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Article from TNU DECEMBER 2022

DECEMBER CRUISING: Nigel Blanks - CEO, Saga Cruises + MSC World Europa

Nigel joined Saga in 1985 and spent his formative years working in sales, finance and marketing before joining the commercial side of the business. In 1996, he instigated the purchase of Saga’s first cruise ship which was the catalyst of Saga’s in-house cruise operation. Nigel then spent ten years working in a commercial and product development capacity across both the Cruise and Tour operating businesses. In 2007, he returned to the Cruise business and in 2015, helped lead the development of Saga’s first purpose-built cruise ship, Spirit of Discovery. He took over the role of COO in 2018, and in 2021 was appointed as CEO of Saga Cruises.

In July 2019, when the then Duchess of Cornwall, now Queen Consort, named our first newbuild ocean-going cruise ship, Spirit of Discovery, little did we know what lay ahead.  

It goes without saying that the last two pandemic years have been incredibly difficult for the whole of the travel industry. Like all other cruise operators, it put a hold on our sailings and the launch of Spirt of Adventure and our two purpose-built river vessels, Spirit of the Rhine and Spirit of the Danube. I’m glad to say they are all in full operation now.

During the pandemic, we made sure that those of our crew who were far from home were reunited with their loved ones. As well as being hugely valued colleagues, our crew are also much loved by our guests as they often see one another time and again on cruises. It is both humbling and pleasing to see them happily sailing together again.

As restrictions lifted, we returned to round-Britain cruising, which proved incredibly popular with our guests. They really wanted to get back on the ships and on the water. The cruises have remained part of our stable of itineraries, such was the customer reaction to them. They have also been extremely popular with a lot of first-time cruisers who are experiencing our product for the first time and are extremely positive with their feedback.

As 2022 nears an end we are almost fully booked for our Christmas cruises. Spirit of Adventure will spend Christmas in the Canaries departing 18 December, whilst Spirit of Discovery will be leaving Southampton for the Caribbean on 8 December.

Forward bookings are strong and we know that our market – 50-year-old-plus – want quality and value without stress. Services such as our included chauffeur car service remain very popular making the journey to and from the ships so easy. Our guests really appreciate that everything is included so they don’t need to worry about unexpected costs for things like wine and spirits wi-fi or tips, and of course included insurance.

Our ships were purpose-built with our guests in mind. They are boutique in size carrying just 987 guests and designed so that every cabin has its own balcony. They’re also beautifully appointed and every aspect has been considered, from the layout of the public rooms – through to ensuring our on-board theatres have no restricted-view seats. When we say nothing is too much trouble for our guests, we really do mean it.

There’s lots to do on-board and we offer a number of included tours on each itinerary as well as a selection of optional excursions too. We’re also the only cruise company that allocates 20% of our cabins to solo travellers (109).  We host events especially for those travelling on their own to meet one another and our crew are trained to ensure they are made to feel welcome and comfortable (it can be daunting travelling alone, especially for the first time and we are very aware of that).

We’re looking forward to a busy 2023 and have already started selling our itineraries for 2024 which are proving very popular. It’s always a good idea to book in advance with Saga as we offer up to 35% discount off for early bookers.

We also have a new river ship, Amadeus Elegant, joining the fleet in May next year too, which is able to reach ports such as Zell on the Moselle that larger ships can’t, and she’ll also sail on the lesser known but stunning Saar.

Our teams will continue to develop new and interesting excursions and we are introducing some exciting on-board entertainment, from performers such as Jools Holland and Alfie Boe, to chefs such as Kevin Woodford, Phil Vickery and Mark Tilling, not to mention the theatre shows, so even returning guests can expect a different experience.

There’s a lot to look forward to and we can’t wait to welcome our guests on-board in 2023.


Akbar Al Baker, CEO, Qatar Airways, stole the show as MSC launched its latest £1.3bn mega ship World Europa at a naming ceremony and stunning illumination spectacular in Doha. He charmed a non-aviation audience in his usual forthright manner explaining the tie-up between Qatar Airways and MSC.  

“We connect with 150 points around the world bringing business to Qatar, the airline and MSC.  It’s good news for everyone.”

His comments were echoed by Pierfrancesco Vago, Group Executive Chairman, MSC. “The celebrations are part of MSC’s overall commitment to Qatar, reinforcing our commitment to supporting the growth of international tourism here, as well as the broader Middle East region,” he said.  “World Europa will be joined by World America, US-based and under construction.”  But Vago was coy when asked by an American journalist whether it was to be followed by three more 215,000-ton copies. “We shall see,” he muttered.

In a private briefing Antonia Paradiso, UK MD, said that MSC was now offering an all-year-round programme using its own terminal at Southampton with Virtuosa, completed in 2021 and 188,000 tons. “Very anglicized.  Only English announcements,” he said.  “And tea/coffee machines in every cabin.”

Malcom Ginsberg, Editor-in-Chief, TNU, was invited to the naming ceremony joining 2,000 others for the bottle breaking ritual on the quayside.  What the liquid was we were not told in the officially ‘dry’ country.  

Prior to the naming a stunning presentation showed the technological advantages of the vessel from an environmental point of view.  It was staged in the ship’s Luna Park Arena, a multi-functional area which complements the 1,200-seat World Theatre.

Luna Park focussed on one thing.  MSC World Europa is the first Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) powered vessel in the fleet and the most environmentally advanced to date. The fuel she runs on is one of the world’s cleanest marine fuels available at scale and is set to play a key role in the decarbonisation of international shipping. It virtually eliminates local air pollutant emissions such as sulphur oxides and reduces nitrogen oxides by up to 85%. LNG also plays an important part in climate change mitigation as it reduces CO2 emissions by 25% and is paving the way for the uptake of sustainable non-fossil fuels including green hydrogen.   

Where do you begin with the 6,762-passenger ship, chartered by the state of Qatar for the duration of the FIFA World Cup, offering quality accommodation and also the 5-star very private Yacht Club with its own swimming pool, whirlpools and fine dining with butler attendance for all 152 suites.

For the next month or so World Europa is not going anywhere, but when the World Cup is over she will operate a series of seven-day cruises around the Gulf, then a transverse of the Suez Canal, followed by a Mediterranean summer season.  

A review of the ship will have to wait but in three hectic days I managed several of the many restaurants, some of the swimming pools, sat in one of the many whirlpools, received a massage in the spa, used its thermal activities and watched in amazement whilst some brave souls hurtled down 11 decks in a stainless steel slide.  There is The Malt Lounge at the bottom to recover, the ship being fully alcoholic (badly put, but it was!).  

No BBC or Sky in the cabins, and we are not sure if this was in retaliation for the World Service not running the FIFA opening ceremony.  It will probably get sorted out, rather like the embarkation from the quayside, up a steep gangway, and into the ship’s functional innards.  Not the ‘wow’ factor if one was delivered directly to the atrium and the projections of dolphins swimming gracefully through clear blue water displayed on a giant LED ceiling.

The cruise terminal is at the end of a man-made promontory but can only accommodate two ships.  It needs proper gangways.

There’s a choice of 13 dining venues including six specialty restaurants.

Michelin-starred chef Niklas Ekstedt is at the helm of the new Chef’s Garden Kitchen using micro herbs and salad leaves grown in what is claimed to be the first hydroponic garden at sea.

There is plenty of variety. For Latin American street food you can head to Hola! Tacos & Cantina, or the US style steakhouse Butcher’s Cut (excellent) and Asian-inspired Kaito Teppanyaki & Sushi Bar.

The two-level Masters of the Sea pub has a microbrewery and serves its own bitter and wheat beer along more traditional labels such as Newcastle Brown and Murphy’s.  

Tea and coffee drinkers have their own venues. The Raj Polo Tea House evokes the style of turn-of-the-century India, while the Coffee Emporium offers a selection of blends from around the world. For a healthy pick-me-up, the Zest bar serves fruit juices.

There are also four main dining rooms – Bubbles, Esagono, Hexagon and Les Dunes – that between them can accommodate nearly 2,500 people in one sitting!  Service was quick.  Of the three buffets, one stays open 24 hours a day, useful for those middle of the night cravings, plus room service if required.

But beware of the Jean-Philippe chocolate shop and café, the Sweet Temptations ice cream parlour or the room service pizzas, if you’re looking after your waistline!

Physical entertainment around the ship includes a water chute enhanced with virtual reality, while in the Sportplex area you can roller-skate, race drones and ride bumper cars.

Fancy killing a few zombies? Pop down to the 5D cinema – so-called because as well as 3D effects the seats shake and you’re buffeted by wind so you actually feel you are driving off a cliff, for example. There’s a Formula 1 simulator and games arcade.  Kids are well catered for with four clubs for ages from babies to teenagers, playing with everything from Duplo bricks to PlayStation 5s in seven dedicated rooms.

MSC World Europa features outside, inside and cabins overlooking the promenade, the design is such that there is a Y-shaped open panorama at the back of the ship whilst some cabins have balconies and a view.  The disadvantage is a long walk to the elevators.

The many high-class shops on board are well stocked for credit card holders.  With the naming extravaganza all were guests, very well looked after in terms of drink and dining.  It was impossible to get an idea of on-board extra charges but it is sure to be in line with the rest of the MSC fleet.

Finally, a mention of the main lifts (elevators) must be made, a copy of the latest systems in the City of London (and probably elsewhere).  Only two lobbies and either eight or ten with at each a number of deck-numbered panels.  Press and your entry door lights up, the lift usually arriving quickly.  Just step in and you are whisked away as if by magic (but not to 17, the Italian version of 13).  Maybe you will stop for other passengers en-route.  The only drawback is if you change your mind.  Then step out and go through the same procedure!  No queues for lifts in spite of the usual high numbers at the end of the shows.

Virtuosa out of Southampton is my next MSC cruise, trying out the product!  It will not be the same in the cold northern hemisphere.


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