There are many elements that contribute to the quality of the passenger experience on a cruise, with the destination being a defining factor. However, on a daily basis it is the on-board services that directly impact on passenger satisfaction.

Finding the right blend of food, entertainment and facilities is a challenge, particularly with tastes and trends shifting faster than ever before. It is for this reason that many cruise lines consider on-board services to be a matter for the most senior management. One example of this is Costa Cruises, where on-board services are seen as fundamental to the line’s market position and customer offering.

“The quality of on-board services is vital for Costa, especially in a growing market,” says Antonio de Rosa, vice president of operations for Costa Cruise Lines in Italy. “Our services always differentiate us because of their professional delivery, and this is always a focus for the top management of the company.”

Costa Cruises has seen a distinct change in the tastes of its passengers, particularly as the cruise line expands into new markets, such as Asia. Its way of monitoring the quality of on-board services is largely dependent on its ability to listen to its passengers and take their comments into consideration.

“We always monitor customer feedback,” says de Rosa. “There is a wider variety of people choosing cruises these days and their demands are changing. We cater for many different types of people and we have a very fragmented clientele in terms of nationality, so we often have to change our offering.”

“Costa recognises that it must provide an expanding range of food options, including variety within each style.”

Costa has an in-house division for total quality management, which is mainly responsible for responding to feedback from passengers, and which constantly monitors the quality of on-board services and other factors affecting customer satisfaction. In response to passenger comments, Costa can go directly to the source of any problem and address issues with service delivery at specific points.

As well as listening to its customers, Costa uses external consultants who go on its ships to conduct surveys and evaluate the services available. Comments from these consultants then form the basis of action plans to maintain high levels of quality. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT

The data provided by these monitoring methods gives the cruise line a vital insight into how to adapt its on-board services to meet passengers’ needs. The priority is usually the quality of the food, as menus need to be adapted to suit a broad range of tastes and markets. Costa recognises that it must provide an expanding range of food options, including variety within each style.

“The important thing is to achieve a balance between the different tastes among our passengers,” says de Rosa. “Food, entertainment and destinations are the most important elements of a cruise, so we must get them right. We have a team of chefs that have knowledge of Italian and European cuisine, and one who has spent a lot of time in Asia, so is familiar with its culture and food. Italian cuisine is the base.

“Then we add corners in the buffet that cater for specific styles of cooking from Europe and Japan. There will always be something for everyone, whether they are Greek, German, Japanese, Italian or any other nationality.”

Menus are selected on the basis of quality, diversity and appropriateness to the route of a ship. Costa believes that it is important for the food on board to tie in with the destinations that will be visited by a specific ship. Where possible, it focuses its procurement department on finding value-added products and ingredients that can give its food an edge.

A good example of this policy in action is the delivery of fresh buffalo mozzarella to its ships running routes in Italy. These deliveries ensure that a high-quality ingredient, which must be served fresh, is available to chefs and passengers. The cruise line’s tasting committee ensures that the blend of ingredients and dishes is the best. The traditional basis for the menu is supplemented with new products to improve food preparation techniques.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUES

The evaluation of food on board is constant, and echoes the approach to providing entertainment for passengers, though in this instance the need to cater for more cultures and nationalities has the opposite effect.

Instead of providing a variety of options for individual cultures, entertainment shows are pared down to offer universal elements. The focus for Costa is on visual and musical entertainment, which transcends barriers of language. The challenge is to find quality performers whose shows can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of their country of origin.

“We produce many shows in-house as we have been doing for a long time, so we have the right channels to find good performers,” says de Rosa. “There are also interport artists, many of whom have a circus style that our passengers like very much and which is particularly appreciated by families. Our entertainment must reflect the wide range of cultures, but it must not suffer because of language issues.”

The success of Costa’s approach to food and entertainment is reflected in the feedback from passengers, whose contribution is vital in keeping the company’s services up to date. However, another crucial factor also feeds into this quality equation – the approach of the crew to delivering services.

VALUING THE CREW

Developing and retaining crew with the right corporate culture and professionalism is vital to the delivery of on-board services. “This business is based on vessels and human resources,” says de Rosa.

The crew maintains the consistency of the brand and is at the forefront of service delivery, coming into frequent contact with passengers. Their behaviour and attitude are vital to passengers’ impressions of their cruise holiday. For these reasons, staff training is important for Costa, which believes the crew must be immersed in its corporate culture and be able to handle the variety of nationalities on the cruises.

“We have schools in different countries, where our employees are trained for six weeks to take on the Costa way of dealing with people and treating passengers,” says de Rosa. “There are language courses, and in Europe we try to add something of the Italian style of warmth and openness to guests. For the US market, we train crew in how best to interface with American clientele and how to use the appropriate language.”

“The cruise line encourages feedback from its crew on how to improve service delivery, and rewards the best ideas.”

Encouraging the crew to feel part of the business and to engage with the cruise line’s strategic goals not only requires constant monitoring of performance, but also requires senior management to provide opportunities for staff to contribute to the business in ways that go beyond their daily duties. Communication between management and employees needs to be a two-way street.

Costa believes that if crew are to measure up to the ideals of the corporate brand, they must have a say in how those ideals translate into their daily tasks and responsibilities. The cruise line encourages feedback from its crew on how to improve service delivery, and rewards the best ideas.

“We monitor the crew constantly, and the fleet has an improvement programme, which allows crew to suggest new ideas from their experience of doing their jobs,” adds de Rosa. “We need to listen to the crew, not only to get ideas, but also to make them proactive rather than passive.”

ONGOING CHALLENGES

The biggest challenge Costa faces in regard to on-board services is their management across an expanding fleet to ensure that the consistency and quality of the brand is retained. The brand and services must remain flexible enough to respond to the changes in popular culture that influence passengers’ demands.

The search for new ideas is ongoing, and though de Rosa feels it is hard to predict where trends will go in the future, he is sure that some elements will become more important in the short term. Of these, the availability of web-based technology for passengers is significant. “The internet cafés are popular, but we must speed up the connection and improve broadband and satellite technology,” he adds.

As on-board services are key to the differentiation of a cruise line from its competitors, this kind of vigilance is vital to success. It is the only way to achieve consistent quality in a changing market.

“We can’t afford to sit still,” notes de Rosa. “The demands of passengers are constantly changing and we can’t predict what they will be in the future. Certainly there will be changes in lifestyle, diet and drinking habits, and we must follow these trends carefully.”