Interview with Rick Sasso, MSC Cruises

| April 23, 2007

Rick Sasso has been in the Cruise Industry for 36 years . He was one of the "founding fathers" of the original Celebrity Cruises as originally envisioned by John Chandris, who wanted to take the cruise experience to a higher level in terms of onboard ambience, cuisine and amenities.

The original Celebrity was a one of a kind cruise line where the "personal touch" of John Chandris and his wife was evident in everything. It was one of the first lines to put a 3-star Michelin chef on the cover of its brochure, and to promote such dedicated rooms as martini, caviar and cigar bars on ships.

Rick became president of Celebrity Cruises in 1995. Royal Caribbean acquired the line in 1997, and Rick stayed on as president of the line for another four years - until he decided to retire.

Rick is now back in the business at the helm of MSC Cruises' North America operations. At the recent Seatrade conference, his enthusiasm for MSC was every bit as committed as his earliest days at Celebrity. He was a man with a message about what he feels is one of the best yet-to-be-told stories in cruising.

CruiseMates: So, Rick, you left Celebrity Cruises after 14 years, four of them after the company became a part of Royal Caribbean. What were those years like?

Rick Sasso: In a way those years were similar to what we are seeing in Europe right now. Cruising is now moving out of the niche category in the minds of European vacationers, just as it was in the U.S. back then. When I was with Celebrity we were extremely busy with deployment of the entire Millennium class of ships. By the time I left Celebrity the growth period was ending and the focus shifting.

So, I decided to take some time off and opened a few small businesses with my son -- just taking life easy. Then MSC asked me to head up its North American expansion in May 2004. This is where I have been ever since. I guess you could say expansion is what I like best.

CruiseMates: Back then, the company was still called Mediterranean Shipping Company (they have since changed their name to MSC Cruises), and was hardly known in America at all.

Rick Sasso: That's right, and the company knew they had to create an image in the States. I have been in the industry now for 36 years, having started as sales manager for what was then another Italian cruise line; Costa Cruises, back in 1971. But it was my years with Celebrity that helped me form strong relationships within the travel agent community, that impressed MSC. They were counting on my reputation, experience and enthusiasm to help them get the recognition they needed in this competitive environment. And so far, so good. MSC is the fastest growing cruise line in the business, in Europe and America.

CruiseMates: Mediterranean Shipping may have been unknown in the U.S., but they are not a small company by any means.

Rick Sasso: Exactly right, the company is similar to P&O, the original founder of Princess Cruises. MSC owns shipyards, a container fleet of 350 ships and complete fleet operations worldwide. They are a huge privately owned mega-corporation, and though they are relatively new to the cruise business, they are really ramping up. The growth in the last few years has been phenomenal. When I started they were just adding to their fleet of three, small ships. In my first year, 2004, they brought out three new ships; MSC Lirica, MSC Sinfonia and MSC Opera and the following year added another ship, MSC Armonia.

So, by 2005 already up to seven vessels, we started on another expansion plan, one of the most aggressive in the entire cruise industry. Three new panamax vessels of 90,000 ton apiece were commissioned, the MSC Musica was christened, with Sophia Loren as the Godmother, in June of 2006. The MSC Orchestra debut is coming up in May, and the third ship in the class, the MSC Poesia will be introduced in 2008. These ships each carry 2550 guests and have 80% outside staterooms.

But the best is still yet to come. In 2008 we will enter a whole new dimension by introducing the MSC Fantasia to be quickly followed by the MSC Serenata. These will be the biggest ships introduced into the European market yet, at 133,500 tons apiece, and each carrying 3900 passengers and 1,313, crewmembers. And we are not done yet. We have this past month announced yet another addition and have confirmed a fourth panamax vessel to be delivered in 2010, MSC Magnifica.

CruiseMates: That's a very impressive expansion plan. The European market is growing by leaps and bounds, at a much faster pace then the U.S. market, though still much smaller on a passenger per year basis.

Rick Sasso: That is correct, the potential for Europe is huge. Their economy is strong and the average European takes three times as much vacation time as the average American.

But we have also designed our cruises to appeal to the American traveler in Europe. We want our guests to think in terms of adding a cruise portion to a stay in one of Europe's capitals -- in any of the great countries of the Old World.

Our cruises cover the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and also some Northern Europe itineraries including the Norwegian Fjords and the Baltic Sea. Whatever the preference of our guests, we have an itinerary for them. Our full slate of mostly 7-night European cruises gives the widest choice to those looking for the best of Europe. And what better way to see Europe than with MSC?

CruiseMates: That will appeal to Americans, but you also have plenty of European passengers.

Rick Sasso: Yes, we have ships that stay in the European market year round.

CruiseMates: What kind of challenges does that have?

Rick Sasso: One of the biggest is creating winter itineraries close to home for Europeans. The demand is there, they want to escape the winter cold as much as Americans do, but America has the Caribbean and Mexico close by. There are not so many options in Europe, but we have charted out some winter itineraries that are already working out very well for us.

To reach warmer weather, we sail to the Canary Islands (belonging to Spain, but off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic), the Greek Islands, Turkey and Egypt. Our winter in Europe is already a big success. Our ships also sail the Caribbean in the winter, where a vast majority of our passengers are North American.

CruiseMates: How do you manage to appeal to both American and European passengers?

Rick Sasso: The language differences are always a challenge, but we think our approach is a better idea. Naturally, the Europeans are used to hearing several different languages, so in Europe we make our announcements in the major European languages, with Italian being first.

In the Caribbean, with a majority of Americans on board, English in the first language in announcements, and the primary language onboard, with other languages mixed in discretely. We have a very clean, sophisticated look to our ships and we can cater to each passenger individually in his own language. We focus on great cuisine of universal appeal, and we provide visual entertainment that is not dependent on any one language. We also keep our public announcements to a minimum, so you rarely hear the ongoing babble sometimes heard on other ships with mixed nationalities.

We print each menu in five different languages, and our cuisine has something for every palate. All the food is freshly prepared. We have 24/7 free room service in the Caribbean and a nominal service charge in Europe. We have expanded our meal services to also include casual dining day and night. Fresh pizza is a favorite on our ships (naturally, as we are based in ITALY) and is available most of the day and early evening (not 24 hours a day). Our newer class vessels do have alternative dining as well, with options that range from Italian, to Sushi and Chinese cuisine.

Shore excursions are organized for each language depending on the level of participation. We try to avoid mixing languages on any tour as much as we possibly can.

CruiseMates: Do you sail anywhere else in the world?

Rick Sasso: Well, anytime you have a cruise line that appeals to Spanish and Portuguese guests then South America is a natural choice. Next winter season, three of our ships will be in South America from November through March, all of them working in Brazil and Argentina. South Africa is another destination we are starting up, because it is an untapped market, and our parent company already has facilities down there. If you want to see a very unusual itinerary, look at the MSC Melody cruise April 19, 2008. Starting in Durban, South Africa, it goes to Tanzania, Kenya, the Seychelles Islands, through the Red Sea with excursions to Luxor, Egypt, and Petra ,Jordan, and ends in Genoa, Italy.

CruiseMates: Rick, best of luck and may the wind always be in your sails.

Rick Sasso: Thank you and on behalf of everyone at MSC Cruises, we look forward to providing your readers with a Buona Crociera!

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