Richard E. Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA), Inc., has been a popular and well-respected figure in the cruise industry for more than 40 years and involved in the travel industry for 43 years. After holding key positions at Costa Cruises and Chandris Cruises, Sasso joined the senior management team that launched Celebrity Cruises in 1990. He served as president of that line from 1995 to 2001 and was instrumental in establishing it as a top premium cruise line. Sasso was named president and chief executive officer of MSC Cruises USA in April 2004 and has been charged with establishing a strong position for MSC Cruises in the North American market with a cruise experience that truly reflects the heart and soul of Italy.
TRO: MSC Cruises has been in existence for several years, yet it is not well known in the North American market. The cruise line has been rapidly growing since you became President in 2004 of MSC Cruises (USA) Inc. (the North American Sales and marketing agent of MSC Crociere, SA). Can you share more about MSC Cruises’ background?
R.S.: MSC Cruises was founded in 1990 by its owner and chairman, Gianluigi Aponte, and is part of the Mediterranean Shipping Company family, a privately-owned shipping group formed back in 1970. The Mediterranean Shipping Company is the second largest container shipping company in the world with more than 450 container ships. Our cruise fleet has grown 640 percent in just a 10 year span with 12 modern ships, and we are the fastest growing cruise line in the history of cruising. We are “Masters of the Sea.”
TRO: What has been behind this fast growth?
R.S.: Our growth has resulted from an appreciation by our travel professional partners and the brand itself. We have a wide range of itineraries and provide great value, besides being affordable. It’s a product that people can come back to and still enjoy. The MSC Yacht Clubs on our Fantasia-class ships provide travel professionals with more sales opportunities, for instance. We’re fortunate to have seasoned professionals on our team, and believe the support we bring has built strong partnerships.
TRO: You have always been proactive when it comes to supporting travel professionals, one example being the expansion of your “True Partnership” program. You doubled your sales force, expanded inside sales staff, provided more commissionable pre-book items, and your management team has been doing “on the road” presentations across the country. Why should travel professionals consider selling MSC Cruises?
R.S.: I’ve never forgotten who travel professionals are. They are the backbone when it comes to the growth of the cruise industry, and are an integral part of our business model. Our key goal is to help them find new opportunities to grow their businesses through locating new clients and increasing their cruise sales. Our business development managers are there to provide ongoing support – helping their travel professionals find new clients together, using successful marketing, and sharing tactics that work. With more clients and sales, their commissions grow. This is why we doubled our sales team.
We’ve always paid travel professionals commissions on airfare, cruise insurance and the cruise ticket. Also, anything that is pre-booked and pre-purchased by the cruise client through their travel professional is now commissionable. One example is pre-purchasing shore excursions. We want to make sure travel professionals are rewarded for their work.
What makes us stand out? It’s the people – on our ships, in the office and our sales team. I think every company needs to have a personality that can only be delivered by people from the top down. Being professional, honest, providing support and helping travel professionals grow their businesses is what our model is build on. It’s about the people and our having that human connection.
TRO: MSC Cruises now has 12 ships with 3 different “classes” of ships. What are key things travel professionals should know about?
R.S.: Our ships have elegant, understated décor, and provide Mediterranean hospitality with international cuisine. The 4 “Lirica” class of ships entered service between 2003 – 2005. We’re working with Fincantieri, an Italian shipbuilding company, on a 2 year, $275 million “Renaissance” upgrading program. A new mid-section will be added to each ship, increasing the length. Close to 200 additional staterooms will be added, along with new entertainment spaces, and more shopping options.
Our “Musica” class of ships, considered second generation, were built between 2006 to 2010. The “Fantasia” class of ships, which entered service between 2008 to 2013, also feature the MSC Yacht Club, our “ship within the ship” private exclusive area. The MSC Divina and MSC Preziosa also have the first Eataly specialty restaurants at sea, as well as an authentic Eataly marketplace.
TRO: In 2013, MSC Cruises decided to target the North American cruise market and repositioned the MSC Divina to sail out of Miami year round. What did you do to “Americanize her”?
R.S.: Before the MSC Divina’s repositioning to Miami, we added a few things including the Eataly specialty restaurant and the cruise industry’s first water cycling at sea, Aqua Cycling. But it’s not as much about the “software” as it is about the MSC Divina’s “Americanization.” The MSC Divina is geared towards North American guests, from language and smoking policies, to a variety of cuisine and types of entertainment. We have a “no smoking policy” in place, use US Currency, and the primary language onboard is English. Our staff has also been trained in English. (When it comes to safety drills, of course, we still make multiple announcements.)
The MSC Divina will offer Mediterranean cruises starting spring of 2015, but then she’ll be back in the Caribbean fall of 2015. Her great Mediterranean itineraries give travel professionals more opportunities to have their North American clients experience new options, still with the American touch.
TRO: MSC Cruises offers the “Mediterranean way of life.” Who is your ideal guest?
R.S.: A European and Italian owned company, we have a heritage when it comes to the Mediterranean, from recipes, ambiance and overall attitude. The “Mediterranean way of life” is a healthy environment with slow eating. Our guests get to embrace, taste and enjoy the cuisine, and they always make positive comments about our high quality. Our ships are “a treat to the eyes” with finesse and décor that one would expect to see in a 6 star hotel. The ideal guest is anyone who has cruised on a premium line and appreciates finer things in life, along with enjoying a 5 or 6 star product. We are a perfect match for the premium product lover who likes incredible things and yet we are affordable.
TRO: MSC Cruises was really the first cruise line to include the “ship within the ship” with their MSC Yacht Club. What is unique?
R.S.: The MSC Yacht Club debuted on the MSC Fantasia in 2008, and it is the most sought after real estate in cruising. By far the most exclusive and luxurious space on a larger ship, the MSC Yacht Club offers unparalleled privacy. Guests can stay in those 3 decks of the MSC Yacht Club for the length of their cruise and never leave, so to speak, because so much is included. The MSC Yacht Club has its own pool and swimming deck, a beautiful lounge and restaurant, and private butler and concierge service. There is also a salon. It provides the best of both worlds, because guests can also enjoy the other parts of the ship as well. It runs less than $300 per day per guest, and includes all amenities and services.
TRO: MSC Cruises’ rapid expansion continues. Can you provide a few more details about the new ships you will be building?
R.S.: This spring we just announced four new builds and have options for three more ships. STX France is building two ships. Set for delivery in 2017 and 2019, these ships will accommodate 5,700 guests and are 167,000 gross registered tons. Fincantieri is constructing two other ships named “Seaside.” Revolutionary in their design and structure, with a gross registered tonnage of 154,000 tons, each will accommodate up to 5,300 guests, and are due out November 2017 and May 2018. Obviously with this aggressive expansion, we see more opportunities for increased presence in the North American market.