Trying new things has been the story of Maurice Zarmati’s life. He has only been in his role as president and CEO of Costa Cruises North America for a brief two months, but his tenure in the cruise industry is long and storied. One could call Zarmati a founding father of North American cruising as we know it (he likes to say a founding son), having begun his career in 1969 when he answered an on-campus ad at the University of Miami (he still has the card: “Interested in travel? Call 377-4751”) and parlayed a phone call into a job with Carnival, née Arison Shipping, with only a promise by founder Ted Arison of a shot to climb the ladder and little recompense.
Maurice Zarmati stands with his impressive wine collection.
It was a risky move: In the 1970s, the U.S. cruise industry was little more than a few ships making Caribbean runs. Almost 40 years later, it’s a global, multibillion-dollar business. Zarmati, a brash 20-something neophyte at the time of his hiring, quickly rose through the ranks, making it as far as vice president of sales for Carnival Cruise Lines and, by doing so, disproving a boyhood declaration.
To understand Zarmati, one must first know his background—a heritage and confluence of events that have shaped both him and his livelihood. He was born in Egypt, immigrated to Italy during the 1957 Suez War, and ultimately made his way to America in 1959, settling with his family in Miami. Zarmati bounced around at an early age, but all the shuttling did have its benefits, like predisposing him to many languages. He’s a surefire polyglot, able to speak six languages. “I’m Jewish by religion, Italian by nationality and French by education,” he likes to say.
And a Costa man by happenstance. As Zarmati tells it, his eventual affiliation with Costa Cruises, a wholly owned Carnival Corp. brand since 2000 whose roots stretch back to 1924, might not have been as much by chance, but by fate. The signs were everywhere. “We arrived in Italy,” Zarmati says of emigrating from Egypt when he was nine years old, “and I was like a babe in the woods walking out of the embarkation area. I looked up on a wall, pointed and said to my dad, ‘What is that?’ It was the insignia of a cruise line that carries refugees to and from and has passenger ships that cruise around Europe. It was Costa.”
Upon arriving in Italy (to be specific, Genoa), Zarmati remembers that Costa was as ubiquitous in travel agency storefronts as Carnival or Royal Caribbean is in the U.S. today. “I would walk by travel agencies,” he says, “and, I remember, all I saw was Costa.” Zarmati’s stay in Italy was brief. In 1959, Zarmati, his mother and father, who would later work in hospitality for Pan Am, boarded the Christopher Colombo on a course to America.
Sharp Wits Sail Ships
When they left the port of Genoa, he turned to his mother and said, “Look how beautiful it is; I’ll never see it again.” By the time he arrived in the States, he turned to his mother again. “I will never step foot on a ship again for the rest of my life,” he said.
A Samsara suite on a Costa Cruise Ship
Once the ad at the University of Miami brought him to Carnival, Ted Arison’s promise of a chance to climb the ladder was fulfilled. Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Crociere, placed Zarmati at the top of North America operations. Famously, Ted’s son Micky Arison, now the chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp., flexes no influence when it comes to filling positions in any of Carnival’s 11 brands. The company’s meritocracy has benefited Zarmati, even though he has been a lifelong friend and confidant of Arison, having grown up in the business together. Zarmati points to their mutual trust and the tremendous respect he has for Arison, whom, he says, is very much similar to his father: humble and private, but sharp-witted.
Rather, Zarmati’s years helping lead and mold Carnival Cruise Lines’ sales force was the key driver behind his rise. A little bit of strut and aplomb probably helped his cause, too. (He answered that travel ad in college with, “Mr. Arison asked me to call him.”)
As vice president of sales at Carnival Cruise Lines, Zarmati was asked to usher passengers to a purely North American product; as president and CEO of Costa Cruises North America, he is counted on to deliver North American passengers to an unequivocally Italian experience.
Costa’s success in Europe has closely mirrored that of its sister brand, Carnival, in the United States. Some even call Costa the “Carnival of Europe,” which Zarmati says refers to the similarity in the companies’ traffic and popularity, not product delivery. Cruising “Italian Style,” Costa’s tagline, is far different from sailing on a “Fun Ship.”
“The ambiance of Costa is that it is truly cruising Italian style,” Zarmati says. This style is not easily definable, and goes further than simply the difference between spaghetti with meatballs and linguine fra diavolo. “When you walk down Fifth Avenue or around the Vatican, one is Italian, one is American. When you walk on board the Costa Fortuna, you know it’s Costa; vice versa, when you walk on board Carnival Spirit, you know it’s Carnival.” Zarmati is hoping to convince Americans that the best way to experience cruising the Italian way is through cruising with Costa.
“My job was to figure out what the primary responsibility was,” Zarmati says. “I knew we were undervisualized and undervalued as a company and as a product.” One reason, he believes, is that Costa doesn’t have 12 months of cruising; instead, their cruises are seasonal. “We visit the Caribbean,” he says, “but we own Europe.”
Selling Value and Flair
Europe has become the cruise industry’s prime region. Its desirable ports of call are obviously a plus, and the continent’s cost is driving more cruise traffic there and making it easy to market. While the euro continues to embarrass the dollar, cruise vacations are paid for in the latter currency, making a European vacation more affordable for Americans. “Italy receives 12 million visitors per year,” Zarmati estimates. “If I can convince people to cruise in Italy [and pay with] in U.S. dollars, I just got them a 50 percent discount.”
A rendering of the Luminosa, set to debut next year
But Zarmati is banking on the assumption that when Americans do choose a European cruise, they’ll choose a line with European flair. “What is one of the most popular destinations in the world?” Zarmati asks me. Without waiting for an answer, he offers Italy. “When you want to go to Italy, do you want to cruise with Americans or a more intercontinental, cosmopolitan group? That is what Costa is known for. I don’t think it takes convincing; it takes education.”
Of utmost importance is teaching and training travel agents to sell the Costa product. This is an issue close to Zarmati, whose whole working life has revolved around relationships with agents. “At Carnival,” Zarmati says, “we built effective relationships with agents and took care of customers. You can tell an agent all you want ‘sell, sell, sell,’ but if you don’t become their confidant or friend—I call it consigliere—if they don’t believe in what you say and don’t trust you, they’re just going to ‘yes’ you, walk out the door and throw the brochure away.”
Although Costa’s sales force is far smaller than Carnival’s, Zarmati is still one to expect a lot out of his reps, whom he calls “ambassadors” in the Henry Kissinger vein. “Are we as good as him in shuttle diplomacy? It’s between your home and the agency. If we can effectively have the agency call the BDM or rep, and say, ‘Listen I’m having a problem or need help with a promotion,’ depending on how we handle the situation will determine how successful we’ll be with that client, who, at the time, might be giving us $10,000 worth of business; but maybe 10 years later it will be $1 million.”
Listening and Learning
These are lessons Zarmati has learned over his nearly 40 years in the business. It didn’t happen overnight. Back in 1969, at that fateful first meeting, one of the first questions Ted Arison asked Zarmati was, “How do I know you can sell?” Zarmati’s response was a simple, “You don’t.” Fortunately, both for Zarmati—whom the late Arison affectionately called Moshe, his birth name—and for Carnival Corp., he wasn’t turned away at the door. Instead, he has become a trailblazer in the art of selling cruises, both from the supplier and agent side.
Above all, Zarmati is a great listener, a trait one has to have in order to be a great seller. That he can listen to people in multiple languages doesn’t hurt. He is an observer who enjoys overhearing conversations, particularly ones that involve someone persuading another to try something new. Like an American trying an Italian-style cruise? “We are trying to explain prosciutto vs. ham,” Zarmati likes to say.
A Samsara Relaxation Lounge on a Costa ship
New supply is one subject needing no explanation. Costa has a nice mix of new hardware coming online. With a current fleet of 12 ships, the line is set to add five new vessels by 2012, two of which (Costa Luminosa and Costa Pacifica) will enter service next year. Interestingly, unlike other lines, Costa’s ships are not set to a particular size. While Costa Luminosa, debuting in spring 2009, will clock in at 92,700 tons, Costa Pacifica will be larger at 112,000 tons. Variation is a hallmark of Costa, credited with beginning the novel concept of spa cabins in 2006 on Costa Concordia. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: Sister line Carnival Cruise Lines will debut its own take on spa cabins on its new ship, Carnival Splendor, which enters service next month.
Cruising has always been one of Zarmati’s biggest passions, trumped only by his daughter Sabrina, a 24-year-old e-marketing major at Stetson University in DeLand, FL, and son, Josh, who is a bona fide exotic animal handler at Jungle Island in Miami. Zarmati’s also an avid wine collector, though nowhere near the same level as former president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines Bob Dickinson, whose private collection is rivaled by few.
Zarmati’s legacy will be that of a progenitor of modern cruising (he’s already writing his memoirs), and his office could be a wing of a cruise museum, weaving the story of Carnival through pictures that are often coupled with Zarmati’s commentary. Like this gem: Meshulam Riklis, an original Carnival bankroller, sold his share of the company to Ted Arison for $1. Riklis was also the owner of the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which he originally bought so his wife, actress Pia Zadora, could have a stage on which to sing. Owning a hotel/casino and a cruise ship, the Mardi Gras, which had unregulated gambling on board, was seen as a no-no by the Nevada Gaming Commission. “Sell the hotel,” Zarmati says, “lose the wife.”
Zarmati’s boyhood declaration of never seeing Genoa again didn’t pan out. Obviously, neither did his announcement that he’d never step foot on a ship again. “I believe I was destined to work at Costa,” he says. “Three years ago I was back in the port of Genoa, on the bridge of a ship looking out. I got a tear in my eye. When I left Europe in 1959, I looked at the same horizon and said, ‘I’ll never see this again.’ Yet here I was, again.” Proving Thomas Wolfe wrong, Zarmati can go home again. He has to; it’s his job.