It's unclear exactly what went wrong, but long lines at embarkation were a sign that something was amiss. It appears from the letter written by Rick Sasso, President & CEO MSC Cruises (USA) Inc.—which we have shared below—that boarding time was 4pm. Nevertheless, passengers eager to jump-start their cruise showed up hours before that and ended up waiting in lines that snaked through the terminal and extended to outdoors. A computer problem accounted for some of the melt-down, but one veteran MSC Cruises passenger told me that he remembers being impressed by how efficient the boarding process was on his previous MSC Cruises sailings, both in the Caribbean and in Europe.
What could have gone awry? While reports are circulating that the Immigration & Customs authorities weren't to blame, Cruise Diva suspects that another government body may have played some part in the delay that Mr. Sasso describes below. Any cruise ship with an international itinerary calling at a U.S. port must undergo an operational sanitation inspection performed by teams from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). MSC Orchestra had just arrived in the U.S. for the first time and was undoubtedly inspected that day. While the inspection doesn't generally cause timing problems, I recall one embarkation in the past that was held up because of it.
Obviously, first impressions weren't good and, for some passengers, the situation on board went down from there. Accustomed to North American-style cruise experiences, they simply weren't prepared for the authentic Italian product delivered by MSC Cruises. The line operates no differently in the Caribbean than it does in Europe and that came as a surprise to many on board who were expecting an Americanized version of an Italian cruise. Pizza Hut and Olive Garden, if you will, instead of the Via Veneto. There appeared to be major culture hurdles, resulting in passengers' unmet expectations. Even travel agents seemed stunned and, if anyone should be aware of what to expect, it's the professionals who sell the product.
However, the beauty of the ship couldn't make up for what passengers perceived as poor service and unacceptable food. I wasn't there and can't comment on the situation. I will be sailing on MSC Orchestra in a couple months and will share my impressions at that time.
In the meantime, here's Mr. Sasso's letter to travel agents:
At CruiseDiva.com we believe that timing is everything—by following our arrival tips, you can insure smooth sailing on Embarkation Day.
First, I want to express my personal regrets and apologize for all the inconveniences and disappointments you experienced on the Jan 2, 2009 cruise aboard MSC Orchestra. I am very much aware that so many aspects of our service to you as a valued guest were not in keeping with our reputation for exceptional service and guest satisfaction.
A series of quickly occurring events had a severe trickle-down effect on every aspect of our service to you. Unusual immigration delays coupled with a critical computer failure at the terminal and an unprecedented early arrival of our 2,000 guests for a scheduled 4:00 PM embarkation made it virtually impossible for us to get back on track. The subsequent stress on the schedule we typically follow and the compression of staff and crew to manage the rolling delays prevented us from doing the job you expected, particularly in the short time you were onboard.
As a family-owned company, MSC Cruises has a special understanding of the value of a quality vacation experience for each of our guests, and we are committed to your satisfaction. We obviously fell short of meeting that commitment on this cruise, and we want to make that up to you.
As a gesture of our sincere apology for the disappointment you experienced and for your patience and understanding, we are sending each paid guest on the Jan 2, 2009 cruise a voucher for a $200 cruise credit on any future MSC Cruises Caribbean sailing. You will receive this voucher through the mail in the next few days. In the meantime, please feel free to forward this email to your clients.
Sincerely, Richard E. Sasso,
President & CEO MSC Cruises (USA) Inc.