You might remember a study from May 2020 that went viral. Japanese broadcasting network NHK teamed up with health experts to simulate how quickly a respiratory virus like Covid-19 could spread at a buffet, particularly when people don’t wash their hands. While some experts called the situation artificial, it certainly made its point. One infected person managed to spread the UV substance used to signify germs to food, serving utensils, platters and even the faces of some of the other ‘diners’. The buffet, a staple part of the cruise experience, was shown to be one of the worst places to be dining in the midst of a pandemic.

And yet the cruise industry is adamant that it isn’t going anywhere. The buffet will change – with staff serving guests rather than guests serving themselves – but it’s not going to be entirely wiped out of existence.

“Guests love that portion of cruise travel – being able to craft their own meals,” says Kathy Casey, the owner of an agency specialising in F&B concept development that has been working with cruise lines for more than 20 years. Cruise passengers are also an increasingly diverse group of people, and the variety of the buffet allows everyone on board to find something they like. “It was evolving before the pandemic and now it might change dramatically, perhaps with new serving styles, different types of stations and more targeted variety, but it will survive,” she asserts.

Many of the changes won’t even be particularly dramatic, for both servers and guests. Some cruise lines had already started to shift to separate food stations rather than one long buffet counter, as well as erecting glass partitions between food and guests. In addition, cruise ships often restrict passengers from serving themselves at the buffet during outbreaks of common illnesses such as norovirus, at which point they also removed highly touched items such as salt and pepper shakers from tables.

“If anybody is apt to handle this type of pandemic, it’s cruise ships,” Casey believes. “They’ve got a bad rap, but they have some of the strictest health and sanitation regulations anywhere, so they’re kind of built for this.”

She’s referring to existing protocols such as the jumpsuits and gloves donned by cleaning teams before they scrub the ship’s floors with hot soapy water and diluted bleach solution. “People understand now that soap cleans, and of course we’ve all learnt that bleach is a great sanitiser,” she says with a laugh. “There’s constant sanitation of surfaces, with handrails wiped down regularly and staff using tissues to open the doors.”

As Wes Cort, vice-president of F&B operations at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), explains, the focus for cruise lines over the past year has been enhancing health and safety measures that were already in place. “Areas will be cleaned, sanitised and disinfected at an increased frequency,” he says. “This will include the use of electrostatic spray technology, which is a new way to apply disinfectants in less time and with better coverage than traditional cleaning methods. In addition, we will reduce the capacity in all our on-board restaurants to allow for social distancing.”

These new protocols were established after consultation with the Healthy Sail Panel, a team of experts with various specialties including public health, infectious diseases and maritime operations, which created a roadmap of best practices for the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean International’s new protocols follow the same recommendations and include making more space between food stations to avoid crowding and reorganising seating arrangements to ensure each group is at least 6ft apart. Like NCL, self-serve stations have been replaced with a new system whereby the crew serves guests. The line will also introduce more single-serve plates and grab-and-go options.

Fewer physical touchpoints

Casey is convinced that Royal Caribbean won’t be alone in its shift to grab-and-go concepts, which have surged in popularity in the retail environment during the pandemic, up 51% between 2019 and 2020, according to Nielsen Fresh. The on-land hospitality sector has also seen enormous growth in takeaway, with consumers across Europe ordering 57% more meals from Just Eat in the final three months of 2020 than a year earlier, a trend that industry commentators say is unlikely to reverse after the pandemic.

At sea, Casey anticipates more ready-made, graband- go options and customisable takeaway dishes, which customers can pick up from the dining room and take to a less crowded area – whether that’s the ship’s deck, their room or out on an excursion. “They don’t necessarily have to be packaged in plastic either,” she stresses. “Ships could use reusable packaging, which can be returned and sanitised. This would tie into their green initiatives.”

Covid-19 has also led to significant growth in mobile ordering and contactless payments, with many land-based hospitality operators putting effort and investment into creating an experience that involves fewer physical touchpoints for staff and guests. In the UK, research from Zonal Retail Data Systems showed that the number of contactless food and drinks orders increased from 7.3 million to 13.5 million between July and September 2020, while the QR code as a replacement for a physical menu has been one of the biggest changes brought about by Covid-19. According to Fabio Scaglione, director of F&B at Celebrity Cruises, we’re likely to see similar trends at sea.

“I’m really excited about all of the technology enhancements we are working on,” he enthuses. “Our future guests will be able to view menus in our app using a QR code. This is something that we are already seeing in many land-based establishments and I think it will be really cool once we have it on board our ships.”

Royal Caribbean also says technology and digital innovation will play a key role in enhancing the safety of its operations by encouraging physical distancing, and removing traditional vacation ‘pain points’ such as queues, crowds and paper. Through its app, guests can already view on-board charges and credits in real time, as well as reserve on-board activities, entertainment shows, dining and shore excursions.

New culinary concepts

Inadvertently ahead of the game, Casey helped NCL introduce a drinks programme a couple of years ago that removes many of those same pain points. Their ‘cocktails on tap’ are made with high quality spirits and fresh juices put under pressure and served on draft. “It’s easy to execute for the guest, it’s very consistent, every drink you get tastes the same,” she says. “It’s less touchpoints and waiting in line… These are things I think we will see more of.”

Cort also expects holiday makers, many of whom will have been stuck at home for a year or more by the time cruise travel fully resumes, to crave new tastes from far flung paces. “Guests won’t be happy with the standard fare anymore, they’ve spent almost a year desperate to try new food from a new location,” he says. “They’ll want fresh Asian fusion delicacies, South American delights, Australasian concoctions, all made with the freshest ingredients. As such, we expect more exotic fusion recipes to be popular in the coming seasons. Culinary tourism will likely take hold as consumers are tired of what they have been cooking themselves from the pantry – their desire to get out and explore new things will include food and beverages.”

Health and wellness, too, has taken on greater importance during the pandemic, as evidenced not only by new physical and mental health programmes at hotels, but also on their menus. “Consumers will focus on flavour profiles associated with functional benefits like plant-based foods and beverages. I anticipate beverages picking up traction – especially ones that help with immunity and improve health,” Cort says, adding that he and his team have tried to use the time they’ve been laid up at port as productively as possible refining their menus to reflect these new trends.

Like every aspect of our lives, cruise dining will never go back to what it was before the pandemic, something that may initially be hard to take on board for both guests and operators. But if the result is a more imaginative – if streamlined – offer, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing.


Increase in graband- go concepts in the retail sector between 2019 and 2020. 

Nielsen Fresh

13.5 million

Number of contactless food and drink orders conducted in the UK between July and September 2020. 

Zonal Retail Data Systems