A European Cruise Line Wants to Break Into the Caribbean With Elegance and Pasta

MSC Cruises has a firm place in Europe but has set its sights—and new ships—on winning in the world’s largest cruise market

The MSC Divina cruise ship arrives at the Port of Miami escorted by a Fiat 500 watercraft, on Nov. 19, 2013.

The MSC Divina cruise ship arrives at the Port of Miami escorted by a Fiat 500 watercraft, on Nov. 19, 2013.

Photographer: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

An American vacationing on the high seas is almost certainly spending a week in the Caribbean with one of the 15 main brands offered by cruise giants Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian. Now an European upstart with container-shipping lineage wants to become a legitimate fourth option. The company, MSC Cruises, last month announced plans to base the 4100-passenger MSC Seaside in Miami year-round as part of a push that could eventually lead to several ships based in North America.

MSC's new ship is the first of seven being added to the fleet by 2022, which would double the Geneva-based company's annual passenger capacity to 3.2 million cruisers. The Seaside, set to arrive in December 2017, will become one of MSC’s largest and features what the company touts as the most extensive interactive water park at sea. But even more distinctive is the European sensibility coming to a Caribbean cruise market dominated by American-style excess.

MSC—or Mediterranean Style Cruising—aspires to la dolce vita flair with Italian-influenced menu options. Smoking is allowed in certain outdoor areas without reproach, the same on most U.S.-based cruise lines. The company also tends to gather more of its customers from around the world, meaning a more international mix on board. Some potential cruisers will certainly interpret a Mediterranean sensibility to mean lots of cigarette smoke, a staff that struggles with English, and potentially unfamiliar dining choices: Is that prosciutto for breakfast? The company has been “trying to get away from some of the perceptions” Americans might have about a European-based cruise line, says Ken Muskat, an MSC Executive vice president.

North America is the world’s largest cruise market, making it a critical element of MSC's expansion and geographic diversification as it builds to a 19-ship fleet. “The Caribbean, obviously, is the most-established cruise market out there and very well sought-out by North Americans and Europeans alike,” says Muskat. Over time, MSC could have three or four ships in North America, enough to tackle both the summer Alaska market and to position a ship in New York.

To that end, Muskat notes, the company has doubled the size of its sales force, increased its marketing budgets, hired Florida-based executives, and tweaked its product for the U.S. market. There are even some concessions to American expectations: Smoking will be banned in the casino, and public announcements won't be translated into multiple languages. The company is also assiduously courting travel agents to sample the line and to learn about how it differs—and doesn’t differ—from the Big Three U.S.-based lines. Muskat believes MSC will find its “biggest success” in attracting cruise virgins “because they don’t have the expectation of what they might have found on their previous experience with Royal Caribbean or Norwegian.”

It hasn’t been an easy financial voyage so far. In late 2013, the company launched the new MSC Divina in Miami and planned for that ship to stay in the Caribbean year-round. After less than a year in the market—a notoriously competitive territory that has seen a glut of cruise ships and rampant discounting—MSC decided to move the Divina back to Europe for the summer of 2015. The company expects Caribbean cruise pricing to return to higher levels for the rest of the year and 2016. Much of the industry’s capacity is moving to Europe, with Asia also seeing large increases. 

A whiff of international flavor is likely to appeal to seasoned cruisers ready for something new, said Marcia Levin, a writer who covers the cruise industry and who is a veteran of some 200 cruises, including several via MSC. “MSC skews at the higher end of the mass market,” she says, showcasing its Italian heritage in small yet conspicuous ways, such as offering pasta with lunch and dinner. “I think people will be attracted to the novelty of it and the Italian experience of it,” Levin says. “They do things with great elegance.”

The line’s parent company, Mediterranean Shipping, began as a cargo shipper in 1970 before entering passenger cruising in the late 1980s with the acquisition of Lauro Lines, an Italian company that ran into financial trouble following the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro. The line became MSC Cruises in 1995, a year after its Achille Lauro was destroyed by fire and sunk near Somalia. 

The company isn’t alone in seeing financial promise from the cruise industry’s growth. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is aiming to begin Caribbean cruises later this decade. Viking Cruises, a pioneer of European riverboat cruising, is set to launch its inaugural ocean liner, the Viking Star, on April 11, one of three new ocean ships designed to diversify its product lineup. Two additional 930-passenger Viking ships, the Sky and Sea, are expected to launch in 2016.

The cruise industry expects 23 million passengers in 2015—a tiny figure compared to the traveling hordes each year who fly, backpack Europe, stay in hotels, and sun themselves at beach resorts. That leaves plenty of customers to lure to cruising. MSC, says Muskat, will be hunting cruisers who “when they go to Europe, they don’t want to go to Burger King, they want the local experience.”

(Correction: This has article has been updated to reflect the similar onboard smoking policies of MSC and the major cruise lines and to note that the company is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Also, MSC will not keep a ship in New York year-round as stated in an earlier version.)

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