Guests expect a consistently high quality experience in onboard restaurants and bars while regulators expect food safety standards to match up to those at home. As lines seek to broaden the range of destinations they serve, they are stretching supply chains and, in regions not used to handling large volumes of passengers, traditional models have to be considered.

In well-established destinations, supplying ships is part of a tried and tested process. But with thousands of guests arriving on a remote Pacific island, for example, ensuring vessels are fully stocked requires strong relationships with suppliers, port agents and the ability to navigate a complicated patchwork of local regulations.

Supplying cruise ships

To meet these challenges lines have developed alternative methods of supplying their vessels. Forwarding freight by sea and air eliminates the need to source products locally and timing them to arrive concurrently with the cruise vessel minimises the need to use local storage.

“Most cruise ships will store in one day and deliveries have to be made then.”

“We’ve been doing this for quite a while and are supposed to keep the same standard 365 days a year so most of the stuff we buy comes from a standard pool of vendors and then we send it to the ship,”explains Richard Paulsen, director of purchasing at Crystal. “We rely very little on local suppliers.”

Henry Lopez, AVP for hotel, food and beverage at Royal Caribbean, also sees strong relationships with partners as being vital.

“Supplying the cruise industry is a niche of its own,”he says. “Most of our ships will store in one day and you have to make the delivery then. It’s not like a shore-side operation where items can be out of stock and if you miss a delivery on Monday you can have another on Tuesday.”

Freight’s helping hand

While the two lines might have a similar approach, their different scales make for some important differences. With only two ships each with a capacity of around 1,000 passengers, the demands Crystal places on its supply chain are relatively light. The problem it could potentially face is a lack of weight to establish a presence in new markets.

But it is able to overcome this potential handicap by looking to its parent company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), a major Japanese shipping group. With a presence around the globe Crystal is able to draw on NYK’s freight forwarding and port agents as and when itineraries require, rather than having to invest in its own infrastructure.

The close relationship means that if problems arise they can often be solved before they impact on the guest experience. Paulsen and other senior members of the Crystal corporate team served for many years onboard the line’s vessels, giving them an intimate knowledge of their requirements and a large network of contacts in ports around the world.

In addition, the company employs a hotel stores manager for each of its ships who coordinates between the team at headquarters and local contacts.

Also recognising the importance of having a team at the destination, Royal Caribbean ensures that it has procurement teams in place to support the first loading at any new port.

Avoiding red tape

Crystal’s structure offers a great degree of flexibility both when it comes to developing strategies and navigating through webs of Southern hemisphere bureaucracy. Paulsen gives an example of a conflict between the US Department of Agriculture and Brazilian customs.

“Cruise is not like a shore-side operation where if you miss a delivery on Monday you can have another on Tuesday.”

The American government would not issue a health certificate for food on a Crystal ship unless the Brazilians authorised an import permit.

But as the goods would not leave the ship, they could not be classified as imports. Eventually, the Crystal team was able to get the required paperwork issued in the Bahamas, where the liner was registered, and arrange a private courier to bring the goods to the vessel. Similarly, many states in the South Pacific will not allow the company to import food they grow so Crystal simply stocks up its vessels in advance to sidestep the problem.

“The size of our ships and the numbers of guests we have means we can actually take on more stores and have less frequent deliveries than some of the larger ships,” Paulsen says. “They probably couldn’t go for more than a week without a delivery.”

Local supply advantages

Despite the advantages of drawing on a standard pool of supply partners wherever vessels are travelling, in some situations, locally sourced produce is attractive: it will be fresh and in many cases sustainably produced. Buying food in local markets also helps reflect the destination in the onboard experience.

“In exotic locations our team work with a local agent or ship chandler and visit a local market,” Paulsen explains. “We don’t rely on it but we do it at every port because our guests like it. They will often visit the market and enjoy seeing our chefs there as well. “

The key for Paulsen is balancing the quality that guests expect in their favourite restaurants at home with the best that the destination has to offer.

“If we’re in South America for an extended period of time we still send containers from North America with our standard products,” he explains. “Locally we would buy the wine or some Argentinean beef but we wouldn’t have a base there.”

Flexible planning

“Locally sourced produce is attractive: it will be fresh and usually sustainably produced.”

Lopez says that, even when it comes to sourcing locally, planning is vital.

“As our deployments change and our demands shift, that puts new requirements on our suppliers,”he says. “But remember our deployments are published with a long lead time so we can work with them in sourcing speciality items.”

While major lines and smaller niche operators face different challenges in terms of securing supply to emerging destinations, a flexible approach is vital to both.

Overcoming local restrictions at the same time as dipping into the market to source high quality regional produce requires tapping the expertise of partners. As exotic destinations become more developed, the need for permanent infrastructure will increase but, for coming seasons, forwarding freight will continue to be of importance.