Somewhere I had this fantasy that “MSC” in the cruise line meant “Mediterranean Shipping Company”, and referred to the second largest container shipping firm in the world. I now find out this is fake news: “MSC” really stands for “Most Stressful Cruiseline”.
I will put the review into two sections: For those that want the quick rundown, I will give an overview, for those that want to see the dirty details, it will follow.
When MSC started entering the US market with their Caribbean cruises out of Miami, the Divina was billed as a beautiful ship, but services were not up to par. Now the industry considers the line to be able to compete in American markets, and services supposedly have much improved.
There is no way for me to compare what services were like before the said “improvements” took place, but overall, while the ship is beautiful, the level of service on many fronts is simply unacceptable, and unless there are significant changes we have no interest of taking this line again.
The fundamental problems come in two flavors: A bad attitude towards the traveler from many (not all) crew, and plain incompetence. We were guests in one of the largest suites on the Divina, being members of the supposed high-quality Yacht Club. But even in this supposedly higher level of service, the ship was always right until proven wrong, and when proven wrong, admission came grudgingly and without a real apology. This is not a hospitable environment.
MSC knows something is wrong, they have this SMILE poster campaign. S = Smile and Greet. M = Make the Difference. I = Involve yourself. L = Lead by Example. E = Enhance Guest Experience. Other poster campaigns involve taking ownership of problems and solving them.
Alas, these posters are evidence of not that things are changing at MSC, but how bad they really are, because overall NONE of this is happening. From petty arguments with waiters to gross mismanagement in excursion packages, MSC needs to do a lot of improving, and the Yacht Club has a lot of work cut out for itself before it can compete with premiums such as Celebrity and Oceania.
The ship may be beautiful, but no number of Swarovski chrystals in the grand steps will make the current version of Baguette on board have real taste or a real crust.
The Details (long!):
I will start with a short snippet of a story. We are having breakfast in the Top Sail Lounge of the Yacht Club. It is buffet style. I am at the place where you pick out your cereals. There are two containers of milk: Whole and “Semi-Skimmed” (probably 2%). Then there is a sign next to these milk containers: “ON REQUEST Skimmed Milk, soy milk, rice milk”. I asked our waiter for skimmed milk. He points to this table and says: “it is right over there on that table.” I say “no, it isn’t, it says there it is on request.” He says “no, it is right there”. I go up to the table, gesture him over and show him the sign. He gets quiet. Later he comes by our table with a glass of milk and states “the sign is wrong. The milk is mislabeled. It is skimmed milk.” And he hands us what clearly looks like the 2%. Every day after that I still notice the same containers of milk, and the same sigs. I even photographed them on two different days.
With MSC, on an argument like this the cruise line always wins, the problem is not acknowledged, it can even be thrown back into the guest’s face.
Our first full day of the cruise was at sea, heading to Ocho Rios. We had booked our excursions a month ahead of time, and in Jamaica were really excited to see Nine Mile, Bob Marley’s home and burial place. We were supposed to receive tickets for the excursion the night before, we did not, so I assumed the concierge held them, and on the assigned time I presented myself at the Concierge. (I will try to keep identities of staff completely anonymous, I will now introduce Concierge A followed by Concierge B). Concierge A assured me we had no booking for this excursion, and there were no tickets. I argued that we had booked this a month ago, the concierge argued we must have asked our travel agent to book it, and the agent missed it. I replied that no, we booked it directly through the MSC web site. The Concierge said simply no, we did not, since there is no record. I said “wait, I will get a copy of the voucher.” I ran downstairs, went to my laptop, opened up the first ticket we were issued by MSC (a .pdf file), and snapped a photo of the voucher on the screen with my smartphone. I go up and present my case. “OK, that is a voucher. You are correct. But the tour is sold out, and you don’t have a ticket, so therefore you can’t go.” At this point I am fuming. The error is obviously on MSC’s part, and I cannot get them to (a) take ownership, and (b) solve it, and this is the famed Yacht Club service I am supposed to receive. Concierge A seems totally overwhelmed by the entire excursion organization process, I wonder if Concierge A is the right person for this job. Concierge A even is getting snappy with other colleagues. In the meantime I find out ALL of our excursions were cancelled, even though we had paid for them.
We arrange our own tour for a lot more dough, find a taxi driver who takes us on a nearly two-hour drive over the mountains and gets us to Nine Mile. About 15 minutes after we arrive, the tour from MSC arrives. We make sure we get back a little earlier, since we know if we end up late the ship will not wait for us.
After the excursion I go back to the Concierge. This time there is Concierge B. And there is the cruise manager for the Yacht Club section. After a while, with a smile and some gaming around, I convince them that it is part of the Yacht Club service area to solve problems. Concierge B is pro-active, attentive, and finds the problem. He finds all of our reservations, which for some reason had been cancelled (we are still investigating this one). He re-books all the missed ones, and actually SOLVES the problem. At this point, however, I am miffed that it took such stress level and anxiety to get us there. And I also see what I have described at the first snippet with the skimmed milk: Until I proved I was right with the screenshot of the voucher on my laptop, no one was willing to lift a finger.
The next quality of cruise issue came on Cozumel, where there were six ships at berth and Divina as the seventh ship could not berth. Despite fairly rough seas, passengers were tendered to shore. This operation took a long time as passengers had to be assisted to jump to the tender over choppy seas and often had to wait briefly for calmer waters. Many passengers, including us, were concerned that the tendering operation was extremely dangerous. Frankly, if Divina could not get a berth at Cozumel we thought she should have diverted to another port. We met a first time cruiser who asked us if this is how it is always done, because if it is, she’d never partake in another cruise, it was that scary. That evening the captain issues somewhat of an apology over the intercom, but I think the damage was done. Many complained.
There was another day at sea between Cozumel and Nassau in the Bahamas. We took the “Behind the scenes” tour, which was going to show us the things passengers usually don’t see on a ship. I had taken this before on the Celebrity Summit, and it was truly interesting. We were taken to the bridge, and I learned how extensively the AIS (Automatic Identification System) is integrated with standard radar returns, similar to primary and secondary radar in aviation. I did not know, and found this very interesting and revealing. In the engine room I learned that the Summit had as main powerplant a turbine engine of the same type used on the Boeing 747, providing electricity to power the electric propulsion propeller pods.
On MSC Divina we were told right away the bridge and engine room were of limits, due to “security”. Instead, the guests were subjected to a tour of the Yacht Club (basically a sales pitch), laundry facilities, and an extensive, overly prolonged tour of the kitchen. The main tour of the kitchen involved a highly enthusiastically and loudly yelling master chef whom nobody could understand because of his heavy accent. It was another sales pitch as to how great the kitchen was, and how special it was in trying to treat the guest’s needs. It got hot while he was talking, and some of us were dying to get out of there. When we finally were free, I told the guide supervising the tour that this chef was hard to understand, and that this section was too long. Other passengers agreed. He gave me a look of steel and stated coldly: “This is part of the program.”
(MSC: Never again!)
Our final stop was in Nassau. Our guide for group going to Atlantis, leading us from the port to the road transport, went so quickly through the crowds that at least forty of us lost track of her, and we were abandoned. The guide never came after us, never looked for us, never gave us any hint as where to meet. So after someone at the port realized what happened the port took us to a bus and drove us to Atlantis. We arrived at Atlantis after having lost an hour due to the confusion, we were told to “get out.” No one gave us any information about how to get around in Atlantis or what what our tour included. When asked about the return shuttle, we were told buses were going back to the Divina every half our until 3 pm. We showed up at 3 pm, there were no buses, so we became part of a group taxi we paid for going back to the ship. Concierge B was aware of the problem, and finally he got the excursion office to settle for a 10% discount on the tour. That covered our taxi fare but seemed inadequate compensation.
Imagine you are at a hotel, checking out in the late afternoon. You realize your minibar bill has overstated your purchases. You drank one bottle of wine, and there were two on the bill. You tell the person at checkout, and they say “I am sorry, I do not have the authority to do anything about this, only accounting does, and they are in Northern Virginia, and are currently closed.” This about describes one of the fundamental problems with MSC: You have the SMILE campaign, but people are not really empowered to solve problems. The system seems authoritarian and bureaucratic.
Or maybe even downright cynical, from the top management downward.
On the last night, the cruise director was trying to be amusing, giving a short speech before about 900 passengers in the grand auditorium. I am paraphrasing part of what he said, and I do not have the statements in the right order, but here is how it went, with an accompanying powerpoint presentation:
“I have been talking to passengers over the trip, and here is a collection of questions I have heard:
Do these steps go up?
Which elevator do I take to get to the front of the ship?
Does the crew sleep on the ship? (No, they paddle to the ship every morning.)
Does the ship make its own electricity?
Is it salt or fresh water in the toilets?
What time is the midnight buffet?
Is this island completely surrounded by water?
And a couple more.
First of all, my wife and I were bothered that he was making fun of his own passengers. Second, he was not truthful. These were not questions he ever was asked by any MSC Divina cruise passenger. These questions were copied word for word from p. 242 of Brian David Bruns “Cruise Confidential’, published in 2008. The author states that he was asked those questions over the years.
By proposed sections:
Ship: Quite nice, quirky layout though.
Cabin: Executive/Family suite not well integrated with Yacht Club real estate wise. Great suite though, great bathroom.
Dining: La Muse has a beautiful view over the Garden Pool, where sun worshippers can look in at you while you are dining, and you can observe them while you are dining. (Not a good visual arrangement, I hear they did a better job on the new Seaside.) Food varied in quality, I already mentioned the baguette, this cruise ship needs better breads by far.
Entertainment: Show absolutely boring after the first one, non-coherent and non-understandable singing combined with repetitive acrobatics. Gets boring the second, third, and fourth time around. Classical venues superb. Real musicians, real performers, quality work. If you like classical music, attend the recitals and performances, but skip the rest.
Service: Dear passenger, whatever goes wrong, it is your fault.
Ports and shore excursions: Be safe and relax, skip them all. Go into a hot tub. Read Less