Being a cruise line food and beverage operator in the age of dining diversity is a kind of corporate circus act. On the one hand you are juggling double the number of outlets, on the other you’re spinning triple the number of suppliers, all the while trying to balance your customers’ ever-changing needs and expectations.

Set menus have fragmented into nightly one-off food ‘concepts’ and your home port providers have multiplied and scattered around the globe. Keeping this restaurant revolution from spinning out of control, while keeping operations flowing and guests satisfied, has required executives to step up their management strategies.

“For cruisers today, dining is about flexibility, variety and experience,” says Frank Weber, vice-president, food and beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International, “and these changes have added a tremendous amount of complexity.”

“Being a cruise line food and beverage operator in the age of dining diversity is a kind of corporate
circus act.”

This bold shift has seen cruise lines introduce myriad dining options, from sushi bars to steak houses, Mongolian grills to 24-hour pizzerias. Themed banquets are a staple, ethnic cuisine is essential and health food choices are a must. Topping these off are catchy dining concepts such as cooking demonstrations and classes for guests (Holland America), culinary magazine partnerships (as with Norwegian Cruise Line and Cooking Light, or Holland America and Food & Wine) or celebrity chef-designed restaurants (such as Crystal Cruises’ Silk Road and Sushi Bar by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Nobu fame). Not only must these concepts be diverse, they must be flexible too.

Additional pricing structures and flexible seating programmes – touted under the different banners of My Time Dining (Royal Caribbean International), Total Choice Dining (Carnival Cruise Lines), As You Wish (Holland America), Anytime Dining (Princess Cruises) and Freestyle Dining (Norwegian Cruise Line) – are being rampantly tested and implemented in tandem with traditional seating arrangements to cater for guests’ dining preferences.

Rather than being a recipe for chaos, this complexity can bring with it numerous advantages. “Flexible programmes open up opportunities for doing things differently,” says Weber, who has seen Royal Caribbean’s dining schemes go from fleet-wide uniformity to adventurous menus, customised for individual ships and itineraries.

The Miami-based cruise line’s long-awaited 5,400-capcity mega-ship Oasis of the Seas, which debuts later this year, has an incredible variety of dining outlets on board, with options such as a seafood shack and a tapas bar, alongside comfort-food favourites Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry’s, adding to the 20-strong fleet’s 170-plus dining outlets. But Weber sees the positives in what to others would seem a frighteningly daunting project because of its size. “We are now finding opportunities for better efficiency, quality, and new ways of preparation,” he says. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Flexibility: food for profit

One of the keys to keeping complex dining programmes afloat is flexibility. While fixed menu programmes might give the sense of being highly prepared, Weber says such strategies are financially disadvantageous.

“Purchasing products months in advance limits the number of companies that can compete for providing the product,” he says. “If you have a more flexible menu programme it will allow you to change some things more quickly; you have the advantage of buying smaller quantities of certain things.”

Incorporating daily specials into the menu programme allows Royal Caribbean to capitalise on opportunities in the market when they arise.

“In the past, if there were fluctuations in the market in terms of pricing, or if there were opportunities in the market where a product was at a good price, we weren’t able to take advantage of it; whereas now we can,” says Weber. The cruise line has also invested in printing equipment to produce menus on board, allowing flexibility not only with menu items but also with the menu’s layout.

“For cruisers today, dining is about flexibility, variety and experience.”

Being flexible helps cruise lines adapt to the different needs among a range of demographics. Royal Caribbean’s expansion into international markets has meant that the mix of nationalities on board is much more diverse, and in this environment, fleet-wide programmes simply do not suffice. For Royal Caribbean, each ship’s offerings are tailored according to the preferences of the majority clientele. Its Freedom-class ship, Independence of the Seas, which has mostly UK clientele, has customised products targeted to the demands, requests and tastes of UK nationals, from menu items to food presentation.

“British guests, for example, like to have additional vegetables served,” says Weber. “Where we normally just plate the vegetables, with Independence we serve extra.”

Staff: the secret to success

Creating memorable dining experiences is a priority for Stephen Kirsch, director of culinary operations at Holland America Line. “We try to be constantly creative in what we’re offering so guests don’t become bored,” he says. While the cruise line has a massive range of dining choices already (the result of its $525m Signatures of Excellence scheme, implemented in 2003, which brought such dining concepts into the fleet as the Culinary Arts Center) these are intermittently up-scaled with theme nights such as the Master Chef’s Dinner, the Chocolate Banquet and the Pool Party. But these large-scale events could not happen without a specially designated entertainment team, headed by an onboard party planner.

“You’ve got to be able to give the ships the tools to help them do the different things you’d like them to accomplish; and tools can be people, technology, or equipment,” says Kirsch.

Well-trained staff is the key to success according to Las Vegas-based restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, founder and CEO of hospitality consultancy Blau and Associates.

“One of the keys to keeping complex dining programmes afloat is flexibility.”

“As ships grow in size, so too does the skill set required of staff,’ she says. Blau, who worked with Celebrity Cruise Lines to overhaul its signature dining venues aboard its two Azamara ships (Quest and Journey) as well as the many dining outlets on board 2008’s Celebrity Solstice, says that equipping personnel with a broader cross section of skills enables both staffing flexibility and helps to maintain quality standards across the board.

“And not just for kitchen and floor staff, but for food and beverage directors as well,” she says. “There are management responsibilities, and multiple outlet responsibilities. The skill set is going to keep becoming more ambitious.”

Future trends

Fresh concepts are crucial for securing customer loyalty, according to Carnival Cruise Line’s corporate executive chef Peter Leypold. “We always try to stay ahead of the game, and understand what guests want. That way you have somebody who comes back,” he says.

Carnival, which has over 250 dining venues across 24 ships, is on the ball with the latest trends, with its newest ships (including Carnival Dream, which sets sail in September 2009) featuring fresh dining ideas such as an indoor / outdoor café, an Indian Tandoori restaurant, and soon-to-be introduced Korean cuisine.

A new dining concept popular with passengers is the ability to taste-test the native cuisine of destination ports. Carnival has an outlet specifically for this purpose called Taste of the Nation, which changes the menu nightly, showcasing traditional foods from around the world and in 2009 Holland America will rollout its Passport to Europe concept, which will incorporate the local cuisine of its European ports of call into its menu options.

“Being flexible helps cruise lines adapt to the different needs among a range of demographics.”

For an insight into other future trends, Blau looks to Las Vegas as a kind of cruise industry crystal ball. The celebrity chef mania that ricocheted around the entertainment capital five years ago has already made its way on board cruise ships, as has the fine-dining steak house movement with Celebrity Solstice‘s Tuscan Grille, Carnival’s Bistro and Royal Caribbean’s Chops Grille, among others.

“With steak houses, it’s still considered elegant and interesting food, but it still remains very approachable, and people know what they’re going to get,” says Blau.

People prefer not to have the ‘surprise’ element of dining when they’re paying an additional onboard fee, she adds, which adds to the steak house’s appeal.

The next fad on the cruise industry menu could take its cue from Wynn Las Vegas hotel, which, instead of designing restaurants around a celebrity chef, is developing chefs from within the hotel. “They’re taking a rising star and creating a concept around them,” Blau says, “which might find its way onto cruise ships.”