Radisson Seven Seas ships, like the one above, have added special Martini bars and Connoisseur’s Rooms stocked with aged cognacs, armagnacs, Scotches and grappas. Most other cruise lines are keeping pace with expanded wine and spirits programs.
Like Las Vegas, the American cruise ship industry has had a hard time shaking an image for low-end drinking. Sure, the luxury liners that once plied the Atlantic still exude a certain nostalgic sophistication for many cocktail enthusiasts, but to most Americans, cruise ships go together with cherry-topped Pina Coladas served in plastic cups.
Even if that portrayal was once accurate, it isn’t now, however. In fact, just as bars and restaurants on land, cruise ships have created innovative cocktail programs, spruced up their wines lists and built new, ultra-premium spirit lounges. Many ships offer wine classes and wine/food pairing opportunities as a regular part of each cruise. The guests may still be wearing knee socks and T-shirts, but when they drink, they can be as sophisticated as they like.
Many of the lines have crafted specialty bars to encourage more high-class tippling; Royal Caribbean International has established signature champagne bars on their Royal Caribbean ships and Martini bars on Celebrity vessels. Celebrity also has capitalized on the US cigar craze by opening cigar lounges with spirits. “You have to make every bar a very different experience,” says Don Hendricks, manager of beverage operations for RCI, the parent company of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity lines.
Carnival Cruise Lines has refit some of their smaller bars into specialty locales, featuring Martinis and cocktails, single-malt Scotches and frozen blender drinks. While the bars haven’t set sales records, says Natko Nincevic, vice president of food and beverage and general manager
of Seachest Associates for Carnival Cruise Lines, they do provide a point of differentiation for the cruise line and give guests another on-board entertainment option.
Crystal introduced the Crystal Master’s collection in 1997, eight new and traditional Martinis that have become huge sellers. A new Connoisseur’s Club stocked with single malts, grappas and the like has been added to the Crystal Symphony, with another expected for the Harmony.
At Princess, ships have incorporated an expanded selection of Scotches called the “Connoisseurs Collection,” seven single-malts representing different styles and regions. Princess has also introduced a specialty Margarita list using higher-quality premium tequilas, and developed signature cocktails for their “Martini Zone,” the inside bars on all Princess ships. Drinks on the renewed menu include the 007 Classic, the Cosmopolitini, the Bombay Rose and the Paisley Park. “The response from guests has been extremely positive,” says Stephen Judge, manager of food and beverage services for Princess Cruise Lines.
Cocktails At Sea
Many of the cruise line beverage execs in charge of keeping the on-board bars humming cut their teeth at famous bars on land.
Take Don Hendricks of RCI. He once served Martinis to various members of the Kennedy clan and the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor from his post behind the bar at New York City’s legendary Stork Club. If you ask him about the best place for customer service and quaffing atmosphere, he prefers the barstools on today’s cruise ships.
For one thing, alcohol consumption in general tends to increase on board cruise ships, Hendricks says, probably for a variety of reasons: guests are in a round-the-clock, celebratory mood; they have no reason to worry about being able to get home safely or drive their vehicles; and they travel with a more adventurous outlook than at home. They also tend to respond well to the quality of beverages, the service and the presentation they find while on board, he says.
Maintaining those relaxed feelings has become exceedingly important to Hendricks and other executives who are responsible for managing the highly-profitable beverage portion of hotel operations; RCI, for instance, rings up $100 million, fleetwide, in beverage alcohol sales annually, with about 15% coming from beer, 35% from wine and 50% spirits.
While cruise line food and beverage executives agree that the quality of beverage alcohol service, products and presentation are at an all-time high, the trends that have driven down spirits on land also are at work shipside. In general, spirits consumption aboard has been depressed for a number of years, while wine consumption has rocketed, says Robert Rigaud, director of purchasing for Silversea Cruises, Ltd.. And nothing he or other executives foresee seems poised to turn those consumer trends around.
Sales of Scotch, bourbon, American and Canadian whiskeys have generally followed the landside decade-long downward spiral, they say. And while white goods—vodka, tequila and some lighter rums—seem to be the direct beneficiaries of the consumer turn to lighter, sweeter drinks, their future is cloudy as well, since growth in consumption of beer and wine outpaces spirits.
Still, there’s plenty of cause for celebration out there. The same sorts of trends beverage managers all across the country are seeing—lower spirit consumption overall but a greater willingness among customers to spend freely on ultra-premium varieties; the comeback of Martinis and other contemporary recreations of popular cocktails from the golden era of nightclubs; the vodka proliferation; and expanded lists of such things as single malt Scotches—have had just as much of an impact on board.
“Customers are trading up more, asking for premium spirits instead of house brands,” says Nincevic of Seachest Associates.
While about 40% of beverage alcohol sales on board Carnival ships come from beer and 20% from wine, the remaining and highly profitable 40% is spirit or exotic beverage-related, says Nincevic.
Judge of Princess Cruise Lines believes that guests are “drinking less but better,” and suggests that brand-consciousness has affected all facets of service, from wine to spirits. Nincevic concurs.
“The customers are asking for brand names like Smirnoff or Absolut,” he says. “The cost of the lesser-known brands makes it better for us financially to serve them, since they’re less-expensive, but the customer demands the brands and we want to satisfy them.”
To accommodate the “drinking less but better” trend on RCI ships, when guests don’t specify a brand, bartenders pour well-known brand names—for instance, Finlandia vodka, Cutty Sark Scotch, Seagram’s gin, Jim Beam bourbon. Most of these are selected for their best-selling status in the US.
Christian Sauleau, vice president for operations at Radisson, says the line has also added special Martini bars, and is building on their next ship a Connoisseurs’ Room, stocked with old cognacs, armagnacs, grappas, single malt Scotches and special wines. The master sommeliers on board will give nightly hour-long talks in the room, primarily about wines.
In fact, on Radisson, wine accounts for at least 70% of sales shipwide, up to 90% in the dining room. On some cruises with a wine-related focus, shipwide wine sales top 80%. “What’s going on with wine versus spirits is like smoking and non-smoking; once the whole room smoked and a little section was saved for nonsmokers; now that’s all reversed. Once most people drank spirits and only a few wine; now that’s completely opposite,” he says.
“Food and wine is a large part of our entertainment on board. It’s not just musicals and shows that keep people entertained,” he says. And as wine has become more important to American cruisers, who make of 85% of Radisson’s customers, the line must keep up, with wine and food pairings, tastings and frequently sold-out seminars.
“I’ve been in the cruise business for 18 years, and when I started the wine served was of minimal quality. We used to sell it for $3 or $4 a bottle, now we’re up to $15 or $16 in only ten years,” says Sauleau
Sauleau, whose family were Loire Valley wine makers, tries to keep the core wine list consistent from ship to ship, at least with the master selection which is part of the cruise package. He also allows wine masters to stock wines when sailing, especially when coming to port in the Mediterranean countries. But it’s all pegged to American tastes, he says.
“We’ve definitely broadened our wine selection,” says Allan Nino, purchasing manager for Crystal CruiseLine.
Crystal, considered a top luxury line, prices its wines surprisingly low—20 wines by the glass under $8. Unlike a hotel, where capturing one or two bottle sales from a guest in a week is considered successful, “We have guests for 12 days–so we try to be extremely reasonable to get them to purchase more.”
They also host two wine tastings daily on board about half of their cruises (Crystals cruises last between 12 and 100 days). And to keep the list fresh, Nino hosts an annual wine summit, where it undergoes a complete revision. Nino, the culinary director, f&b managers and cellar masters from each ship get together to taste wines and hear winery presentations before settling the new list.
A Sea Of Frozen Drinks
But as most cruise ships provide a warm weather party atmosphere, guests tend to prefer frozen drinks. “Exotic drinks made with rums and fruit juices are very popular now, like Daiquiris, Pina Coladas, and Maragritas,” says Nincevic.
“Stylish presentation and colorful drinks are getting bigger with guests,” says Hendricks. When RCI/Celebrity ships welcome corporate groups, Hendricks develops recipes that take on the company’s colors. When executives from motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson cruised recently, they were offered a black drink called the Harley and an orange-hued libation called the Davidson. It was a big hit with the company.
RCI has also reinstituted one of the line’s old barroom customs. Called the Chameleon, the cocktail is made to match the color of a female bar customer’s dress. RCI also focuses their merchandising skills on presentation by introducing stylish and quirky glassware. A plastic glass made to resemble an icicle and to hold frozen spirits for poolside sipping have made a hit recently. Hendricks also highlights a US potato vodka Glacier by immersing bottles in small tubs of water and rose petals; the resulting blocks of rose-studded, ice-wrapped vodka are placed on ship bars.
Hendricks has initiated an all-inclusive $29 per day beverage package, excluding champagne. Even if guests repeatedly order high-priced cognacs and such, that’s all to the good. “It pays for us to offer the best. If I give them good liquor, they can drink 6 or 7 drinks a day and feel fine when they wake up, since they also eat three or four meals a day and have the healthy environment of the ship. But if I give them cheap alcohol, they wake up feeling rotten and I lose them for the entire next day.”
As a line with a more luxurious reputation, Silversea is less trend-responsive, although keeping on top of consumer demand is very important, says Rigaud “We have a bar list we review on a regular basis to make sure we are offering the best that’s available in the market,” he says Each ship must be prepared for any type of consumption, and so all receive a complete complement of liquor selections, and sometimes special procurement arrangements must be made on the fly.
Buying on the Side
Ship procurement of spirits differs from wine; wine allocation procedures may force annual buying decisions less flexible than with spirits and can restrict the amount each purchaser may receive of certain vintages. Silversea buys wine as far in advance as possible and stores it in their warehouses for latter distribution among the ships. But spirits are purchased by consumption history fleet-wide from brokers who specialize in cruise lines.
“But sometimes we have special requests from passengers for specific brands and we are happy to do what we can to get them.” And Rigaud says the Silversea ships will frequently purchase spirits on the fly, picking up grappa in Italy and rum in the islands.
Like other lines, Crystal’s’ Nino makes up the difference since they don’t pay US taxes (most cruiselines are registered as foreign vessels). In many cases they also by-pass the three-tier beverage alcohol system and purchase directly from wineries through their own ship’s chandeler companies.
Crsytal, as a relatively small line, is able to work with smaller wineries to develop relationships and get special allotments. “We get offers to carry some wines that aren’t usually available to major lines. Some of these wineries look to luxury cruise lines as a good place to showcase their wines. However we’re always fighting; it’s hard when you only sell 4 or 5 cases of some of these wines per year,” he says.
Princess buys in a variety of fashions; through US brokers, through parent P&O and “whenever possible from the countries we visit,” says Judge. And RCI’s Hendricks says their ships currently restock whenever they can in port countries: rum in Haiti and Puerto Rico and beer in the Bahamas, for instance.
Since his company’s various millennial cruise have already sold out, RCI’s manager of beverages Don Hendricks has spread the celebrations around with 800 New Year’s Eve parties to be held during the year, one for every cruise. But before he announced those parties, he stocked up in anticipation of 1999’s rush on champagne and sparkling wine.
Champagne producers and international sparkling wine-makers have been projecting thirty percent sales increase for 1999 since last year as the world began to prepare for Y2K celebrations. In the US, more than half the sparkling sales are totaled in the last two months of the year. Millennial celebrations are expected to push the numbers higher.
Hendricks, who says RCI already sells about a thousand bottles of Korbel sparkling per week, expects those sales to triple this year. “But I don’t think the champagne companies are going to run out of stock the way some people are predicting, but such prestige brands as Dom Perignon and Cristal may be tough to get.”
Upscale Silversea Cruises, where all-champagne all-the-time is the rule, just announced Moet & Chandon as its new house pour. Silversea pours plenty of it; boarding guests are greeted with a flute and chilled bottles greet them as they enter their suites. Silversea keeps a steady supply of champagne in stock and expects that Moet will be able to satisfy their needs for 1999.
Most cruise lines have increased their annual orders just in case, although some downplay the projected squeeze. “We have a contract for champagne that we make at the beginning of the year, and we buy based on the previous year’s consumption,” says Natko Nincevic, Carnival’s vp of food & beverage. “We’ll have enough.”