(1:16 p.m. EST) -- Prior to the departure of MSC Seaside on its maiden voyage, MSC Cruises executives sat down with Cruise Critic onboard the new ship to discuss the line's plans for the future, including possible new destinations, bigger cruise ships, technological advancements the line is making and the work it has undertaken to introduce the brand to North American cruisers.
Eyeing Up Untapped Markets
With the Americanization of MSC Divina and MSC Seaside serving as the line's first-ever ship purpose built for North Americans, it's clear that the continent is on MSC's mind. Because Alaska is one of the most popular cruise destinations for North Americans, we couldn't resist asking about the possibility of the line establishing a presence there.
"Alaska is one of the destinations we're looking at," confirmed Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises. "But we need to be cautious. It's gradual growth.... Our strategy is to maintain and enforce our presence in Europe, but Alaska is on the radar."
Onorato didn't say which ships are being considered for potential deployment, but he did add that the line is considering basing a ship in New York.
During a press conference, MSC Cruises' Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago mentioned India as an option, as well.
What Sets MSC Seaside Apart from Other Cruise Ships
Switching gears to the here and now, there's a lot to love about MSC Seaside, from its classy, modern decor and creative, flexible entertainment to its three-part Asian restaurant experience, spectacular kids club and plethora of outdoor spaces, including a water park with four slides. (Unfortunately, the park hasn't been operating during the chilly, windy first part of the inaugural sailing from Trieste to Miami, where the ship will homeport.)
"The main difference [between Seaside and the line's European ships] is this is a ship designed to sail year-round in warmer climates," Fusaro said, pointing out more of the vessel's outdoor spaces, which include an outdoor promenade, workout areas, dining venues, spa cabanas, an aft viewing area and two ziplines.
Naturally, we were curious how Seaside compares to MSC Divina, MSC's other Florida-based vessel.
"We weren't looking for a different ship versus Divina," Onorato said. "We were looking for a different ship versus everybody else."
According to Onorato, the ship's design was proposed to two other cruise lines by Fincantieri, the Italian shipyard that constructed it. They both turned it down.
"This ship was an old project that Fincantieri has had for at least 12 or 13 years in a drawer," Onorato said. "[They] proposed it to us, and when we saw it, it was exactly what we were looking for. We were looking for a different ship with a lot of outside space. The idea was also not to lose the inside space but at the same time to have a high ratio of balcony cabins."
(Onorato later clarified that he meant the idea to place Seaside's funnel midship, rather than aft, was 12 years old -- not the entire concept.)
Onorato also noted the ship's smaller, more intimate lounges and theaters. In order to fit everyone and to allow more flexibility for passengers, the ship offers two different shows every night, each with two time slots.
Attention to Detail in the North America Market
MSC Cruises has historically received low marks from North Americans in the areas of food and service, and the line has worked hard to address both.
Onorato told us that MSC now has a dedicated team for North America -- covering everything from marketing, public relations and human resources to hotel operations and sales -- and it had worked diligently to get a better feel for American tastes while still retaining the line's heritage.
"We've made many improvements, but obviously, it takes time for these improvements to be acknowledged," Onorato said. "We are fully confident we can be as good as the others, but will keep our identity."
Onorato went on to say that "North America is huge, and we want a piece of the cake." He also called out notable tidbits like the fact that Americans prefer larger steaks than Europeans and that they're also put off by receiving an entire fish, rather than a fillet.
Another big consideration for MSC in North America was the tweaking of the onboard entertainment, said Roberto Fusaro, president of MSC Cruises North America. In addition to providing varied performances at a wider range of times, the line has added comedy shows, live concerts and Broadway-style performances to its repertoire of stellar entertainment, which has traditionally been nonverbal -- acrobats, magicians -- to remove language barriers for the multiple nationalities onboard.
"We're doing lots of adaptations to make sure we satisfy our ... guests; that's what MSC has done successfully in all markets," Fusaro noted. "We have our strong Mediterranean roots, and we don't want to change that because that's our soul. That's what we know how to do, but at the same time, we are very good at adapting to the local tastes and the local needs."
Bigger Cruise Ships in the Seaside EVO Class
Two days before MSC Seaside's inaugural sailing, the line announced that it's already planning to expand on the Seaside Class with the introduction of new class Seaside EVO. The two new ships are slated for delivery in 2021 and 2023.
As expected, few details have been released, but we're told the ships will be larger than Seaside, both in length and passenger capacity, and they will offer additional features.
"It's a testament to our will to innovate," said Fusaro, when asked why the line was expanding on the Seaside Class before its first ship even set sail. "We always try to do new things.... Any time we finish a ship, we're very happy, and we're very proud, but at the same time we think 'we can do better.'"
Onorato stressed that feedback from passengers and crew is key in making improvements and coming up with fresh ideas.
As for deployment, it's "Caribbean for sure," Onorato said. "These ships are being built for the North American market and for the South American market. Location will also be in the Med, but our timing has to be right. These ships will be crucial for our development."
MSC Seaside's sister ship, MSC Seaview, currently under construction, is due in mid-2018 and will begin its voyages in the Mediterranean before relocating to South America for the winter.
Rapid Fleet Expansion Underway
MSC Cruises will introduce 12 new vessels to the market by 2026 as part of a rapid expansion initiative to more than double the size of its fleet.
"We don't have financial investors dictating our agenda, so we can be more agile," Onorato emphasized. "We're confident but not crazy.... The ships are coming."
Technological Advancements that Improve the Cruiser Experience
One of the most impressive aspects of MSC's fast-paced expansion is its ability to innovate rapidly with features like the MSC for Me app, an interactive water slide, self-serve kiosks where passengers can set up their own onboard charge accounts, a 3D printer in the kids club, and wristbands that allow passengers to tailor their cruise experience and even track their children while onboard.
Onorato says, by sometime in 2018, the line plans to match passengers up with their waiters and room stewards pre-cruise via videos and introduce each cruiser to the captain in the same way.
"The company needs to start making love with the guests before the cruise," Onorato mused. "There's a period of getting to know each other better."
Onorato stressed that MSC wants to improve the cruiser experience without losing the human element. The line isn't looking to replace people with technology.
"The human relationship -- the contact -- needs to be left there," Onorato reiterated. "This is one of the successful keys of the cruise industry."
"As the market evolves, we try to evolve with the market, and sometimes we try to direct the evolution of the market, so we're bringing new features," Fusaro said.
Although the new features haven't been disclosed, Fusaro did note the importance of gathering feedback and taking suggestions when thinking of new ideas.
"We listen to everybody," Fusaro said. "We listen especially to our guests. We listen to our stakeholders. We listen to our travel agents. We listen to our crew, who are the people best positioned to tell us how they can better serve our guests."
--By Ashley Kosciolek, Editor