Scheduled to debut on Nov. 30, 2017, MSC Cruises' 160,000-ton MSC Seaside will be based year-round in Miami. (Photo: MSC Cruises)
MONFALCONE, Italy — Could MSC Seaside be the ship that finally puts MSC Cruises on the map for North Americans?
The Europe-based line's top executive is betting on it.
"We are ready to come in great force to the North American market ... and we wanted to have something that really would differentiate the brand," MSC Cruises executive chairman Pierfrancesco Vago says of the 4,140-passenger vessel, which will begin sailing year-round out of Miami in December. "We think the MSC Seaside is up to the task."
Speaking exclusively with USA TODAY at the Fincantieri shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy, where Seaside is under construction, Vago says the ship is specifically designed to grab the attention of American cruisers who will see the vessel docked across from the MacArthur Causeway between downtown Miami and Miami Beach.
Seaside's exterior architecture and pool decks will boast a Miami Beach style that mimics its new home, he notes. Most notably, the rear of the vessel will have an unusual, curvy superstructure fronted by a pool area that resembles a classic Miami condo.
"We designed this ship with Miami in mind," Vago says.
Vago promises that Seaside will be so striking and fresh that it will be impossible to ignore. "When you drive from Miami to Miami Beach ... you will say, 'what the hell was that?"
MSC Seaside will have a distinctive, Miami Beach condo-like design at its back that plays on the ship's theme of being a vessel that embraces the sea. (Photo: MSC Cruises)
In addition to a Miami condo-like style, the 160,000-ton Seaside will feature innovative, extra-wide promenades designed to offer passengers more interaction with the sea than on other large vessels. Jutting out over the sides of the ship, the promenades will offer outdoor eating areas, lounge areas, spa stations and even an outdoor gym area.
Seaside also will boast floor-to-ceiling glass windows and other elements in interior public areas designed to orient the shipboard experience toward the sea to a greater extent than on other large vessels.
Big cruise ships have become too inward focused, with not enough connection to the sea, Vago suggests.
"We wanted to create a ship (that puts people) closer to the sea, closer to the nature experience," he says.
Seaside's focus outward toward the sea will set it apart from other big, Florida-based ships sailing to the Caribbean, according to Vago. Seaside will operate seven-night voyages to the Caribbean and Bahamas starting at $539 per person.
An open-air promenade with outdoor seating for eateries will be a significant feature of the new MSC Seaside. (Photo: MSC Cruises)
A giant of cruising in Europe, MSC has had a relatively small presence in North America until now. Until recently, it only deployed a single ship to the market for part of the year, and it has far less name recognition in North America than such U.S.-based rivals as Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian.
But after years of focusing its growth on Europe, MSC is preparing to take on North America in a big way.
Seaside will join the 3,502-passenger MSC Divina in sailing year-round out of Miami, more than doubling MSC's capacity in North America, and Vago revealed Thursday that the line would send a third ship to Miami in 2019. He hinted that even more vessels would be on the way soon thereafter.
Currently operating 12 ships, MSC is in the midst of a massive growth spurt that includes the addition of at least 11 more ships by 2026. The company's passenger capacity is set to nearly triple over the coming decade.
Vago tells USA TODAY that MSC's small deployment in North America in recent years was a "learning" phase where it was testing the market. Now it's ready to come in strong.
"We never really put our foot on the accelerator in North America," he says. "Our concentration was Europe. We needed to reach economies of scale before we entered North America."
Not that the privately-held company is a stranger to North America. MSC Cruises is a division of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, one of the world's biggest container ship operators with nearly 500 vessels. Vago, who is married into the family that owns it, says Mediterranean Shipping is the biggest shipping company in North America.
"All the big names (in American business) know us, but of course the (American) consumer has no idea who we are," he says.
In a sign of MSC's seriousness about pushing into the North American market, Seaside will be christened in Miami — the first time an MSC ship has been christened in North America. It's also the first MSC ship with an English word in its name.
In contrast to the U.S.-based brands sailing out of Florida to the Caribbean, Seaside will offer a more international experience, in keeping with the company's European roots and global customer base, Vago suggests. The company last year drew customers from 193 countries, he says.
Still, while international in flavor, Seaside's on-board offerings will have elements that will be familiar to North Americans such as a Pan-Asian restaurant by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi.
In all, Seaside will have 11 eateries, including such American-friendly venues as a steakhouse. Other features will include an Aqua Park with four water slides, a ropes course called Adventure Trail and two of the longest zip lines at sea (at 394 feet).
"We are surely something that is not there," he says. "There is a more internationality ... (but it will be) adapted for the North American market."