Tourism & hospitality

No holds barred

With guests growing savvier, operators have to set ever-higher standards when it comes to devising onboard drink options. Ken Taylor, associate vice-president of food and beverage operations at Royal Caribbean International, and Edward Allen, Carnival’s vice-president of beverage operations, talk about creating the requisite fizz.

In December 2011, one of Royal Caribbean’s oldest ships emerged from a $50 million makeover. Splendour of the Seas had been transformed in every capacity – cabins were upgraded, technology enhanced and a vast range of new amenities added. Among these was the R Bar, a novel bar concept designed to entertain as much as to serve drinks.

This one-time Champagne Bar sat right at the heart of the ship. Looking out onto two full-size LED displays – with space for up to 1,400 spectators – it occupied prime real estate for beverages. As part of Royal Caribbean’s Royal Advantage upgrade plan, it was subsequently installed in three further vessels, with two more set to follow by summer 2013.

What makes this bar worthy of comment is that it is so knowingly on-trend. Whereas champagne bars evoke decadence pure and simple, R Bar taps into a desire for something that goes beyond luxury. Indeed, with its 1960s theme and Rat Pack feel, some might cite that ‘something’ as escapism. With a design modelled on cult TV show Mad Men, it whisks passengers far away from their everyday concerns.

“People have really gravitated to this experience,” says Ken Taylor, associate vice-president of food and beverage operations at Royal Caribbean International. “It allows us to put on-trend uniforms on our staff, and creates this look that people really resonate with. They may have seen this type of thing in New York or in big cities or on TV, and it’s really a lot of fun.”

On-trend themes

R Bar is not the only example of nostalgia aboard a cruise ship. On another Royal Caribbean vessel, Allure of the Seas, guests can attend a Prohibition-era cocktail party. And Carnival recently developed the Alchemy Bar, which adopts a vintage pharmacy theme.

“We wanted to create some highly memorable and eclectic drink concoctions,” says Edward Allen, Carnival’s vice-president of beverage operations. “Our guests can even inspire their own personal drink by grabbing a prescription pad and choosing from a variety of spirits, fruits and herbs. There is a movement to incorporate very modern techniques into more traditional methods of classic cocktail service.”

With offerings such as these, cruise lines are taking their cues from modish city bars. After all, today’s barflies are savvier and more demanding than ever; more interested in the provenance of ingredients and less prepared to settle for subpar quality.

“Cruise ships are doing pretty much what the local beverage scene is doing,” says Taylor. “They’re staying on top of the trends.”

Allen, too, has noticed this swing towards refinement. “The most dramatic change we’ve seen is the sophistication in our customers’ palates over the past few years,” he explains. “They can definitely taste the difference between creamy pre-mixed sweet drinks versus fresh ingredients. Many of them want cocktails with delectable, crisp fruit flavours, and herbal and spicy profiles.”

Tastes to suit

Like Royal Caribbean, Carnival is currently undergoing a comprehensive programme of upgrades. Dubbed Fun 2.0, this ambitious plan encompasses 14 vessels in its fleet and places a particular emphasis on nightlife. As well as the Alchemy Bar, the revamped ships feature a Mexican-themed tequila bar, the so-called RedFrog Rum Bar, a sports bar and another with a self-serve wine system. Its latest venue, the Havana Bar, serves as a casual gathering spot by day and a Cuban-inspired dance venue by night.

Meanwhile, on Royal Caribbean, variety is of the essence – there are an impressive 40 drinking spots on its supersized Oasis-class ships.

“If you’re in the Royal Promenade, we have a British concept pub, and just next to that we have Starbucks, and just next to that we have the Boleros Latin club,” says Taylor. “Just a couple of doors down, there’s our champagne and martini bar.”

All these venues are positioned for maximum impact, paying heed to the area’s traffic flow. In Central Park, guests can refresh in the al fresco Trellis Bar as they move from one end to the other. Then, on the boardwalk, the bar is ideally placed for those who have worked up a thirst on the carousel.

Of course, no cruise ship can ever fully replicate the burgeoning bar scene of a city. For one thing, it simply isn’t feasible to build a new bar area every time fashions change, capitalising on whatever approaches are holding court that month. Generally, ships have played it safe, opting for more classic concepts that aren’t so fast to become dated.

Luckily, there are ways to rejuvenate a space without opting for full-scale refurbishment. “We launched our Vintages Wine Bar in 2002, and it’s something that’s still going strong for us,” says Taylor. “But we’ve evolved that concept from a tasting arena, with upright chairs and wooden tables, to a much more lounge-like and comfortable living room environment.”

Another challenge specific to a cruise ship is how best to maintain the uniqueness of its offerings. Since guests are perennially wandering between bars, glassware has a tendency to migrate. Even worse, because of the proximity of the venues, sound may bleed through the walls.

“Vintages is a subtle, quiet environment, but when the door opens you might hear the steel drums of the Caribbean band, or the guitar of an Italian restaurant nearby,” adds Taylor. “At the end of the day, it is one big ship and a lot of these experiences can fuse together.”

Road to discovery

Despite these pitfalls, a cruise ship’s beverage offering continues to be one of its major draws. Alcoholic drinks have long provided a key source of onboard revenue, and with guests there primarily to enjoy themselves, this looks unlikely to change. The centrality of beverages is such that it is not confined to the bars. Enter any upscale onboard restaurant and you are likely to be confronted with an array of specialty drinks. “We’re definitely going after the restaurant gap,” Taylor says.

These developments are not confined to passengers who can afford to splurge on cocktails. Over the past year or so, a number of all-inclusive drinks packages have begun to crop up across cruise lines. Designed for a more price-conscious demographic, they allow for maximum indulgence without the exorbitant bar tab.

Carnival, for one, has been testing out the formula, supplementing its longstanding non-alcoholic drinks packages with its new Cheers Beverage Programme. Originally piloted on Carnival Victory in August 2012, it has since been expanded to 12 additional ships. “It costs $42.95 per person per day, plus a 15% gratuity,” says Allen. “All wines by the glass, beer and individual cocktails priced $10 and lower are available.”

Time will tell whether ‘all you can drink’ proves a viable business model. One thing, however, is clear – cruise beverage operations are a hub of innovation, with operators shedding their conservative image to stay abreast of evolving trends. This isn’t about targeting specific bars at specific passengers, it’s about offering a broad-ranging experience that opens up guests’ horizons and pioneers new ideas.

“Guests can step out of their comfort zone as much or as little as they like,” says Allen. “We encourage all of our guests – whether they are tasting a new cocktail or a traditional favourite – to stimulate a broad spectrum of their palate. It’s not about demographics, it’s about discovery.”

Five Signature Cruise Ship Bars

Norwegian Epic – SVEDKA Ice Bar

With the temperature dipping below 17°F (-8°C), this is one of only 14 true ice bars in the world. Entrants are presented with a faux fur coat on arrival, and spend as long as they can quaffing vodka cocktails in a room where even the stools are made from ice.

Cunard ships – Golden Lion Pub

A British-inspired pub with all the trimmings, the Golden Lion is the social centrepiece of all three Cunard ships. It was refurbished in 2011 to create a slicker feel, but still offers bottled brews, a dartboard, sports screens and a range of classic pub fare.

Celebrity ships – Martini Bar

Offering 26 different Martini cocktails, this ice-covered bar proved so popular on the Solstice class that it was retrofitted into Millennium. Spectacle here is part of the draw: the bartenders are trained to perform acrobatic feats while preparing up to eight Martinis simultaneously.

Grand Princess – One5

The One5 lounge, with its backlit bar and dancefloor, is Grand Princess’ afterparty venue of choice. Opened in 2011, this urban-style nightclub came as part of an extensive ship-wide refurbishment. It features an outdoor terrace and curved banquettes.

MSC Splendida – Purple Jazz Bar

Decorated in shades of violet, the Purple Jazz Bar is purple by name and by nature. While modern in terms of styling, it was inspired by the golden age of jazz music, and allows guests to unwind to 1920s and Rat Pack classics. Drinks offerings include aged whiskies, cognac, tequila and grappa.

This article appears in the Spring 2013 issue of World Cruise Industry Review

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