In an increasingly homogenous world people have come to appreciate small flourishes of difference like never before. A desire for a sense of place and a genuine taste of the exotic has seen cruise operators expand their itineraries into new regions and tailor their repertoire when it comes to what is brought onboard.

Nowhere is this shift more apparent, and arguably more challenging, than in the food and beverage arena. An ability to reflect local cuisine while still providing guests with their more established creature comforts places serious emphasis on forging increased local connections and pressurises even the largest lines to consider niche suppliers to meet some elements of demand. This is valid in both established and new destinations, but when one enters unchartered waters it certainly ups the ante.

“Local chandlers are a great source of knowledge and procurement.”

“When we first enter a market, having a good relationship with the ship chandlers can be invaluable,” says Mike Jones, VP supply chain at Royal Caribbean. “These guys have a lot of local contacts and where to get things in markets where we simply don’t have the experience. They’re a great source of knowledge and procurement, but as the market becomes more established you do see a move away from the smaller players.”

Of course, for an operator the size of RCL, one cannot simply turn up in a new port and hope there’ll be the infrastructure there to immediately meet your needs. In what Jones refers to as ‘R&D markets’, a lot of effort is invested into getting one’s own people on the ground; scoping out opportunities, sizing up and helping to develop local suppliers.

“We will certainly work with smaller suppliers in new regions in an effort to bring them up to speed,” he says. “I would say that in our R&D markets we have anything between six and 12 such partners – I’m thinking about places like Brazil, China, Singapore and Australia. These are areas we’re really growing and developing a bigger base suits both parties.”

Quality not quantity

Considering the size of Jones’ operation, being able to ensure that large-scale demand can be consistently met is a must. It also takes time. Those running smaller vessels, however, can afford to be slightly more adventurous, visiting new destinations earlier and working alongside smaller suppliers without the requirement of a considerable scale-up.

“In a way we have the best of both worlds,” says Ron Brandeberry, Yachts of Seabourn’s manager of hotel procurement and logistics. “We have a limited capacity so are able to patronise speciality suppliers who could not satisfy the demands of larger-capacity lines. For staple commodities, we have the benefits of corporate purchasing power to keep costs down.”

It is unsurprising that, in Brandeberry’s eyes, dealing with a small or large supplier is almost irrelevant when considering quality and personalisation of service. “I really don’t think it’s a matter of size,” he argues. “It is a question of how a company focuses on customer service. There are big players out there who do that well and smaller ones who do not.”

Local vs global suppliers

At Royal Caribbean, Jones cannot afford to be quite so philosophical. The VP recognises the value of smaller players, but the realities of helping run a line that accounts for close to a quarter of the global cruise market means they are not always a viable option.

“It’s a question of a company’s focus on customer service. There are big players who do that well and smaller ones who don’t.”

“Small players can certainly be a lot more agile and react to change far quicker,” he says. “Getting a big cruise line represents a huge part of their business and they’ll be very keyed into what you are trying to do. That said, if we can default to our global suppliers that will always be preferable. It doesn’t add additional time, effort or cost and they already know what our systems, metrics and expectations are.

“Does that mean we avoid working with smaller suppliers? I’d like to say it doesn’t make a difference but it does. If there’s a specific local need for something that only a niche provider can supply then that’s who we’ll use, dependent on certain conditions, but we won’t take a chance on anybody who can’t guarantee a 99% fill rate or better.”

If reliability is a major consideration, so too is quality. For this test both Jones and Brandeberry must defer to the superior palates of their executive chefs, but it can still be an enlightening experience.

“I’ve learnt a lot about mozzarella cheese,” says Jones. “There are so many variables: how it spreads, melts, stretches, colours. Our executive chef will lead the tasting, usually blind, and decide on a list of acceptable choices. It is then a question of drilling down and seeing who best matches all the other criteria. Our food and beverage team are familiar with and very supportive of the entire process.”

Local knowledge

Developing a ‘taste of place’ is not just dependent upon the ability of local operators. Larger suppliers are now beginning to recognise the need to act more locally and establish links of their own.

“It varies by region,” Brandeberry explains. “In the Mediterranean, for example, we call at ports on numerous occasions during a long season so there’s a consistency there that the suppliers can understand and count on. When we circle South America we’ll call at a port once a year and it’s much more difficult to establish that relationship. A lot of things have to be shipped in containers, but our good suppliers also see the advantage of sourcing things regionally themselves and selling them on to us.”

Jones is unsure whether this trend has yet been fully embraced across the board, but believes that an ability to think locally is indicative of a quality that all his best partners share.

“It’s very mixed and I’m not seeing them move as fast as I would like them to,” he says. “If we make specific requests the results can be positive, but I’d prefer to see them being a little more proactive about learning what needs to be done and then coming to let me know what’s possible.

“I do have partners who will come aboard our ships, talk to my chefs and get a real idea of where our requirements lie – there are probably ten or so big suppliers who fit that description, but clearly our base is far larger than that. It would be nice to see more effort being made elsewhere.”

Partner attributes

“The cruise industry navigated the financial crisis more smoothly than the shore-side hospitality sector. “

Pushed on what all of his most trusted partners have in common, Brandeberry is equally clear about his expectations and dismisses the significance of size in being able to display them. “Firstly, reliability,” he explains. “They have to do what they say they’ll do. I also want to see honesty: if you don’t have something, tell me right away so I can try to source it elsewhere. And it also comes down to desire; I need to work with people who both want my business and care about it.”

While the cruise industry has navigated the financial crisis far more smoothly than the shore-side hospitality sector, a large number of suppliers count both groups among their customer base and have suffered accordingly.

The importance of guaranteeing one’s demands can be met, and the cost of establishing new relations should existing partners fail, means that there is a great onus on operators ensuring that their partners remain in good health. Jones recognises this responsibility, but also thinks events of the past few years may see better practises emerging.

“I’m a great believer in win-wins,” he explains. When you have long-term partners going through hard times the last thing you want to do is squeeze too hard. Not only do you need them, but if the market turns again and you suddenly find yourself short, the ear on the other end of the line is going to be far less sympathetic.

“At the moment there’s a lot of competition for business. The downturn wasn’t an epiphany for those that were already doing the right things and going that extra yard, but those who weren’t may have upped their game. They’d better maintain it when the economy rebounds, otherwise they won’t survive in our supply chain for long.”