Arrive on board any major cruise ship and you’ll quickly realise just how central food and beverage is to the modern cruise experience. The sheer variety, scale, effort and marketing that goes into delivering dining options can be almost overwhelming for those new to cruising. Some frantically review their itineraries, trying to figure out how they’ll find time to try everything.

According to a recent consumer attitudes and intentions study by CLIA, over half of regular cruisers view dining as the main benefit of their holiday. Customers want more options and better food, and good cruise ships are having to work hard to satisfy them.

Over the last few years this change in demand has created something of a revolution in the food and beverage area. The number of dining venues on any one vessel has exploded, brand partnerships with celebrity chefs have been introduced, and health and nutrition have entered the equation as a key concern.

"The new generation of vessels certainly allows cruise lines to diversify options and offer guests an ever-expanding array of dining venues."

Barely a month seems to go by these days without a cruise operator announcing exciting new plans in one if not all of these areas. Just last month, Norwegian Cruise Line revealed plans for a number of fresh partnerships with leading figures in dining, beverage and entertainment for its Norwegian Escape. Three famous Miami restaurateurs and an award-winning Iron Chef are being brought in to offer new food options, while the Wynmood Brewing Company and the Michael Mondavi Family are partnering up on beverages.

The way to a passenger’s heart

In some instances, food and beverage is even coming to dictate destination and entertainment planning. Many cruise lines are now branding their itineraries solely on the basis of culinary adventures. Avalon Cruises offers special wine and food trips in Northern France. Regent Seven Seas offers special chocolate-inspired cruises. And Princess Cruises lets guests dine at the chef’s table and explore the kitchen with behind-the-scenes tours of its preparation areas.

Towards the end of last year Holland America took this to another level with one of its main cruise ships MS Westerdam, setting out for a seven-day culinary-themed Caribbean cruise with the popular TV show Masterchef. There were special exclusive gourmet tastings, cocktails made just for the occasion and live shows by some of the most popular Masterchef contestants.

Its not just customers that are benefiting from this, of course. For cruise ships, the opportunities presented by innovation in food and beverages are immense. When Norwegian Cruise Lines introduced a hot-dog stand onto its Norwegian Breakaway a few years back they found an entirely new way of branding a trip and attracting guests.

It allows us to offer a lot of different things to the guests," Michael Flesch, executive vice-president shipboard operations at Norwegian Cruise Line (at the time of interview), says. "If you only have food service in the main dining rooms or the buffets, you’re limited in what variety you can offer. By having these hot-dog carts or other smaller venues, we’re able to offer the maximum amount of variety – and things that guests didn’t expect to find on the cruise.

"That’s why we’re going to continue to look for ways that we can offer these unique experiences – to give guests a good taste of the place we’re in, of course, but also to create different experiences they wouldn’t expect on a ship. It’s difficult to create variety in a 1,000-seat dining room."

Demanding guests

But there are challenges too. Particularly on larger cruise ships with more guests, the diversity of food options and the complex demands of customers bring a whole host of operational headaches. As CEO of MSC Italcatering, the company in charge of sourcing and controlling food quality for MSC Cruises, Enrico Borniotto knows these challenges all too well.

"The new generation of vessels certainly allows cruise lines to diversify options and offer guests an ever-expanding array of dining venues," he says. "But food and beverage operations have become more complex and challenging. We try to balance guests’ ever-changing expectations in terms of choice, price and dining time, while managing the complexity of supplying ships deployed all over the world."

For most operators the best way to work out what customers want is to do the right market research. By visiting trade shows and reviewing new restaurants, nightclubs and bars, cruise operators can keep ahead of trends and surprise their guests. For those that operate globally, this means visiting locations in the area, and working with local chefs and restaurateurs on specific, tailored on-board concepts.

Masters of the roles

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of modern food and beverage operation is striking the right balance between centralised control and micro-management. What role should be given to staff at HQ and what should be left for those on the ship?

"Our products are sourced and aligned for a consistent experience. Sometimes that may mean sourcing in multiple regions, but global sourcing and worldwide availability of products has made it easier than ever before to source locally and internationally."

For Borniotto, decisions over the precise menu and sourcing strategy are usually decided by onshore staff, according to detailed market research. But other, more aesthetic concerns, can be delegated to trained staff on board the ship.

"From farm to fork, the responsibility lies with the main onshore office," Borniotto says. "Whereas service and presentation flexibility lies with our on-board staff, whose main concern is the satisfaction of our guests."

At Disney Cruise Line, the balance between centralisation and compartmentalisation is equally important. Like MSC – which maintains tight control over every aspect of its supply chain, stock-keeping, and on-board preparation and services – all procurement is done by the company’s onshore management team.

"Our shoreside food and beverage teams provide the consistency," Anthony Wills, director of food and beverage at Disney Cruise Line says. "Our products are sourced and aligned for a consistent experience. Sometimes that may mean sourcing in multiple regions, but global sourcing and worldwide availability of products has made it easier than ever before to source locally and internationally.

But there’s room for individuality too. When it comes to the group’s speciality restaurants – the celebrity chefs and interesting menus – much more room is given for individuality.

"Although our sourcing is centralised, there are exceptions for speciality restaurants," Wills adds. "Since our parks and resorts have speciality restaurants as well, we have an opportunity to leverage those key learnings. We have tremendous synergies with our park and resort chefs, and this continually challenges our thinking. Since our land-based partners are not limited in scope as to what would work on board a ship, it allows them to be creative without limitations."

In the end, what’s important is a mixture of the two: input from on-board and off-board staff, good communication between both channels, and the right level of consistency and autonomy.

"The secret is a combination of good planning, great professionalism, strong cooperation with suppliers and state-of-the-art conservation equipment for dry, chilled and frozen supplies," Borniotto says. "All these elements allow cruise companies not only to compete with, but also to surpass, onshore hotels, especially when you consider the hardware of our galleys."

Borniotto’s ambition and commitment is certainly commendable. As customers become more demanding, cruise operators will have to get even more creative if they want to stand out from the crowd.