MSC’s Sasso Says There Will Never Be Too Many Cruise Ships

By Nina Slawek

Rick Sasso

Build them and they will come.

That’s the belief of Rick Sasso, president & CEO of MSC Cruises USA. It’s clearly the conviction of MSC’s owners too – the Geneva-based line is growing at a pace unprecedented in cruise industry history.

“We ordered 7 ships, then even before the first one was delivered, we ordered 4 more,” Sasso told Open Jaw. “All of a sudden, the same brand is building 11 large, state-of-the-art ships in 3 different classes.”

But is the world ready for that many thousands of new cruise berths? After all, only about 2% of the population have chosen to take a cruise vacation, even in North America. Isn’t there some kind of resistance to cruising among a portion of the population?

“I have always felt the only resistance to cruise growth is supply. I don’t think this industry will ever reach overcapacity. Ever,” Sasso emphasizes.

“I’m 44 years doing this. I’ve watched all the trends and cycles. There’s only so many shipyards that can build quality ships. You can’t even order a ship today that will be delivered before 2022.”

Sasso says emerging markets like China will drive cruise growth around the globe.

“The Chinese market is opening up to be the 2nd-largest cruise market in the next 5 years. In a few years those people will be cruising in the Caribbean too. So all of a sudden the bubble gets bigger, naturally.

“As we expand the supply, marketing, visibility and great products that people enjoy no matter what culture they come from or passport they hold, they become the global cruising community. It’s happening now and it will benefit the industry for the next 10 or 20 years,” Sasso says.

The long-time cruise executive says MSC is already expanding the industry’s reach.

“Europeans are sailing the Caribbean in record numbers because of our brand penetration around the world. We’ve gone from 1 seasonal ship to 5 full-time ships in the Caribbean basin, including 2 based in Guadeloupe and catering to European cruisers.”

After a dizzying period of international growth, Sasso says MSC’s focus is shifting to North America.

“We’re a company that has just been holding a place in North America while we really strengthened our assets around the world. Now North America is going to be the place where we strengthen our position.”

Currently MSC has 2 ships based in Cuba year-round. MSC Divina is now year-round out of Miami and the 4,000+ passenger MSC Seaside will join it in November 2017.

New ships aren’t MSC’s only commitment to the Caribbean region. Last December, the company announced it had signed a 100-year lease on a Bahamian out island and would invest $200 million “to create a flourishing natural haven from a desert island.”

Sasso says the move will be a game-changer for the company’s North American presence.

“We are creating what I believe will become the most sought-after real estate in the Caribbean, because it will be so comprehensive and different than any other execution of a private island that people are going to be really attracted to it.”

While MSC’s amazing growth on the hardware side – including 4 leviathan 200,000 ton, 5,400 berth ‘World Class’ ships that will begin arriving in 2022 – has grabbed much of the attention, Sasso acknowledges that great hardware isn’t enough.

He says the line is investing heavily in recruiting and training staff, as service has been an issue at times with demanding North American cruisers.

“Quality of service and positive interaction with staff is just as necessary as a great ship. We’re spending a lot of time in improving the touch. We’ve raised our standards for job skill performance and we’re changing out crew that doesn’t pass the test. We’re empowering staff at all levels to solve issues on the spot. And I believe these moves will raise guest satisfaction above and beyond.”

Sasso says the World Class ships are probably at the upper limit for size.

“I don’t think they’ll get any bigger. But as an industry we’ve been very clever. If you’re really good at it, you can design a ship of 5,000 pax that still has the features of a cruise ship. MSC Seaside and MSC Meraviglia will not be boxes, they’ll be beautiful ships.”

He also says the larger ships enable cruise lines to do “amazing” things, including performances by Canada’s Cirque du Soleil on MSC Meraviglia starting next July and the multi-storey water park being designed by another Canadian company, WhiteWater West, for MSC Seaside.

“No brand has ever grown as quickly as MSC. We’re building some of the best hardware anybody can build. We’re at 1.7 million annual passengers now and we’ll be at 5 million in 5 years. It’s amazing to be a part of it.”

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