Although spending patterns were noticeably affected by the worldwide recession, cruise operators are now seeing a return to past form. More than this, consumers’ tastes are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with authenticity, quality and innovation in consistently high demand in bars at sea.

The industry is responding fast. While Celebrity’s Solstice-class vessels now feature Enomatic wine machines in the Cellar Masters wine bar, allowing guests to sample an array of wines without having to purchase the bottle, AIDAblu, which launched in February, boasts a full onboard brewery using seawater in the beer-making process.

Moreover, master mixologists and sommeliers are being employed as a matter of course, and novelty bar concepts, such as Norwegian Epic’s SVEDKA ice bar and the Rising Tides elevator bar located on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, are providing passengers with new ways to enjoy a tipple.

According to Karl Muhlberger, vice-president of food and beverage operations at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), the US-based operator is leading the way in innovation at sea.

“We want guests to step into a bar that literally takes them someplace different.”

“We are always looking to start new trends in any way we can,” he says. “Listening to our guests is a priority and we want to offer what they are looking for, but also make it our own.”

The SVEDKA ice bar is a case in point. Inspired by the original ice bars and hotels in Scandinavia, the frozen chamber, which never rises above 17°F, features LED lighting effects designed to simulate the Northern Lights.

“We turned to something that has been popular on land and brought it to cruising,” says Muhlberger. “It’s been highly popular with our guests and we typically have waiting lists because only 25 people can enter at one time.”

Quality ingredients

Bob Midyette, director of hotel beverage operations at Royal Caribbean International, is equally focused on innovation, but emphasises that this can only be successful when working from a solid base.

“You must first have the quality you would find in a land-based establishment,” he says, citing the quality, natural ingredients used for every cocktail mix served by the line as an example. “Being different is not always a good thing if you don’t have the fundamentals in place.”

The line offers ‘custom mixes’ exclusively created for Royal Caribbean and served on all of its vessels. “We have a frozen mojito mix that is 100% natural,” he says. “It’s a good partnership that allows us to be a little innovative in our mixes and use quality ingredients that our competitors may not have.”

Billed as an “uplifting experience for guests”, the Rising Tides elevator bar on Oasis of the Seas transports guests between two different ship neighbourhoods, Central Park and the Promenade.

“We really wanted guests to be able to have a little bit of an adventure and step into a bar that literally takes them someplace different,” Midyette says. “Many establishments in the world try to transport diners into a different environment by the look and feel of the physical plan, but we wanted to take that one step further.”

A choice of venues

While the majority of guests visit the Rising Tides Bar at least once during their cruise, and the SVEDKA Ice Bar is similarly popular, innovation is not everything; operators always need to keep in mind the wide variety of passengers onboard. For Muhlberger, NCL’s vessels really do have something for everybody.

“Norwegian Epic has 20 bars and lounges for guests to choose from, including the SVEDKA Ice Bar.”

“Take for example our newest ship, Norwegian Epic,” he says. “We have 20 bars and lounges for our guests to choose from, including the SVEDKA Ice Bar, our champagne and martini bar, the jazz and blues club Fat Cats and our outdoor pool deck.”

Oasis of the Seas operates on an even greater scale, holding upwards of 6,000 passengers. “It is double the population of my home town in Southport, North Carolina,” Midyette admits. “And just like a small town, we have to cater to an entire demographic with a range of ages, tastes and budgets.”

Indeed, this was the motivation behind Royal Caribbean’s revised wine programme, which was launched in January 2010. “The programme was changed by over 70%; we elevated the quality and monitored what the price points could be so we had the broadest possible range in order to meet the wide demographic profile,” Midyette explains, adding that he hired a master sommelier to assist him with the selection of wines. “We wanted to strike a balance between appealing to the broad demographic that we have fleet wide and ensuring that we had a great value-for-quality ratio.”

Authenticity comes first

Authenticity is incredibly important for today’s consumers and there is little tolerance for anything less than the highest quality. “We’re very much in touch with this and work hard to ensure that we’re on trend or ahead of the trend,” Midyette insists.

With 50% of the operator’s fleet deployed internationally, generating a sense of place is also high on Royal Caribbean’s priority list, something echoed by NCL’s food and beverage aficionado. “Our wine programme is pretty progressive,” Muhlberger notes. “We tend to source wines from the areas we travel to, particularly on our European cruises.”

But it is the Château Lafite wine tasting course that Midyette is particularly keen to expound. “It will be launched on all 22 ships worldwide and replace our traditional tasting programme,” he begins. ‘We’ve been able to partner with Château Lafite exclusively, not only exclusively for a cruise line, but worldwide.

“They gave us a series of four wines that enables our guests to progress in their understanding of how the earth affects taste profiles. Essentially the course allows our passengers to understand what makes a great wine like Château Lafite so famous.”

Mixing the drinks

“As guests expand their palettes and visit a wider range of bars on land, cruise operators must develop at a similar rate.”

The increased interest in high quality wine has led to the implementation of new technologies and services onboard many cruise lines. While Royal Caribbean’s Vintages bar was designed from the ground up as a wine bar and has the technology to support the ever-growing popularity of wines by the glass, NCL offers an original tagging system on its ships.

“A guest who orders a bottle of wine in one restaurant and is unable to finish it can have the bottle tagged and brought to another restaurant on a consecutive night,” notes Muhlberger.

As guests continue to expand their palettes and visit a wider range of bars on land, cruise operators must develop at a similar rate.

“We are always trying to expand conceptually and our plans over the next year mean we will continue to be on the cutting edge not only of industry trends,” says Muhlberger. “But in terms of what our guests want; it’s a very exciting time for NCL.”

Midyette has similar plans for Royal Caribbean. “Allure of the Seas launches in November, and although it will have many of the same offerings as its sister ship Oasis of the Seas, we will also mix it up a bit,” he confirms. “The Seafood Shack on the Boardwalk is being replaced with a Mexican-themed restaurant called Rita’s Cantina, for example, and we’re planning on doing some cool things such as hand-shaken margaritas at the table and a wide variety of tequilas.”

While the increasing sophistication of consumers’ tastes renders passengers more choosy when it comes to bar offerings at sea and cruise operators will no doubt do their utmost to keep up with this trend, Midyette remains realistic about the future of the sector.

“The good thing about being in economic recovery is that customers are either celebrating their economic success onboard or drowning their sorrows,” he says. “Either way, they could use a cocktail from us.”