in there, and then you can actually try what is recommended. There are pairings of Italian wines with cheese and bread, or German wines with sausages and pickles.
The second difference with MSC is the beauty of the ships. These ships have a simple elegance, comfortable settings, plenty of space for deck chairs, dining tables and waiters everywhere. The service is a big feature, we train our staff to be very friendly and we want you to get to know them as people. Our staff is a big part of our experience. They are very approachable.
(Me) Not to mention good-looking.
(Rick) Another big draw for Americans is for families with kids. We offer free cruise fares for kids up to age 17 all year around. We have enough extra capacity on all of our ships to honor this, with up to 20% capacity beyond our official berth count. Splendida, for example, holds 3300 passengers, but almost 4000 when you count the added berths for kids.
We have a ton of things for the kids to do onboard: Wii, water slide, water fountain effects, Formula 1 racing simulators, bowling, video games, racket ball, a golf simulator, a tennis court, basketball and organized childcare classes daily.
(Me) So, it seems understanding the MSC difference, and if that works for you then by all means you should try it.
(Rick) Our ships reflect European taste for the 21st Century. This isn’t about staid European tradition - it is about the amalgamation of European culture today. We want Americans to come with an open mind and cruise the way Europeans cruise.
We don’t want to be just another American cruise line, and so we don’t change our basic formula just because we are in the Caribbean. We want Americans to experience the same MSC you will get in Europe.
Of course we make some changes due to practical differences Americans expect. For example, we don’t charge for iced tea, coffee and juice in any of the buffets, or for room service. Europeans do not mind that, they are used to it, but we understand that Americans do mind.
So, we ask you to come with an open mind and see the real Europe of the 20th century. This means modern art, gelato, baguettes, mozzarella, eight kinds of pizza. Watch the Europeans interact; casual dress, crazy kids, some smoking, visual, non-verbal stage shows, excellent music. By the way, we do seven production shows on a one-week cruise. Not just two or three like most cruise lines.
We ask people to come onboard and get immersed in the product – try the different food and go to the shows. By the way, In the Caribbean, if you really want them we have steak, salmon and baked potatoes on the menu every night. But we urge you not to look for the “Vanilla” cruise like all the other American cruise lines – try the “Neapolitan” cruise, you know, with a variety of flavors all coming together.
(Me) Do you still get the same beer, wine and cocktail packages in America? (the offer is 10 servings for about the price of 14).
(Rick) Yes, you do. They are in different size glasses and different prices of course, but we do offer the same deals. Plus, the room service charges go away. That is much more important to Americans, we understand that.
(Me) Besides the Caribbean, where else should Americans travel on MSC ships?
(Rick) We are especially excited about 11-day cruises in winter to the Canary Islands. They are a great value to unusual destinations. Best of all, because they are in the winter you get less congested ships, cheaper airfare and better access to the tourism spots. Summer peak season is a madhouse in Europe, not because of visiting Americans this year, but because the Europeans are now traveling more within Europe than ever before.
(Me) Tell me a little bit about the history of MSC Cruises
The line grew out of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, a privately held company in Sorrento, Italy. It is now the second largest cargo company in the world after Maersk. They operate 450 container ships, 2 million cargo containers. They KNOW ships. The owner, Mr. Apponte, is from Sorrento and was friends with Achille Lauro (also from Sorrento) in late 80s. When that cruise line started suffering well-known problems he wanted to help him out.
MSC started with just three classic cruise ships from the Lauro Line in the late 1980s, but MSC got serious about cruising in 2003 when Europe started taking off. Now they are the fastest growing cruise line in the world.
And that was the end of my interview with Rick.
The Sophia Loren press conference was an exercise in predictable overkill. I think I have mentioned before how easy it is to see why the word paparazzi is Italian. The number of photographers set up in front Ms Loren was like an anthill with worker ants walking one atop the other. I can’t understand how many pictures you need to take of one person before you have enough.
The MSC official presiding over the ceremony had to ask the paparazzi to back off over and again for at least 20 minutes before a single one of them stopped taking pictures. Finally he said something very loudly in Italian that sounded like “30 seconds and no more” and half of them sat down. Then a whole new batch jumped up to take their place, but Ms Loren started speaking anyway.
All but one of the questions were in Italian. The name “Burlesconi” came up in one, and Sophia immediately brushed it off. The two questions in English were predictable
“What is your secret to remaining so beautiful all these years?”
“Loving what I do”
“What do you consider your greatest accomplishment, your career or your family?”
The mundanity of it all! Hundreds of multi-thousand dollar cameras and paid professionals to film her responding to questions that came straight out of journalism 101? And not one statement about her role with MSC Cruises or why she wants to be a godmother for a passenger ship.
She is a consummate professional, and I can only imagine how tiring it would be to put up with the European press on a daily basis. Not that the American press is any better.
My Interview with Carlo Apponte – President of MSC
After the Sophia Loren Press Conference I had a chance to speak personally with Mr. Apponte, President of MSC Cruises.
(Me) Mr. Apponte, I represent an American cruise guide where our readers are all very knowledgeable and experienced cruise enthusiasts. What would you like to tell them?
(Apponte) I would say to come and try our ships, experience the European lifestyle as far as food, life and style are concerned, come to appreciate the European difference in cruising.
(Me) You jumped into cruising with both feet with a lot of money in a very short period of time, did you do it for love or money?
(Apponte) I did it for a friend of mine, Achille Lauro, another great mariner from Sorrento, who had a cruise line in the late 1980s that obviously fell on some hard times and difficulties. I bought his cruise line, not because I wanted a cruise line but because I have great respect for the man. This was in 1988.
We got by for many years as a small operation, but then in 2003 when I saw how popular cruising was becoming in Europe, I decided we should go into the business in a serious manner.
Since 2003 we have built MSC into the fastest growing cruise line in the world, now with eleven ships including the largest ships built specifically for the European market to date; the Fantasia and Splendida, at over 133,000 tons and almost 4000 passengers total.
(me) You must have been very confident you would succeed?
“I am always confident in whatever I do and I am always successful. The reason is that I have a fantastic team.”
He said this with a big smile, although not as big as Rick Sasso’s smile when he said it.
(Me) Where do you see the cruise industry headed?
(Apponte) Naturally, the economy is a problem. When one starts any endeavor one never knows what the future might bring. We are in the same boat as everyone else, however, and fortunately European cruising is growing.
We are a privately held company. Personally, I think a lot of the problem has been the wild speculation in the markets. It has made everything too expensive. Look at the price of food commodities, and oil! What we need is lower prices and predictability in those areas.
And that is my day so far… Later tonight, the christening ceremony of MSC Splendida with Sophia Loren