Interview: Mario Zanetti, President, Costa Cruises

Courtesy Costa Cruises

Published Mar 14, 2023 7:00 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2023 edition.)

As a native Genovese, Zanetti proudly leads the only cruise company in the world flying the Italian flag. His mission? Bring Italian culture and Italian values to the rest of the world – and do it sustainably.

Tell us about yourself – your background and education.

I started my career at Costa in 1999 and it’s been a great journey. I graduated in 1998 from the University of Genoa and later attended the General Management program at INSEAD. I grew up in the Revenue Management Department, becoming Vice President of Revenue Management, Itinerary Planning, Air and Sea Departments in 2015. In 2017, I was appointed President of Costa Asia. In 2020, I moved back to Italy to also take the role of Chief Commercial Officer of Costa Europe and was appointed President the next year.  

How did you become involved with the cruise industry?

Soon after graduation I was hired by Costa Crociere and, being a “Genovese,” for me to be part of this company was a natural choice. I’m very proud to lead one of the most important companies in Italy and also a company that represents Italy wherever it goes.

You were appointed President of Costa Cruises in March 2021. What’s it been like to lead this iconic brand?

I was appointed in a very challenging period never experienced before. My priority and the priority of the whole organization was to restart the full operational model and go back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. At the same time, we started working on further improving our product to offer guests the best cruise experience ever. I think 2021 was a real tipping point for our company, and we’re now seeing the results of what we started two years ago.

How would you describe the Costa brand – contemporary, traditional, luxury?

A Costa cruise is a daily experience of pleasure, filled with care and dedication. Our proposition is a contemporary product where guests can enjoy beautiful ships with bright and elegant rooms, menus by world famous chefs, local cuisines and shared excursions with loved ones along with theater, shows and entertainment for all ages and tastes. Our target audience includes guests of all ages from different countries, primarily Europeans, but mainly couples and families with kids.  

Tell us about the Costa fleet and destinations – number of vessels, major markets served, future plans.

Currently the Costa fleet consists of 11 ships, all flying the Italian flag, sailing in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Baltic Sea, the Caribbean, South America and the United Arab Emirates as well as offering "Around the World" and "Grand Cruises" to visit different continents in a single vacation.

Looking ahead to the coming months, we have some very interesting developments. There is, for example, the exciting 22-day cruise on board Costa Favolosa through Northern Europe from Amsterdam or Bremerhaven to dream destinations such as Greenland, Iceland and the U.K. Or the 15-day cruises, also on board the Costa Favolosa, from May to August to the British Isles from Amsterdam, visiting lesser-known destinations such as Cork, Ireland, and Greenock and Invergordon, Scotland.

We now have the Costa Toscana sailing the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, offering cruise passengers a wide range of land experiences. We have two ships deployed in the Caribbean until March but also offer different itineraries in the Mediterranean of varying lengths to discover the cultures of Italy, France, Spain and Greece. And we have already opened sales for the 2024 round-the-world itinerary. So you can see there are lots of fabulous choices! 

Is North America – and, in particular, the U.S. – an important market?

North America is surely an interesting market for Costa, specifically for guests willing to experience cruises in the Mediterranean Sea with an authentic Italian touch. The U.S. is arguably the biggest potential cruise market in the world with only an estimated 20 percent market penetration. Canada is also a prime cruise market with easy air access to Europe.

What makes Costa different? Why would someone choose to sail on Costa?

A Costa cruise is an immersion in a unique international experience. With guests coming from across Europe, Asia, South America and North America, you will hear many languages spoken on board our ships. Because of that, our shipboard entertainment is very visual and musical with exciting dance numbers, live music and acrobats.  

Being Italian, the cuisine and wine selections are excellent. The service is excellent, but not intrusive, and our crew are multilingual and multinational. Our new “Golf & Cruise” packages — available uniquely year-round in the Mediterranean and seasonally in the United Arab Emirates and Dubai — enable golf enthusiasts to pursue their passion on some of the best courses in Europe and the Emirates with many exceptional perks.

Costa was the first Western cruise company to enter the Chinese market way back in 2006. COVID and the numerous lockdowns forced Costa to exit the market. Is there a strategy for re-engaging China?

Our cruise operations in China started in 2006. We were forced to pause them at the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Since then, we’ve worked hard to secure a safe restart of our cruise program in China.

Meanwhile, we were pleased to announce in early February the restart of cruise operations in Asia beginning in June – ahead of the original schedule – with the Costa Serena sailing six cruises from South Korea and 24 from Taiwan. We attribute this early start – an important signal for the recovery of cruising in the region – to our historic presence in Asia and established relationships with local partners.

Costa has been a leader in the sustainable cruising initiative, and its two newest vessels, the Toscana and Smeralda, are both duel-fueled (LNG and MGO) and equipped for cold-ironing in ports. Tell our readers about the company’s sustainability efforts and the drive to become carbon neutral.

Costa Cruises has long been a symbol of commitment to sustainability. In line with the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, the company has pioneered sustainable innovation for the entire industry, introducing new technologies and projects to improve the environmental performance of its fleet as in the two vessels you mentioned. The company is also working to further improve the energy efficiency of all its ships and to support innovation in port infrastructure including shore power.

In addition, the company – through its Costa Crociere Foundation – works with destinations visited by its ships to contribute to the social needs of local communities and create more sustainable and inclusive tourism.

Dining is one of the great pleasures of cruise travel. Tell us about the famous chefs who are now enhancing the Costa menus.

As part of our renovated product offer, Costa has called upon the expertise of three of the world’s finest chefs – Bruno Barbieri, Hélène Darroze and Ángel León. This exceptional trio has explored authentic local recipes from the destinations visited by Costa ships, reworking them with their own personal knowhow. To ensure guests enjoy their culinary voyage to the fullest, Costa Cruises has created two major new features: the Archipelago restaurant and the Destination Dishes program.

The Destination Dishes are individual recipes designed by the three chefs and interpreting the traditions and flavors of the destination guests will be visiting the following day. They’re served at main restaurants on all Costa ships. The new Archipelago restaurant gives guests a truly unique culinary experience with three menus to choose from, one by each chef. The menus offer five exquisite dishes created to explore each part of the sea route through its cuisine. Both the restaurant’s concept and design are equally as innovative. Archipelago features “island” tables for a more intimate experience, framed by a copper sculpture enclosing unique pieces of driftwood, installations made using wood salvaged from the shore.

There’s a special focus on sustainability. The chefs’ menus, like the Destination Dishes, were designed with the greatest attention to the ingredients – most of them sourced from local producers – and to how they are prepared, to prevent food waste. But that's not all. The driftwood decorating the islands was salvaged as part of “Guardians of the Coast,” the environmental education program for the protection of the Italian coastline run by the Costa Crociere Foundation. For every dinner eaten at the Archipelago, Costa will donate part of the proceeds to Costa Crociere Foundation to support environmental and social projects.

Wow, that’s awesome! What’s your biggest challenge right now?

My biggest challenge is to continue the path we started soon after I became President. I think we’re in the right position with the right offering to capitalize on all the opportunities that the market is generating and will continue to generate in the future. Another challenge is to make our guests more and more amazed by the experience we can offer on our ships and on land.

What’s your vision for Costa? Where would you like to see the company in, say, five years?

In five years, I see the company well-established worldwide in the consumer’s mind as a compelling choice for holidays in our core deployment areas, driven by our capabilities of offering unique, authentic and amazing experiences every day of their journey.

What’s your vision for the cruise industry itself? Will it continue to grow and thrive? How will it change?

It’s a fact that the industry is progressively recovering, and people are once again looking forward to the experience of travelling on a cruise, as shown in recent trends. The changes I see in the industry are growing capabilities of matching and more and more often anticipating the innovative trends we see in the alternatives shoreside. And as a brand, we’re ready to catch those opportunities and lead the way. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.