Modern-day cruise passengers expect fresh dining experiences, but when does centralised control become micro-management?
Back in 2006, passengers and members of the press marvelled at the 4,375 maximum capacity of Freedom of the Seas. In 2010, Royal Caribbean International surpassed itself with the 6,296 capacity of the megaship Oasis of the Seas, before going one step further last year, launching Allure of the Seas, which can accommodate up to 6,360 guests.
On ships of this size, more passengers inevitably bring with them a whole host of new challenges. Not only are cruise operators faced with the problem of procuring colossal amounts of food and beverages to satisfy their passenger lists, those guests want a new menu every night of their voyage.
Cruise operators have unquestionably responded to these demands; for example, MSC Cruises, whose Fantasia and Splendida vessels come in at sixth place in the world's list of largest cruise ships, offers everything from seven-course fine dining to authentic pizzas and the only Chinese restaurant at sea. Similarly, Disney Cruises has introduced an innovative rotational dining concept, giving guests the opportunity to travel between three distinctively themed restaurants throughout their cruise, with the sole aim of ensuring that their dining experience is never repeated.
For Enrico Borniotto, CEO of MSC Italcatering, the trend towards larger cruise liners has brought benefits and challenges.
"The new generation of vessels certainly allows cruise lines to diversify options and offer guests an ever-expanding array of dining venues," he says. "But food and beverage operations have become more complex and challenging. We try to balance guests' ever-changing expectations in terms of choice, price and dining time, while managing the complexity of supplying ships deployed all over the world."
Moreover, with such an array of cuisines and catering styles on offer to so many passengers, it has become essential for the larger cruise operators to strike the right balance between centralised control and onboard micro-management.
"From farm to fork, the responsibility lies with the main onshore office," Borniotto explains. "Whereas service and presentation flexibility lies with our onboard staff, whose main concern is the satisfaction of our guests."
In order to maintain MSC's high standards when it comes to food presentation and service, particularly on ships that can host up to 4,000 guests, Borniotto's first priority is to optimise and strictly control all of the procedures onboard, and thoroughly plan and organise the entire operation. Training is also of paramount importance.
"The main criteria for the selection of our staff are qualifications and skills," he says. "In our sushi restaurants, for example, we want to offer authentic sushi and, no matter what the chef's nationality, we need to have a real sushi-san. The big challenge is to set up intense and continuous on-the-job training."
The procurement and sourcing of items has also become significantly more complicated than it was in the past, thanks to the wide variety of dining experiences offered on MSC cruise liners.
"Dining onboard is becoming a true gourmet experience, a trip within a trip," says Borniotto. "With themed nights, pool parties and specially designed gastronomic events."
In order to maintain the level of quality expected by guests across this diverse range of options, standardisation across the company is key.
"MSC, in accordance with its ISO 22000 certification, requires a complete set of certificates for all items needed and sourced worldwide, and we maintain tight control of all phases of the supply chain and stock-keeping, preparation and service on board," Borniotto says. "Capacity and know-how at all levels allow us to overcome these challenges. Onboard a cruise ship, as opposed to in a hotel, it's also difficult to change a product once it has been planned and everything is already in place for its production. For this reason, MSC revises and updates all products twice a year."
Consistency of quality
Disney Cruise Line endeavours to maintain a similar balance between centralisation and compartmentalisation; for example, when it comes to procurement, the company's onshore management team sets the standards, while the speciality restaurants are supplied on an individual basis.
"Our shoreside food and beverage teams provide the consistency," says Antony Wills, director of food and beverage at Disney Cruise Line. "At Disney, our goal is to exceed our guests' expectations whether they spend a day at our resorts or a week on one of our ships; our food and beverage products are sourced and aligned for a consistent experience.
"Sometimes that may mean sourcing in multiple regions, but global sourcing and worldwide availability of products has made it easier than ever before to source both locally and internationally."
When it comes to sourcing for individual specialist restaurants, however, the US cruise operator has to think creatively.
"Although our sourcing is centralised, there are exceptions for speciality restaurants," says Wills. "Since our parks and resorts have speciality restaurants as well, we have an opportunity to leverage those key learnings."
Synergies between the company's onshore and offshore operations are absolutely key to the cruise line's success. "At Disney Cruise Line, we are fortunate to have the support of the entire Walt Disney parks and resorts sourcing and procurement teams," Wills explains. "We therefore have access to the highest quality products worldwide."
But collaboration is not limited to the procurement arena; the onboard experience on a Disney cruise ship must be consistent with what guests have come to expect from the company's shoreside resorts.
"At Disney, we aim to provide the best family dining experiences on cruise ships, as we do in our theme parks and resorts," says Wills. "To accomplish this, we focus on having an all-star culinary team who can create dishes to please every palate
and deliver the excellence our guests expect from Disney Cruise Line. We have tremendous synergies with our park and resort chefs, and this continually challenges our thinking. Since our land-based partners are not limited in scope as to what would work onboard a ship, it allows them to be creative without limitations."
The success of this strategy can clearly be seen at Remy, an adults-only restaurant on Disney Dream. Chef Arnaud Lallement from l'Assiette Champenoise, a Michelin two-star restaurant just outside Reims, France, and Chef Scott Hunnel, of award-winning Victoria & Albert's at Walt Disney World Resort, collaborated to create a French-inspired menu, which features seasonal ingredients sourced from around the world.
"It's unique in terms of collaboration and the creation of our menu offerings," says Wills.
While synergies with land-based teams are crucial in order to stay one step ahead of the competition and maintain consistency, it's equally important for cruise lines' food and beverage teams to remain focused on the unique challenges faced at sea, particularly given the ever-increasing capacities of cruise liners. For Wills, this means ensuring that ships are designed in the most efficient way possible.
"Today, ships are designed with multiple loading points to make our provisioning teams more efficient," he explains. "This allows our teams to load bigger ships in shorter time frames than vessels built years ago with smaller capacities."
Borniotto is similarly keen to emphasise the importance of onboard hardware. "The secret is a combination of good planning, great professionalism, strong cooperation with suppliers and state-of-the-art conservation equipment for dry, chilled and frozen supplies," he says. "All these elements allow cruise companies not only to compete with, but also to surpass, onshore hotels, especially when you consider the hardware of our galleys."
For Disney and MSC, their successful food and beverage operations manage to balance centralisation and micro-management. Land-based teams provide the bedrock quality-control structure that allows onboard teams to foster innovation and individual expertise.