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Rick Sasso Speaks Out on MSC Divina Start-UpNovember 27, 2013 By: Susan Young
Travel Agent Asks About Start-up Issues
|Rick Sasso at Cruise Shipping Miami|
Travel Agent talked with Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA, about many of the specific points made by readers as comments on our initial story about MSC Divina and the ship’s three-night preview cruise roundtrip from Miami last week, prior to the start of regular service to the Caribbean on Saturday.
Our first "initial impressions" story was focused on the MSC Yacht Club, as that was our “experience” on this short cruise, and we also addressed the new Eataly and the new first-ever AquaCycle, as readers had previously asked about both.
That said, given the story comments based on different experiences some readers had onboard, we talked with Sasso about many of the issues and concerns mentioned. Here’s his feedback and gleanings.
Crew Training: Some readers had questioned crew training, language issues and the lack of readiness of crew to serve American guests. One of our readers wrote: “The crew was definitely not ready to sail in the U.S.” Another reader asked why such training preparation was not handled earlier?
Sasso said when any cruise line starts off with a ship coming from Europe, there will always be some issues with language (as many international guests take the crossings) as well as an influx of new crew members. That said, he apologized to any agents whose experience was not up to expectations and provided these additional facts.
For this ship, MSC Cruises hired several hundred people specifically for this team based on three requirements: (1) They spoke English very well as their mother tongue; (2) They worked in an English speaking hospitality environment; and (3) They had job specific training in the category of work they’d do on the ship.
Sasso said he personally reviewed all the electronic files on the crew, including their past jobs, years of experience as well as a 1-to-10 rating scale for language skills. “It’s very detailed and updated often,” he said, noting that he also could see all the face-to-face interviews by internal executives and the ratings.
As a result, “The crew [picked] were very friendly and most speak good English,” Sasso said. Still, he’s not denigrating any negative experience an agent may have had: “I apologize and we’ve tackled it or are doing so.”
During the three-night preview cruise, he stressed that MSC was still changing out some crew prior to the first regular sailing from PortMiami, which departed last Saturday.
For example, new English speaking crew members joined the ship in Saint Maarten this week and another swap will be done this coming Saturday when the ship is back in Miami.
Sasso also said he and the MSC team personally reviewed all comment cards and other feedback from the preview cruise. “If we did identify a weakness – a waiter wasn’t ready, for example – then, as of last Friday, we started rotating them out of those positions right away,” Sasso said.
Some were placed in jobs behind-the scenes during retraining or simply removed from the ship. "Due to visa and timing issues we hit 95% of our target [with crew and training] and are now closing the holes over this week and next to get to 100," Sasso emphasized.
Atrium on MSC Divina // Photo by Susan J. Young
Government Processes and Inspections: Sasso noted that before boarding for the preview cruise and throughout the sailing, crew also had certain things to deal with that are out of the norm – the entire plethora of government inspections and processes required when a ship operates for the first time from the U.S.
“When a line has a ship that is initially arriving in America for the first time, the Coast Guard training gets tripled (from the norm),” he said, noting that once that’s over then it’s more “business as usual” for the crew.
|MSC Divina Black and White Lounge // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Dining Room, Buffet and Other Dining Issues: “I’m not going to hide,” says Sasso, acknowledging some agents had issues within the Black Crab dining room and the Black and White Bar. “The dining room crew were dealing with all new menus not previously offered, so there are still some things we need until crew are fully up to speed,” Sasso said.
He said if there are 100 waiters and 10 perform less than expected, that’s a 9 or 10, a good overall record, yet that’s also still 10 people not performing well and touching the experience of hundreds of customers. Similarly, if there are 60 bar crew members and 6 are not great, that too has negative implications.
So, that’s where the line has quickly moved to identify any weaknesses and is working to sort them out.
As for complaints about the buffet and there only being pizza on the ship, as some readers have stated, he told us that he’s had calls from people, including Dino Schibuola, one of MSC Cruises’ board of directors members and past chairman and CEO at Costa Cruises, raving about the buffet.
Travel Agent observed the lunchtime buffet as having multiple types of pizza, pasta stations, salad bar, fresh fruits, breads and a carving station. But we, like others apparently, thought it was lacking some diversity of other types of dishes.
Sasso said we didn’t walk far enough as the buffet extends out much further than many people thought. He said the line will do a better job moving forward of informing guests what’s available in the buffet. There was an international area, for example, that admittedly we never found.
One reader mentioned the lack of an omelet station, which is important to many American guests. Sasso said MSC Divina has always had an omelet station, but unfortunately, after the vessel’s government inspection in Miami, for “technical reasons” the line was told it could not operate the omelet station in that location. So, it’s seeking a new place to put the omelet station and hopes to have a new omelet station up as soon as physically possible.
|Shrimp cocktail in the Black Crab dining room // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Another reader talked about rain at Port Canaveral and how crowded the buffet was at lunch, citing a lack of staffing. Sasso emphasized this was a preview cruise and not the normal complement of guests.
For example, the line assumed the guests would be off the ship taking tours, so it invited 400 additional travel agent “day guests” for lunch. Unfortunately, bad weather ensued and there were just too many people on the ship. But, he says, that won't happen on a normal cruise, he said.
One reader cited a confusing layout and not being able to find the onboard Mexican restaurant. Sasso confirms there is no Mexican restaurant on MSC Divina; the TexMex dining previously on this ship has been replaced with Eataly Steakhouse and Ristorante Italia.
As far as the dining room menus, Sasso said the following…
“We have different menus every night with the finest ingredients – the best oils, the best mozzarella, the best pasta and we make all our own pasta, breads and desserts. We use very fresh ingredients.
“We have very known products, such as certain types of soups, salads or main courses. We always have shrimp cocktail as it’s very recognizable for a North American audience. Yet, every night we also have two to three appetizers that are uniquely and tastefully done, such as a zucchini with a special cheese sauce. Every night we have a fish, meat and poultry item, and then always available items like salmon, steak and so on.”
Another comment mentioned the 6:30 and 9 p.m. dining room fixed seatings, noting that 9 p.m. is much too late for Americans. Sasso agreed, giving this explanation.
The 9 p.m. time was only for this one cruise – to accommodate fireworks at PortMiami for the ship’s inaugural sailing.
During its Caribbean sailings, normal seating times, depending on the ship’s schedule, will start between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. for the first seating and between 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m for the second seating.
Room Service and More: One issue that Sasso himself immediately attacked, based on his own perception and feedback from agents and guests on comment cards, was room service. “Room service was a big problem on that cruise, I know it and we’re finding solutions,” he said.
Sasso’s promise is as follows: “We’ll have more people answering the phone, we’ll have people on those lines that speak better English, and we’ll have more staff to assure the orders get delivered within a certain period of time.”
While he said that room service always is much busier when it rains, as it did on the preview cruise, “it was not right and I accept the criticism. We are fixing it.”
One reader mentioned different glass sizes. Sasso said the line is very strict on what glass is used for each specific type of drink. If they identify a bar crew member doing that, they will retrain.
Sasso also promised to look into this comment: “Americans love their straws for their soda and drinks - put them out - don't make people ask for them.”
Sports Court on MSC Divina // Photo by Susan J. Young
One reader complained about activity options, noting “there really is not much to do.” While Sasso said he respects the reader’s opinion, he disagrees.
On one bad weather day, “we put together a couple of dozen activities, even printed up a sheet with them – delivered it to rooms and to public lounges.” It was a list of activities beyond what was in the daily program.
For example, the ship added a late afternoon pool party with complimentary frozen cocktails, complimentary ice cream in the Tritone Bar from 2-3 p.m. and a dozen other things that aren’t normally offered on a port day. That list included dance lessons, gaming lessons and tournaments, jewelrymaking, a musical game, quiz, dance game, light music for dancing in one locale; a DJ at the AquaPark and a culinary lesson.
“I’ve had a couple of dozen phone calls, saying ‘you need to do this and you need to do that’ and we’re never going to satisfy everyone, especially when weather is bad,” he admitted, but “I’ve also had calls from people who have said ‘you guys have really turned the corner.'”
“What we don’t do is make all the announcements all day, we don’t do that," he said. "We won’t be on every 10 minutes announcing bingo, for example."
Travel Agent looked at the activity options listed in the daily programs. Throughout the cruise, the line had such fare as sports court activities, bowling alleys, cha cha dance lessons, aerobics, AquaCycling, shuffleboard and basketball tournaments, trivia contests, a mixology demonstration, a video movie quiz, meet-the-entertainment team activities, a Grand Prix Forumula One simulator ride, movies and more.
While Sasso acknowledges a few hiccups, and apologizes to anyone who felt the experience did not meet expectations, he says fixes are underway and “these are things easily addressed and not insurmountable.”
Last week’s cruise was a preview cruise, and he says the regular voyages – which started on Saturday – will show the product is solid. In addition, he says the feedback he’s receiving from the vast majority of agents is positive about the product and its potential.
“We truly value our travel agent partners and would like the opportunity to hear from them directly about their experiences so we can work together and make any improvements,” he told me on Wednesday.
So if you desire to share any experiences with Sasso and the MSC team, send an e-mail to [email protected] (subject line: Travel AgentCentral.com article). The line says it “will respond promptly after the holiday.”