MSC Cruises

Masters of the Sea

MSC Cruise Ships

By Tony Munoz 2015-03-11 15:03:29

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2015 edition.)

***From Jan-Feb 2015 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***

The industry’s fastest growing cruise line combines seamanship with Mediterranean hospitality. It’s a winning formula.

Founded on the three pillars of discovery, entertainment and relaxation, MSC Cruises has designed its ships and passenger services to exude the warmth and hospitality of the Mediterranean. The ships are elegantly furnished, and the food and service offer the essence of the Mediterranean lifestyle. “Good food is a way of life,” explains Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago. “In the Mediterranean, where we come from, we believe that life should be measured in moments.”

In pursuit of that goal, the company has invested more than €6 billion since 2003 on twelve state-of-the-art ships, expanded its services globally and developed a reputation for being one of the most stylish operators in the industry.

“The Family From Sorrento”

MSC Cruises is based in Geneva and owned by the Aponte family, descendants of a centuries-old seafaring tradition in Sorrento, Italy. It operates in forty-five countries and employs about 30,000 people worldwide. It was established in 1990 by Gianluigi Aponte, who twenty years earlier had founded Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the second largest cargo and container ship operator in the world with around 500 ships and 65,000 employees.  

The cruise line’s origins arose from the unfortunate circumstances of an old family friend from Sorrento named Achille Lauro, who owned a cruise ship of the same name that was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Organization off the coast of Egypt on October 7, 1985. Leon Klinghoffer, a retired American-Jewish businessman who was wheelchair-bound, was shot and tossed overboard, causing international outrage.    

The financial repercussions of the event crippled Achille Lauro’s company, Star Lauro Cruises, and Gianluigi Aponte came to the aid of his old friend by buying the infamous ship and renaming it MS Star Lauro. Perhaps reflecting her star-crossed history, the ship caught fire nine years later while sailing off the coast of Somalia and sank.

Meanwhile, as the cruise industry began to grow in popularity, and Aponte added the MSC Melody, MSC Rhapsody and MSC Monterey to the fleet, and the fledgling line slowly became a major player in the Mediterranean as vacationers relished its strong, Italian-influenced ambience. It wasn’t long before Aponte was approached with offers to buy the company, and Vago remembers this as a watershed event in the history of the business. “In a moment of truth,” Vago recalls, “the decision was made that he could never sell his own people, and if he wanted to ensure their future then he must invest in new ships and keep pace with the rest of the industry.”

The next step came in the early 2000s when MSC decided to expand its sailing schedules to include Northern Europe and the U.S. When Festival Cruises declined its options for two Mistral Class ships being built in France, MSC took over the contract and renamed them the Lirica Class. The MSC Lirica, at 59,000 dwt and carrying 1,445 passengers, entered service in 2003, and the MSC Opera, which was slightly larger and hosted 1,756 passengers, debuted in June of 2004.

In 2004, Festival Cruises filed for bankruptcy, and MSC purchased the other two Lirica Class vessels and renamed them MSC Armonia and MSC Sinfonia. With seven ships in its fleet, MSC officially named the passenger division MSC Cruises.

Building a Brand

The industry was growing fast, and the new ships entering the market featured balconies to enrich the sailing experience of their passengers along with specialty dining venues and Las Vegas-style entertainment.

MSC engaged in its first newbuilding program when it took over the options for the MSC Lirica and MSC Opera from Festival Cruises. Its first in-house newbuilding program came with the Musica Class in 2006, featuring its own design that added outside balconies to sixty-five percent of the rooms and outside windows to another fourteen percent. The cabins had pull-down bunks, which allowed for a “children go free” policy during certain itineraries and various times of the year. There were four ships delivered in the class between 2006 and 2010, each about 95,000 dwt and carrying 2,500 passengers.

In 2008 MSC introduced the Fantasia Class, which expanded the fleet with the most modern ships in the industry. The MSC Fantasia, the first ship in the class, was christened by Sophia Loren (the official godmother of all MSC cruise ships) in Naples on December 11, 2008. Eighty percent of the Fantasia’s rooms had ocean views, and she carried 3,900 passengers. The common areas were larger so there was more space per passenger. There were four swimming pools, a 1,700-seat theater, tennis and basketball courts as well as a miniature golf course. She was followed by the MSC Splendida in 2009.

The MSC Divina, delivered in 2012, and the MSC Preziosa, delivered in 2013, were the last two ships in the class. All four featured a new class of ultra-luxury travel called the MSC Yacht Club, a “ship within a ship” consisting of upgraded suites and amenities and located in a private, forward section of the three upper decks.

The MSC Yacht Club is a private oasis of luxury with every imaginable feature including its own dedicated elevators, spa, dining and disco. Built in the bow of the ship on Decks 15, 16 and 18, it provides passengers with a 180-degree panoramic view of the sea. Similar to buildings in the U.S. without a thirteenth floor, there is no Deck 17 on MSC ships because Italians consider the number 17 to be unlucky. The exclusivity concept offers customers upgraded services much like the concierge floor of a luxury hotel. But unlike a hotel, most passengers aren’t even aware of the Yacht Club’s existence.

The Yacht Club assigns a butler to each stateroom to pack and unpack guests’ suitcases and care for all of their onboard needs, including accompanying them on and off the ship. While excursions, spa treatments and transportation to and from the ship are extra, Yacht Club passengers experience the ultimate in privacy and luxury.

MSC’s Goal: Six-Star Service

MSC’s double-digit growth over the last decade has solidified its Mediterranean theme as one of the most popular in the industry. Vago says the company has had no new ships entering service for about two years. During that time, he says, the company has refined its vision and begun designing new services and vessels to better meet the needs of its customers and help attract new ones.

To supplement its newbuilding program, the company announced a daring new initiative in 2013 when it unveiled the €200 million Renaissance Program. In partnership with the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, the Renaissance Program will “stretch” the four Lirica Class vessels (built 2003-5) by inserting a new, prefabricated 78-foot midsection, thereby adding new staterooms and balconies and expanding all the common areas. There will be new restaurants and bars, upgraded sundecks and enhanced entertainment areas including a new outdoor waterpark with interactive water jets and slides.  

When the program is completed, each of the ships will be able to accommodate approximately 2,700 passengers, up from 2,000 currently. More lifeboats and tenders will be installed on the ships and larger thrusters added for better shiphandling.   

Last November the MSC Armonia, the first of the four ships to be stretched, sailed from Genoa on a 10-day inaugural cruise to the Canary Islands. Guests were treated to a documentary-style film explaining the engineering feat, which will be completed for the three remaining vessels by this November.

The Renaissance Program is part of a much larger €5 billion expansion effort, which includes two new prototype vessels scheduled for delivery in 2017. One of the prototypes will be built by Fincantieri and the other by STX France. “One of the two new prototype ships will be the Seaside Class, which will be the largest ships ever built by Fincantieri,” Vago said. “These ships will lead the way for a new generation of cruise ships.”

The new Seaside Class will be 323 meters long, 41 meters wide and 70 meters high. And at 154,000 tons they can accommodate up to 5,300 passengers and 1,413 crew members. The ships will have 2,070 guest cabins and 43,500 square meters of public areas. Unique features include a sea-level promenade that will circumnavigate the sides of the ship with outdoor spaces, shops and restaurants, not to mention a spacious theatre, terraced balcony and elevators with sea views. Additionally, there will be a variety of technological advances including a reduction of fuel consumption by 25 percent and safety systems that go far beyond international regulations.

The second prototype will be the new Vista Class, the first two units of which are due for delivery in 2017 and 2019, respectively. At 315 meters long and 43 meters wide, they have a gross tonnage of about 167,600, boasting 2,250 cabins for guests, nearly 820 crew cabins, and accommodating 5,700 passengers and 1,536 crew members.

Italian Traditions

“For MSC, it is all about our Italian traditions and the experience of operating more than 500 commercial ships and 12 cruise ships,” said Vago. “It is important for us to provide leadership and embrace our responsibility to the human aspects of our business as well as the oceans on which we operate. We don’t want our captains to be movie stars who give great speeches and take pictures with children. We are masters of the sea, and we have a responsibility to take care of the place where we work and live.” - MarEx

Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive

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