With cruise lines’ demographics widening by the year to include more solo travellers, families and even extended families, the demand for new, unique and varied on-board experiences has never been higher. Yet, state-of-the-art theatres, adventure parks and on-board robots haven’t stopped one of the industry’s staple entertainment options, the casino, remaining a mainstay on the majority of cruises. On the contrary, on-board gambling has never been more popular, with operators that stay up-to-date with land-based trends and technology, invest in their teams and adapt their offering to each cruise’s location reaping the rewards.

From water parks, circus workshops and teen-only nightclubs for the younger generation, to meet-and-greet parties for solo travellers and adult-only serenity retreats for couples, the range of activities available on board cruise ships in 2016 is more extensive than it’s ever been. Operators have clearly responded to the requirements of the widening range of cruisers they’re seeing on board – from multigenerational families (on average, 15-20% of guests on each Norwegian Cruise Line cruise are part of a multigenerational travel group) to people cruising on their own – giving every traveller on board the freedom to tailor their cruise to their own preferences.

The newest ships on the cruise circuit are cases in point. For example, Carnival Vista, set to launch later this year, will be home to the first-ever IMAX theatre at sea as well as a new suspended cycling experience, ‘Skyride’; and AIDAprima, which will also have its first cruise in 2016, will play host to the first robot at sea, Pepper, who, the brand says, is capable of reading human emotions. Meanwhile, Norwegian’s largest ship to date, Norwegian Escape, has expanded its culinary offerings hugely to include outposts of several popular land-based outlets including Miami’s oldest bar, Tobacco Road, and the 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar featuring live performances every night.

But even with all this variety on offer, cruisers’ enthusiasm for splashing their cash in on-board casinos hasn’t diminished in the slightest. In fact, Norwegian and Carnival have seen their casinos grow in popularity.

"The casino is still a significant part of the cruising experience. Our guests have really grown to expect a casino available for their entertainment," says Jim Abbas, SVP, casino operations at Norwegian.

"And with the proliferation of gaming throughout the world, they have become really well educated in demanding products that they see in their local casinos. It’s really a popular form of entertainment on board our vessels and the more it spreads through the world, the more popular it becomes to all travellers."

Indeed, it’s certainly not just experienced gamblers that are trying their luck in cruise ship casinos; one of the main things that differentiates casinos at sea from their land-based counterparts is that they must appeal to the gamut of gamers – from high rollers who are happy to throw in $10,000 worth of chips to first-timers experimenting with a $5 hand at blackjack.

"On five Carnival cruise ships, guests no longer need to even be in the casino to play – thanks to a new mobile gaming app being piloted by the company."

"People are with us to cruise – that’s their primary reason [for being on-board] and we’re just one amenity," says Marty Goldman, SVP of corporate casino operations for Carnival Corporation. "Our world is all about diversity, from the most avid gamer to somebody who just walks by and wants to try their luck for a few minutes, so it’s all about giving people varying activities and we’re continually looking for new and different types of games to appeal to that broader audience."

Staying up to date

Gaming equipment is of course the backbone of any casino operation, and today’s cruisers expect it to be just as varied and up-to-date as what they’re used to on land. In terms of specifics, says Abbas, this means blackjack, roulette and three-card poker, as well as a diverse mix of slot machines and video poker.

"Those are your staples but you must have current equipment; no longer are guests going to accept a ten-year-old slot machine that doesn’t have an interactive bonus round. They want that engaging experience," he stresses, adding that Norwegian also has very liberal table game limits so cruisers can play at whatever level they want, whether that’s $5 or $10,000 a hand. The group has also invested significantly in slot machines with immersive chairs and larger screens, as well as video poker.

Moreover, since Norwegian Cruise Line’s acquisition of Oceania and Regent Seven Seas in 2014, the team at Norwegian has been focusing on improving the on-board product and gaming experience across its new ships in an effort to ensure that all guests have an outstanding experience that transcends all three brands. "One of the most exciting things we’re really working on in 2016 is the launch of the Regent Seven Sea Explorer, which is going to have the most lavish casino we’ve ever built to date," Abbas remarks.

Similarly, at Carnival, updating casino equipment is an ongoing process. "We’re continually upgrading the equipment – tables and slots – keeping them fresh and current," Goldman notes. "We always take a look at what’s popular in the land-based environment too. The casino business is a dynamic industry; if you don’t update it, you become a second-tier product and we’re never going to allow that."

More than equipment

A casino is about much more than just the equipment, however, with Abbas and Goldman keen to emphasise that the success of their on-board establishments is largely down to their teams. As Abbas notes, "If you don’t have great team members out there to interact with the guests, you get them finding other forms of entertainment on the vessels."

Goldman agrees, "You can open your doors and expect people to play your games, but what’s key for us is that we try to provide excitement, a great atmosphere and great knowledgeable service, as well as a few surprises along the way."

One example of the latter would be the promotional tie-in Carnival is currently running with iconic game show The Wheel of Fortune in conjunction with the programme’s 20th anniversary. "Entrants will be able to participate in a $200,000 slot tournament on the Carnival brand at the end of the year," Goldman explains. "We’re also going to be featured on the TV show for a week, so it’s a really exciting time and I think will be very compelling for our guests."

Convenience is king

Convenience is also absolutely key for today’s cruisers and it’s something that technology is making much more achievable for operators. On Norwegian, for example, the latest gaming systems allow guests to charge funds to their cabin from the slot machine using a personalised pen. "If you’re in the middle of something that’s very fun, getting up to go and find more money is not convenient," says Abbas. "You want to be able to stay engaged in your product."

Meanwhile, on five Carnival cruise ships, guests no longer need to even be in the casino to play – thanks to a new mobile gaming app being piloted by the company. "Smartphones and mobile technology are prolific everywhere you go and our intent with this pilot is to allow guests to enjoy other on-board activities while gaming," explains Goldman. "You don’t have to do it just in the casino, you can do it anywhere on board."

It’s still very early days for the concept, however, and it will need to be continually reviewed and fine-tuned over the coming months, according to Goldman. "What was new six months ago is old today, so we continually review the data and make constant adjustments based on customers’ play patterns. We also need to get the awareness on board." While Goldman is excited about its potential, for Abbas there’s no guarantee it will be successful. "We trialled a [mobile gaming] product in 2013 but it didn’t receive a lot of play from our guests," he remarks. "You don’t go on a cruise to avoid interaction with others and hand-held mobile gaming is kind of reclusive."

Loyal customers

A loyalty programme is another great way to keep players coming back to on-board casinos again and again, and one Carnival and Norwegian have seen success from. Norwegian fleet-wide loyalty programme Casinos at Sea, for example, allows guests to earn points based on their play, which can be redeemed for everything from spa vouchers to shore excursions and even money off the final bill, while Goldman thinks Carnival’s focus on rewarding its players is one of the key reasons its casinos are still so popular.

"We’ve taken a cue from our land-based casino friends, and we reward our guests for their past and current play, meaning that they receive offers from us based upon their previous play. There are a number of rewards and promotions on-board that are based on their current play. I think it’s important to treat people as they’re used to [being treated] on land."

However, guests’ expectations of casinos can vary depending on the region they’re in. "What guests like in one region does not necessarily play in another," Goldman says. "For example, in the US, casino environments are all about the excitement, and fun and dazzling atmosphere, but in Europe, it’s a little more subdued, and if you go to Asia – a primary expansion region for the company right now – winning is what it’s all about. You want to make sure you have the appropriate environment for all of your guests."

As Abbas summarises, an on-board casino, like most businesses, becomes successful based on three things: people, product and pricing.

"If you have the best people to put in the right product for your market and the price is correct (and that means limits), you can maximise your revenues. If you fail on any of those items, you’re never going to reach the maximum potential earning for a casino, no matter where it operates in the world."