For decades, entertainment could seem like an afterthought on cruise ships, with a reputation built on dinner, dancing, stage shows and cocktails out by the pool. But in an extremely competitive marketplace, trading on the bare essentials is no longer enough, and cruise operators are looking to entice guests with elaborate and unconventional facilities that would be unimaginable for a previous generation of holidaymakers. Fuelled by heightened expectations and an increasing number of multigenerational groups embarking upon cruise vacations, guests now demand to know what’s on board long before booking their ticket.

In the Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) 2014 ‘Cruise Industry Report’, the lifestyle amenities available on liners were one of the main determiners for booking a cruise, with it influencing 39% of guests. The growing influence of entertainment services and a burgeoning desire to tap into new passenger markets has compelled operators to prioritise the development of bolder and more ingenious amusement amenities, as they bid to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Different guests with different tastes

Rock climbing walls, tennis courts and nine-hole putting courses are fast becoming the norm, and cruise ships have all but abolished the outdated notion that on-board entertainment consists of dinner and dancing. Most liners are now able to offers activities and attraction for all guests, from seven to 70.

"Until recently, our ‘freestyle cruising’ concept was more focused on dining, but now we’re really concentrating on the entertainment services on board," says Richard Ambrose, vice-president of entertainment at Norwegian Cruise Line. "Around five years ago, we decided to focus on entertainment and transform it into one of the Norwegian brand’s pillars. It’s not just shows either; you have water parks, rope courses, theme nights. The sheer amount of entertainment activities available really means there’s something for everyone."

Despite the volume of activities, trying to please all of the people all of the time requires a careful balancing strategy.

"We’re definitely going after the family audience, and we do this by counterprogramming adult entertainment with shows that are family friendly," explains Ambrose. "A good example is our Rock of Ages show; it’s a fantastic spectacle, but it’s not for children, so we counterprogramme that with attractions like our splash academy. There is something for everyone, and all of it is first class."

Size doesn’t matter

But the notion that bigger is better is not necessarily an absolute. While Norwegian’s new Breakaway and Getaway ships are smaller than Epic and Royal Caribbean’s highly anticipated new ship for 2014, Quantum of the Seas – which has the capacity to hold over 4,000 passengers, substantially less than the 6,000 carried by its Oasis class – the emphasis is shifting from quantity to quality. Quantum of the Seas will see numerous conceptions, unavailable on its larger cousins, make their debut at sea, including the Ripcord sky diving simulator and the Northstar, an extendable viewing pod that rises up to 300ft above sea level.

Furthermore, a decrease in size does not necessarily mean the omission of attractions found on previous models.

"We are able to translate everything from the bigger liners into these more compact ships with a clever use of space," explains Ambrose, who headed up entertainment design for Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. "For example, we specifically make our entertainment venues smaller and more intimate, so guests are closer to the experience."

Operators still fight for prestige by producing the record-breaking attractions on board. MSC’s Preziosa plays host to the longest single-rider water slide at 120m, Norwegian’s Breakaway class houses the largest rope course as well as the most water slides at sea and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas attests to having the largest indoor sports complex. As design proposals continue to become more elaborate, the entertainment facilities function as cruise ship status symbols as much as they do leisure activities for guests.

The design process

Considering the huge amount of combined expertise and coordination involved in building a new cruise liner, incorporating intricate design blueprints into a ship requires significant communication between all parties involved in its construction.

"Rock climbing walls, tennis courts and nine-hole putting courses are fast becoming the norm."

"You cannot succeed without cooperation between all the departments from safety to marine, from technical to hotel operations. These ship operations are so large that you need partners to be working in unison at the very beginning," explains Ambrose. "We do sometimes get pushback, but when they get behind you, it makes your job so much easier."

Entertainment is no longer an addendum in the design process, however. Most cruise operators have invested heavily in their entertainment design teams, with bigger budgets and greater creative licence.

"Our entertainment team is involved in dialogue from the beginning of a ship’s construction," says Ambrose. "We’ve built a rehearsal studio, our creative centre, where we experiment with new ideas and try concepts out before we bring them on board our ships."

Having support from all stakeholders involved in the building process allows entertainment teams to focus on setting trends, rather than following them, and on-board entertainment has advanced to such an extent that cruise operators are now competing with land attractions, as much as each other.

"That’s why we’re really pushing entertainment – we don’t just want to be the best in the cruise industry, we want to be the best, period," proclaims Ambrose.

This philosophy stretches across the entertainment spectrum.

"Everyone is scouring the industry globally, constantly looking for the next ‘wow’," says Ambrose. "We’re not just researching new shows and attractions either; we want to find the people or teams who created them. We’re looking for the A-listers who are turning the industry on its head. I can tell you that 99.9% of the time, when I bring in a Broadway director or choreographer, the response is usually the same – ‘I had no idea just how much could be done’."

New technology and renovations

The sophistication of recreational facilities is encouraged as much by technological advancements as it is by entertainment industry professionals. Significant technological investment has also enabled the reinvigoration of older entertainment formulas, with many cruise liners enhancing stage shows with high-definition television screens and intricate light compositions.

"Technology allows us to take the audience to more places. Our Legally Blonde show explores 15 locations; a few years ago, telling that story would have been implausible," explains Ambrose. "Now though, with advanced video, automation, lighting and audio technology, the audience doesn’t have to wait for 90 seconds while we change set, we can do it instantaneously."

Revitalising tried and tested entertainment activities is not just limited to stage shows. Getaway incorporates entertainment into dining with its interactive experience, the Illusionarium, which features magicians, an immersive 19th-century theme and fantastical special effects.

"One concept we’re really diving into is the idea of merging entertainment and dining together," explains Ambrose.

Having emerged from a period of unprecedented shipbuilding, operators are now under pressure to refurbish older fleet members in order to meet the inevitable leap in customer demands.

Royal Caribbean has a dedicated strategy to modernising older models and improving the on-board entertainment features – adding pool-side movie screens, surfing simulators and more entertainers, many of which will be dressed as notable DreamWorks’ characters. By the end of 2013, all but one of Royal Caribbean’s Vision and Radiance-class ships had undergone revitalisation.

But there are often obstacles to overcome when revitalising older ships to meet rising expectations.

"As much as our customers, I expect the same quality on older ships that you would find on a new build, but it is challenging as many venues on our other ships are just not as technical," admits Ambrose. "That’s one of the many benefits of bringing in renowned creative individuals from outside: these guys give you resourceful ideas that you would never have thought of."

As the demographics of the cruise sector continue to change, understanding new customer desires is integral to the future design process for future entertainment innovations.

"We compile regular satisfaction scores from our guests. In entertainment, I live and die by them," explains Ambrose. "We also have our market research team who ask past, present and future guests quarterly what they want to see."

Documenting guest expectations every three months may seem like an arduous task, but as competition becomes increasingly fierce, operators cannot afford to run a closed shop. Complacency is not an option. With the pressure to create new forms of bigger, bolder and brasher forms of entertainment showing no signs of abating, the question of "what next" has never been more exciting.