Have you heard of MSC Cruises? Would you be surprised to learn that MSC Cruises is the fourth largest cruise line in the world, and the largest that’s privately owned? If you live in North America, and you’re either new to cruising or have cruised previously with a tried-and-true cruise brand, chances are MSC Cruises hasn’t quite been on your radar—yet.

Examiner.com had the opportunity to sit down with Ken Muskat, Executive Vice President, MSC Cruises, for a chat about the company’s aspirations to bring their Mediterranean style of cruising to North American travelers seeking cruise vacations in the close-to-home Caribbean market.

“2016 and 17 and beyond are the years for MSC,” says Muskat. “We have been very quickly establishing ourselves in the cruise industry. We’re now the fourth largest cruise line in the world, and the largest privately-owned cruise line.

MSC Cruises is a subsidiary of the Swiss shipping giant MSC, and has been marketing cruise vacations under the MSC Cruises brand for over a decade. Previously offering itineraries mostly outside the Caribbean, the line has based the MSC Divina in North America since 2013 for year-round Caribbean sailing. Muskat explains, “MSC is very well established—we’re the leader in Europe, South America, and South Africa, but North America doesn’t really know who we are—that’s why we’re bringing ships to the Caribbean on a year-round basis so we can show that we’re committed to growth in this market. We’re really seeing positive demand from travel agents and consumers.”

Unlike other cruise lines, which offer a base price for all staterooms, MSC brands four inclusive package products with set amenities: Bella, Fantastica, Aurea, and MSC Yacht Club. Bella and Fantastica packages are available for standard stateroom types, Aurea is an inclusive product for suite accommodations, and MSC Yacht Club is a group of private-access staterooms in a dedicated area of the ship with a lot of VIP amenities added, including a private Yacht Club restaurant.

“Response to the inclusive experiences, which we rolled out in September 2014, has been really great,” says Muskat. “Like anything new, when working with cruise consumers and travel agents it takes a while to get news out, but we’ve had very positive responses from travel agents, who have found it very easy to sell and position MSC because of the inclusive experience pricing.” Muskat also notes that the inclusive experiences have proven popular with multi-generational cruisers, “Parents or grandparents might want the Yacht Club or Aurea experience while the rest of the family might not want that level of service. That way they can cruise together on the same ship, but with a package that fits their needs and budget.”

On how MSC Cruises plans to distinguish itself in the competitive Caribbean cruise market, Muskat points to the fact that MSC Cruises provides a very European product that differentiates the line from its North American competitors. “The thing that we really pride ourselves on is that we’re different from those other guys—we’re a European cruise line born and raised in Europe—we offer that authentic, sophisticated flair Mediterranean-type experience anywhere you go, whether you’re cruising with us in the Caribbean or elsewhere. We focus heavily on food, family, and entertainment, and doing it in a European way. We stock European brands onboard like Segafredo, and Nutella, our specialty restaurants are in partnership with Eataly, we have home-grown olive oils from Italy, homemade pizzas and pastas – our food is truly imported from the finest places around the world.”

Muskat also points to a focus on families, in a very international style. “We have outstanding family programs with plenty of age-appropriate kids programming, like language classes and pizza-making and cooking classes – with other kids from all over the world. It’s like taking the family to the Med without going to the Med. Having so many different nationalities onboard helps makes us different.”

A European line homeporting a ship in North America for the first time might have some cultural differences to consider for cruises, and it appears MSC has already thought of plenty of things that will make North American passengers feel more at home. “In 2013, we made changes like ensuring a virtually nonsmoking ship, across all of our ships in the fleet, based on passenger feedback, and that’s particularly been important to North American cruises,” says Muskat. English, while the core language on all MSC Ships, is the only language used for onboard programming and overhead announcements on Caribbean sailings (with the exception of emergency drills) unlike other itineraries where announcements and onboard programming is repeated in several languages. Muskat also points out that an American-style sports bar has been added to MSC Divina for those folks who prefer more familiar American comfort foods. There’s also more football sports programming on Caribbean sailings, while soccer proves more popular worldwide.

MSC Cruises also has a pretty impressive development pipeline. The cruise line is developing its own private island in the Caribbean, for use by the four ships that MSC Cruises will have based in the area (two in Miami, two in Havana) in the coming years. Location was a primary concern for the company when hunting for an island on which to sign a hundred year lease with the Government of the Bahamas, “It’s the closest private island to Miami—just 65 miles east of Florida and 25 miles south of Bimini. Any of our ships in the region will be able to go to the island because it’s so close to our departure port that it can be on all of our itineraries in the Caribbean market. At 95 acres, it’s the most expansive project ever done by a cruise line in the Caribbean with 11,000 feet of sand beach area. The island is unique in that it will have a pier (many private islands used by other lines require tenders), and because it’s so close to Miami the ship can dock until midnight or 1 in the morning, so we’ll be able to offer both daytime and nighttime experiences on the island. There’s also going to be a 2,000 seat amphitheater—the first ever on a private island in the Caribbean—which is great for corporate incentive groups and big events. We’ll also have a private area for MSC Yacht Club guests including a private beach club, spa, and restaurant built in a very Bahamian style, all surrounded by a wildlife reserve.” Ground breaks on that private island in March, 2016.

It certainly sounds like MSC Cruises has plenty in the works, and is poised to become a major player in the region. MSC Cruises currently has a fleet of 12 ships and offers sailings in the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Middle East.

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