MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato in the two-story Top Sail Lounge, part of the MSC Yacht Club luxury enclave on MSC Seaside. Photo Credit: Tom StieghorstONBOARD THE MSC SEASIDE — When executives at MSC Cruises went looking for a design completely different from any other in the industry, they found it gathering dust in a desk drawer at the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri.
The line’s newest ship, the MSC Seaside, was conceived 12 years ago by a visionary Fincantieri engineer, but it languished because no cruise line wanted it, according to MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato.
To start with, the ship’s funnel was in the middle, not the back. That alone spooked buyers worried that soot would rain down on sunbathers gathered around the Deck 16 swimming pool behind it.
The design had an oddly narrowed tower of cabins in the back, opening space for a broad, uncovered promenade on Deck 8 and an expansive platform at the very aft where another pool was placed. A pair of glass-walled elevators connected the two pool decks.
When Onorato saw the plans, he knew he’d found something that wouldn’t be mistaken for any other cruise ship afloat.
“This is what we wanted,” Onorato said.
I had a chance to experience the nearly completed Seaside on a short cruise from Fincantieri’s yard in Monfalcone, Italy, to Trieste, about 20 minutes away. I came away thinking that passengers are going to want to try this ship, which is just the response MSC is seeking in its ongoing bid for recognition in North America.
Start with that rear profile, which MSC likens to a Miami Beach condo. It wastes space extravagantly, but it looks very cool. And from my cabin on Deck 15, I could descend to poolside in about 30 seconds.
MSC intends to sail the Seaside in the Caribbean from Miami year-round starting on Dec. 23. The ship has what seems like acres of open space on the top deck, ideal for sun-searchers from cold climates.
Onorato said new exhaust scrubber technologies solve the soot problem. There’s a giant LED screen for videos. And the pool on Deck 16 can be covered at night, creating a dance space beneath the tropical stars.
The midship funnel on the Seaside is the starting point for one of the ship’s neatest features, a 344-foot zip line that threads riders through two sets of giant hoops before ending on an aft platform.
Several waterslides also start on the funnel structure, including one in which passengers ride a board that transmits electronic data, turning it into an interactive video game.
Inside, the design of the Seaside carries on some of the themes of MSC’s first year-round North American ship, the MSC Divina. The Seaside has lots of shiny, sparkly metallic surfaces and an assertively neutral colour palette consisting mainly of white, black, grey and beige, with maroon in the carpets.
The levels of a four-story open atrium are linked by stairs that feature transparent steps embedded with tiny white lights and Swarovski crystals. Large LED screens with changing displays adorn the main wall of the atrium.
But the Seaside differs from the Divina, too.
The Seaside’s MSC Yacht Club luxury enclave is larger and, unlike on Divina, it includes a restaurant. The two-story Top Sail Lounge has magnificent forward views. (If you’re not staying in the Yacht Club, the Seaside has no public views from the bow).
There’s a trio of speciality restaurants (seafood, steak and Asian) on Deck 16, which creates a foodie destination, according to Onorato. The theatre is smaller, but there will be more frequent shows, giving diners the flexibility to eat when they want and still catch the entertainment.
And then there’s that promenade, which brings cruisers as close to the water as they’re likely to get on a 4,138-passenger vessel.
Inside the ship, one sure-to-be-talked-about feature is the wall of liquid chocolate in the Venchi 1878 Chocolate Bar, which sends a sweet fragrance of chocolate wafting through several decks around it.
Although it is not entirely original, I liked the two-lane, full-size bowling alley in the arcade on Deck 7. I also enjoyed the Garage Club, a ’50s car-themed room that is a teen club by day and a bar at night.
One thing yet to be determined on the Seaside is whether MSC has tailored the food and service to American sensibilities. Onorato said it has. He said past perceptions of indifferent service and Euro-centric foods are the legacy of a time when the North American market was an afterthought for Geneva-based MSC.
That changed several years ago, Onorato said, and the Seaside will reflect all that MSC has learned about appealing to North American passengers. The reality, he said, is that improvements have been made and should be evident onboard the Seaside.
“Obviously, it takes time for those improvements to be fully acknowledged by everyone,” he said.
Several cruise lines employ butlers in their exclusive accommodations. Onboard Royal Caribbean International’s ships, they are called Royal Genies.As the co-owner and president of a Virtuoso-affiliated agency, Paul Largay never had much interest in Norwegian Cruise Line. The Waterbury, Conn., travel seller had cultivated a luxury clientele who preferred upscale lines such as Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn.
But after Norwegian added the Haven to its ships, Largay began selling the line.
“It’s a very viable alternative,” he said.
The Haven, a secured enclave of luxury cabins around a courtyard, has re-engineered Norwegian into a line with both a mass-market and a luxury clientele, and its arrival on the scene has led almost every other operator of large cruise ships to tout some sort of exclusive accommodation.
Each has its own variation: MSC Cruises has the MSC Yacht Club, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have Suite Class, Disney has Concierge Level and Holland America Line offers the Neptune Lounge.
Even Carnival Cruise Line, the most egalitarian of the bunch, offers the Havana Cabana enclave on its newest ships.
The reasons that luxury enclaves have evolved on ships are many, but a common thread is the premium pricing that cruise lines can command by creating an aura of exclusivity to which guests can aspire.
Suites in the enclaves tend to be among the largest at sea, an attraction for some guests and yet another revenue enhancement.
In most cases, these cabins come with exclusive use of other areas, such as private pools, restaurants and lounges.
Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, said, “I think it has created the aspiration for people to say, ‘How do I get to that next level? I want that perk, that experience. What do I have to do to get there?'”
Several agents compared the rise of luxury enclaves at sea to similar choices in other hospitality sectors, such as a business class on international airlines or private luxury railcars added to trains.
Airlines have started opening unadvertised invitation-only dining venues in some airports for their best customers. And hotels-within-hotels are proliferating, especially in Las Vegas. At the Wynn Tower Suites, located in the 2,716-room Wynn Las Vegas, guests have a private entrance, a personal shopper, an exclusive restaurant and a private pool, with amenities.
Gaming also played a role in the creation of the Haven, which can trace its origins to large villa suites built for Star Cruises, an Asian line that shares common ownership interests with Norwegian through parent company Genting Group.
After acquiring Norwegian in 2000, Genting began to swap ships intended for Star Cruises into the Norwegian fleet. Ships such as Norwegian Dawn have a pair of three-bedroom, $25,000-a-week Garden Villas on the top deck. Those evolved into the Courtyard Villa, an enclave of 12 access-controlled suites when Norwegian launched its Jewel class of ships in 2005.
The exclusivity of the Courtyard Villas was one component of a package of extras that has continued to evolve. Rebranded as the Haven in 2011, the enclave cabins now come with access to a private restaurant, a private sun deck, private pool and a dedicated lounge and bar, all within the complex.
Other benefits include the services of a concierge and butler, priority embarkation, debarkation and tendering and preference for seating at shows and for shipwide dining reservations.
In-suite amenities include a cappuccino machine, white-tablecloth room-service dining and sparkling wine, fruit and bottled water on embarkation day.
Bathrobes, linens, bath products and mattresses are all top of the line.
Enclaves such as the Haven tend to be found on mass-market ships, or at least ships above a certain size. One reason is that smaller luxury ships have no need for a separate high-end product. Just as important, they don’t have the real estate.
Holland America Line, whose largest ship is the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam, does not offer a luxury enclave but does have the Neptune Lounge, a midship social area with refreshments and concierge service. It is reserved for guests booking the top Neptune and Pinnacle suite categories, who also get exclusive access to the ship’s premier Pinnacle Grill for breakfast.
Sally Andrews, vice president of public relations for Holland America, said it’s a question of economics.
“Dedicating private space for a segment of guests related to their accommodations really comes down to [return on investment] on use of that space for a small versus a larger number of guests,” Andrews said.
A table in the Queens Grill on Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria, which offers a sweeping view. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
It began with 20 penthouses
Some observers trace the origins of the enclave idea to Queen Elizabeth 2.
In 1972, a refurbishment of the Cunard Line ship resulted in the addition of 20 penthouses to the 70,000-ton ship. A nearby bar/nightclub was converted to an exclusive restaurant called the Queen’s Grill.
By the time Carnival Corp. commissioned a successor for the ship in 1998, the Queen’s Grill accommodations had become a status symbol, and Carnival incorporated them into the Queen Mary 2, as well as into later ships Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.
Larry Pimentel, one-time president of Cunard and currently president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, said Cunard was a bridge between the transport era of passenger shipping and modern cruising.
Queen Elizabeth 2 was designed with separate classes in mind, with segregated spaces for each price level.
“They represented a bygone era of cruising, a bygone era of transport, actually,” Pimentel said.
Ships designed for cruising post-Queen Elizabeth 2 were one-class ships, Pimentel said. Only recently have separate classes crept back into the equation, in part to attract and keep a discerning type of customer.
The creation of a ship within a ship enables mass-market lines to pitch their cruises to more-affluent guests.
“While it is not strictly class-communicated, the reality is that there is a group of people who always want the best,” Pimentel said. “What’s happened in the industry is that there’s going to be a bigger and bigger play for these people who have these desires to have the most space, to have the most in elegance and luxury, have their own space, their own pools, their own restaurants, etc.”
The premium for staying in an enclave like the Haven can be five to 10 times the cost of an inside cabin, depending on deployment and time of year. MSC Cruises calculates that the per-person cost of staying in its Yacht Club enclave averages about $1,500 more than for a standard cabin.
One longtime observer of luxury cruising said it might or might not be worth the price.
“Theoretically, it’s good,” said Mark Conroy, managing director of the Americas for Silversea Cruises.
Conroy said one of the most appealing parts of the enclave idea is the ability to offer two ships in one. There’s an “uptown” sanctuary with refined furnishings and service and a “downtown” for energy, variety and scale. But to make it work, the “downtown” has to be worth going to, he said.
“The challenge is in the execution, and some companies have been better than others,” Conroy said.
Another way the uptown/downtown idea plays out is in attracting large family groups.
“It’s been wonderful for the multigen families,” said Valerie Wilson’s Wetty. “If you have a very luxury client, let’s say it’s grandparents, or mom and dad, but they might want to take the whole family, they’re not willing to compromise their standards.”
With an enclave, the luxury client can afford luxury accommodations without springing for a luxury ship for the entire group, she said.
MSC Cruises has earned a reputation for affordable family cruising with its kids-sail-free promotion. Its Miami-based ship, the MSC Divina, is one of five in its fleet equipped with an MSC Yacht Club enclave.
The enclave includes 66 suites arrayed over two decks connected by spiral staircases with embedded Swarovski crystals. There is a private lounge, a library and butler service for all Yacht Club guests. They also get an adjacent private pool, access to a VIP area of the disco and special access to the spa.
Bernard Stacher, vice president of hotel operations for MSC, said guests are paying for more than exclusivity.
“That’s a portion of it, but it’s not the majority,” Stacher said. “It also comes down to the personalized, tailored service, to really unique and fast access to the ship on and off, the choice of the finishings we choose and the no-questions-asked attitude from the staff in the Yacht Club. I think that plays a big part.
“Yes, you are away from the crowds, you have your own private pool, but it’s the sum of all the parts that make the Yacht Club so exciting,” Stacher said. “It’s not one thing.”
In marketing the enclaves, cruise executives walk a fine line between appealing to discriminating customers and coming off as elitist.
Wetty said exclusivity inevitably rubs some people the wrong way.
“There was a pushback in the industry of saying, ‘Hey, that doesn’t feel fair or right,'” she said. “How can you create a ship that you pay a certain price and you only get access to a certain part of the ship?”
Wetty said the key for lines that have made an enclave product successful was positioning it as an extra to an already handsome package.
“Those lines are creating a consistent experience for everybody, so nobody feels they got less than somebody else,” Wetty said. “But then if you pay more, you get something a little extra special.”
The Royal Loft Suite on the Anthem of the Seas.
Not every line offering exclusive luxury accommodations has gone the route of building a full enclave.
Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, both brands owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., offer guests a Suite Class package of benefits that includes a separate lounge and restaurant, among other perks.
Suites are in different areas depending on which of Royal’s eight ship sizes they are sailing.
On Celebrity, Suite Class guests have the Luminae restaurant and Michael’s Club to themselves. On Royal, Suite Class includes a suite lounge and sun deck and the Coastal Kitchen restaurant on some ships.
Top suites come with Royal Genies, a name for what other cruise lines call butlers.
“We thought it was a fun twist on this idea of a butler,” Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley said. “We think part of our success is not taking ourselves too seriously.”Bayley said that Royal has the same package of amenities that competitors do, but “we just haven’t put them in one place.” Royal guests, he said, “want to be engaging with the world around them.” Still, he said, he wouldn’t rule out building a dedicated luxury enclave area on future ships.
Even Carnival Cruise Line, which prides itself on being unpretentious, has cosied up to the enclave concept. On its latest ship, the Carnival Vista, it has created the Havana Cabana, an area of 61 cabins with a lounge and pool area with a tropical-leisure theme.
Most of the cabins are on deck five and feature a sliding door that opens to a 100-square-foot patio with a swing chair. A key-card gate keeps the aft part of the promenade that encircles Deck Five closed during the day. Also behind the gate is the aft pool and hot tub area. A few Havana cabins are located on decks six and seven and have enlarged balconies rather than patios; these cabins also include access to the pool.
Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said that limiting access to the pool hasn’t caused any issues. The Havana Cabana is the only area on Carnival’s 25 ships that aren’t open to all passengers.
“We really haven’t had any complaints, as there are so many other options on the Carnival Vista,” Duffy said.
Carnival is expanding the area on the Horizon, due in April, by 18 cabins. Other luxury enclaves are also growing. The Yacht Club on MSC Seaside, which will be christened in Miami in December, will have 80 suites, the most ever.
In the future, cruise executives said, the enclave concept could be expanded to include more dedicated entertainment. MSC has a piano player in its Yacht Club, and it will rotate a violin duo into the mix on the Seaside.
Pimentel said that other ideas will percolate for small musical ensembles.
“I think it is possible that some of the units that have a lot of space begin to have venues for that space that could be a small, tiny jazz club,” Pimentel said. “I think the industry’s just going to push the edges on that one.”
A rendering of PortMiami’s expanded and renovated Terminal F.
Construction has begun on PortMiami’s Terminal F, which will be expanded and renovated to accommodate the MSC Seaside, a ship due to enter service next December. Terminal F will also be home to the MSC Divina.
Miami-Dade County is funding the $38 million project, which will enable the terminal to manage embarkation loads of up to 6,000 passengers, according to the county. The MSC Seaside will accommodate 4,140 passengers at double occupancy but will have a maximum of more than 5,000.
MSC Cruises said it has been “actively involved in the entire process of designing the new cruise terminal.” Under an agreement between the county and MSC Cruises, the port was obligated to expand the terminal.
https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/hSNjY-UF-go?rel=0Planned enhancements include an expanded waiting area with seating for 1,500, a larger VIP waiting area for MSC Yacht Club passengers, an improved baggage-claim area and the implementation of technology for faster embarkation and disembarkation.
The terminal is expected to be ready by Dec. 1 next year, just prior to the MSC Seaside’s arrival in PortMiami on Dec. 21.