Rick Sasso: 50 years in travel and still going strong

Rick Sasso has no plans to retire. 'I'm too excited about everything that's happening,' he said Rick Sasso has no plans to retire. 'I'm too excited about everything that's happening,' he said

This month marks a half century in the travel business for Rick Sasso, 46 years of that in cruising.

'The most rewarding thing for me has been working with some incredible people—peers, colleagues, people who worked for me, people I worked for,' the chairman of MSC Cruises USA said.

Other highlights: meeting celebrities like Sophia Loren and Tom Cruise and christening ships, starting a cruise brand from scratch (Celebrity) and 'watching MSC these last 13 and a half years go off the charts. It's the fastest growing cruise line in the history of cruising and it's a family-owned company.'

In fact, working for family-owned companies has been a thread through his career. He started in sales with Costa when it was family-owned, then went to Chandris (which created Celebrity) and now he's on the Aponte-Vago family's team with MSC.

'I got lucky,' Sasso said.

He's also enjoyed being a part of industry families—Cruise Lines International Association and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, chairing both—and being involved with the travel agent community.

While still in college, Sasso landed a full-time job with BOAC, which eventually grew into British Airways. He became a passenger service representative at Miami International Airport, checking people in, announcing the flight departure, supervising the boarding and then directing the pilot to the runway.

Many times he was asked: 'Are you gonna fly the plane, too?'

He never did that—but he caught the travel bug.

A manager thought Sasso had a knack for sales and marketing and sent him to interview for a job at BOAC's Biscayne Boulevard office. There, a sign for Costa Cruise Lines caught his eye so he talked his way in and the sales manager hired him on the spot.

(Sasso was offered the airline job, too, but his dad advised the cruise gig had more growth opportunity.)

The average Caribbean cruise ship at the time was 30 years old, 20,000 tons and carried 800 passengers.

'I would never think we'd have ships over 200,000 tons, carrying more than 5,000 passengers. Now they're floating cities,' Sasso said.

And then the salesman in him comes out: 'Not only are people getting great deals on cruises but the space they get now is twice as much as before,' he marveled.

One thing hasn't changed: Cruise lines delivered 'exceptional quality and value,' and that's still true. 'Ninety percent of the people who try [cruising] love it.'

Back in the 1970s, most companies operated repurposed ocean liners. 'The hardware wasn't really special,' Sasso recalled, 'but Carnival, Costa and the rest created this incredible and affordable holiday.'

After eight years with Costa, he joined Chandris, to open its US office as general manager. He returned to Costa in 1981 as a senior VP and ran the company's reservations center in Chicago. The Chandris family lured him back in 1988 to help plan and launch the Celebrity brand.

The supply—new ships—is what drove cruising's growth. 'This allowed us to appeal to people from luxury to budget, and the destinations started to expand to Alaska and Europe,' Sasso said. Celebrity provided a premium option, earning accolades for its food and service.

'Our industry feeds off differentiation. The lines all created the mystique of their own brand. We all helped one another grow.'

In 1994, Sasso was named president and CEO when Celebrity's headquarters were moved to Miami. A few years later, Royal Caribbean acquired the brand, and he stayed through 2001.

Sasso 'retired,' but he and son Richard Jr. created Davanti Custom Tailored Clothing, a program that grew to be on 16 ships.

In 2004, MSC owner Gianluigi Aponte beckoned. Sasso set up MSC Cruises' new South Florida office, embarking on another adventure.

'I've had a remarkable career. I couldn't dream it would be so exciting,' he said. 'I'm still excited. I feel like a kid.'

This year he moved from president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA to chairman, a newly created role. While Roberto Fusaro runs the day-to-day business, Sasso is focused on long-term strategy. He's dealing with ports and governments to ensure there's adequate infrastructure development for future growth. He's involved in environmental issues and in strategizing where MSC deploys its ships.

When newbuild MSC Seaside arrives fresh from the yard to PortMiami in December, the company will have five vessels operating in the Caribbean, going to six with MSC Meraviglia in 2019.

Six further newbuilds are on order, some of them fueled by LNG. MSC Ocean Cay Marine Reserve is under construction in the Bahamas. There's no lack of projects to plan and implement.

Sasso still enjoys seagoing vacations, and he can name a favorite cruise: the one he took with Carmen, his wife of 46 years, and 60 members of their extended family. Switching again into sales mode—he can't help it—Sasso enthused: 'Cruising is, by far, the most incredible family reunion holiday in the world. If you're going to do any family reunion, do it on a ship.'

Thursday night in Fort Lauderdale Sasso, 68, is being honored by the US Coast Guard Foundation as part of its tribute to the heroic men and women of the Seventh Coast Guard District.

'I have no plans to retire,' he told Seatrade Cruise News. 'I'm too excited about everything that's happening. I want to be fully engaged. It's a very exciting industry.'

Posted 14 November 2017

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Anne Kalosh

US editor of Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Cruise News

 Europe Exhibitor