The robotic waiters on board were far from all the ship had to offer, but they certainly grabbed the headlines. Quantum of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s pioneering and futuristic vessel, has been dubbed "the smartest cruise ship in history" by its creators, and praised for its innovation by critics. With a luxury price tag close to $1 billion, it features mechanical bartenders capable of whipping up almost any cocktail that comes to mind.

"There’s only one word that can possibly sum up Quantum of the Seas: wow," says Royal Caribbean, in its official promotional material for the ship. "Newly designed staterooms, game-changing technology, groundbreaking venues and the best dining ever are just the start of what you’ll find on board."

The robotic catering staff are far from the only way that the Quantum class of vessels is pioneering the use of technology in food services, and they have radically upped the offering of what guests are coming to expect from the cruising experience. From personalised wristbands that facilitate purchases to apps that organise itineraries, catering on cruise lines is changing rapidly. With the industry increasingly under pressure to do more with less – while at the same time expanding into complex new markets and appealing to a new generation of customers with very different tastes to traditional cruise guests – there’s a lot to bear in mind, and food and drink services are at the forefront of this.

Spoilt for choice

New technology – and the push for new markets – is also allowing collaboration with brands not necessarily associated with catering, meaning an expansion of options and increasingly diverse customers. In July, for example, Royal Caribbean launched a new line of restaurants on Quantum of the Seas: the Kung Fu Panda Noodle Shop, a collaboration with DreamWorks Animation studios. Offering all the staples of Chinese cuisine, from dim sum to noodle soup, the restaurants tie in with DreamWorks’ animated film series of the same name, and are part of the cruise operator’s expansion into China.

"A creative collaboration among our team of chefs to create the menu for our Kung Fu Panda Noodle Shop is another example of how we continue to ensure that our on-board options reflect what today’s food-conscious traveller and our Chinese guests expect from their vacation," John Suley, vice-president of food and beverage, said at the launch of the restaurants.

All this ties in with the drive to maximise guest choice. At the forefront of the culinary technology on Quantum of the Seas is the ‘dynamic dining’ experience, a radical new twist on the traditional cruise dining room.

"Dynamic dining is a new take on the main dining room, reimagined to give you a culinary experience at sea as vast, varied and eye-opening as dining in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities," says Royal Caribbean in its official literature. "Discover the culinary curiosities of Wonderland Imaginative Cuisine. Savour the handcrafted fare and craft beers of Michael’s Genuine Pub. Experience it all with our signature personal service as we elevate the concept of dining at sea."

The dynamic dining experience comes in the form of two options: ‘choice’ or ‘classic’. The former gives the guests total freedom to choose restaurants and dining times, with menus changing throughout the journey. Customers have up to 18 restaurants to select from, with everything from classic cruise cuisine to American diner-style food and sushi, available any time of the day.

Classic, in stark contrast, is about preserving the more traditional cruise dining experience, with a set time for lunch and dinner, on a first-come-first-served basis.

Day-to-day efficiency steals the stage

Cornelius Gallagher, who now serves as associate vice-president for food and beverage operations at Celebrity Cruises, has worked in the industry for 28 years, and has long watched developments in how catering technology affects customer experience and demands. For him, the first truly impactful piece of technology in the restaurant business was the point-of-sale system, which allowed the industry to truly organise, systemise and communicate, he says, in a much more advanced and efficient fashion.

The future of technology as it relates to the food and beverage industry, he argues, is that cruises will continue to simplify processes and systems that are currently more manual. These types of technology were the genesis of the extraordinarily complex systems we see on Quantum of the Seas and cruise ships like it. In the end, it all comes down to operators working to improve the interactions between the guest and the ship.

"One of the trends that I’ve seen developing is the increased interface between guest and computer," says Gallagher. "For me, there must be a balance between efficiency and maintaining a personal connection with the guests."

"Dynamic dining is a new take on the main dining room, reimagined to give you a culinary experience at sea as vast, varied and eye-opening as dining in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities."

In this race between cruise operators to develop the most impressive (and headline-grabbing) features on their ships, there’s a danger of developing technology for technology’s sake, without yielding obvious returns – a path that, at a time when companies are working to stay economical while wowing new customers, can be costly. With Royal Caribbean’s robotic waiters still very much in prototype mode, it’s unlikely they’ll be taking jobs any time soon; but they are nonetheless part of a trend in which technology is used effectively and pragmatically to find solutions to day-to-day problems. Gallagher argues this while pointing out Celebrity’s recent development and piloting of AccuBar, a beverage inventory system.

"Typically, taking beverage inventory can be a very manual process that requires several hours of dedication to execute to a high standard," he says. "With AccuBar, we project that the amount of time involved in taking beverage inventory will significantly be reduced, while still maintaining our quality standards.

"When used in an effective way, I believe technology will benefit most food and service operations in a variety of ways, pertaining to such aspects as cost, labour and product consistency. At Celebrity, we have some other very cool and out-of-the-box innovations that will further integrate technology with food and beverage."

Personalisation for the masses

Developing all these new technologies on board can also play a role in developing employee skills. Celebrity, for example, is in the process of developing a web-based food allergen training programme called Dine Aware, helping staff to understand and work with the day-to-day issues surrounding allergies.

"Our dedicated employees will be trained and certified through this web-based platform module," says Gallagher on Dine Aware. "We will all speak the same enhanced programme language when discussing special food needs, allergens and intolerances. We will also introduce the use of video to supplement and bolster our food and beverage printed training programme materials."

The emphasis on technology also rubs off on more general processes. Another Celebrity programme currently being piloted, Avero, helps provide a global view of the company’s operations, allowing it to consolidate and simplify the view of staffing levels, restaurant and bar use, financial performance and marketing.

"This provides us with even greater perspective to make fast decisions in an effective manner," says Gallagher.

Of course, many guests don’t necessarily want the fully digital experience, and different customers want different things from a modern luxury vacation. Some want to completely disconnect from the outside world – which is, of course, part of the appeal of being at sea – while others want a constant connection with what’s happening at home. Balancing these competing customer desires is largely about developing technology that really makes a difference and understands what guests want.

"It enables […] even simpler and even more expedient communication," says Gallagher, "which is always at the forefront of our thinking."

Digital touch screens mounted on walls, iPad content and digital menus embedded in tabletops: it’s all about putting the customer at the centre of their own travel experience. Gallagher indicates Celebrity’s recently launched VINU program, an on-board platform for ordering wine, currently only available in its new suite-class restaurant, Luminae. It’s essentially a tablet loaded with interactive, educational material about the wine on offer, with information about everything from the wine varietal, to the climate in which the grapes were grown, to the winery that bottled it and its flavour profiles.

"The program also contains an algorithm that allows our servers to input a few keywords – such as ‘dry’, ‘light’, ‘white’, ‘French’ – to bring up the ideal suggested wine for the guest," he says. "This digital platform makes personalised wine recommendations for our guests based on their interests."

With cruise operators increasingly looking for ways to set themselves apart from the crowd, there’s a temptation to spend big on innovative foodservice projects. But while features like robot waiters are certainly good for bringing in guests, the less extravagant catering technology is having a deeper impact, giving customers a whole new degree of control over their own travel experiences.