The Slow Demise of Traditional Cruise Dining
Written by: Kuki
Over the weekend Celebrity Cruise Line became one of the last hold-outs amongst the major cruise lines to amend their dining room arrangements to include a version of “unstructured” dining times ,rather than assigned times and specific table seating assignments for passengers.
No doubt there will be many cruisers out there bemoaning what may be a movement towards the total loss of traditional assigned dining on cruise ships. Traditional assigned dining has really been something unique to the cruise industry. I know I’d never experienced anything like it during any other type of travel; where, unless you were traveling with others, you’d likely be seated to dine with strangers.
It normally brought rather interesting results, and overall most passengers seemed fairly satisfied with the uniformity the system offered. They also seemed to enjoy having the same service teams for dinner each evening.
Certainly now there will be those who lament this newest trend to make a cruise more similar to land based resort vacations. I’m one of them, but more on that later.
Until very recently the freedom to choose to dine “when you wanted, with whom you wanted“ was pretty much the domain of the luxury cruise lines; sailing much smaller ships than their much larger mass market cousins. The difference on the smaller luxury ships is their dining rooms are large enough to accommodate all the passengers, if by chance all passengers chose to dine at the same time.
Crystal and Cunard Cruise Lines, at this time, are still sticking with “traditional, assigned dining”.
In the large ship categories, Norwegian Cruise Line was the innovator in regard to the introduction of open seating dining several years ago when “Freestyle Cruising” debuted. In fact much of their marketing showed images of robot like guests (on other cruise lines) marching off to dinner, all wearing the same clothes… implying the rigidity of what it was like cruising on “those other cruise lines”.
That must have struck a chord with the management of “those other cruise lines” because shortly after “Freestyle” was introduced on NCL, Princess Cruise Line introduced what they called “Anytime Dining”. While they still offered, and continue to offer, a choice of “traditional dining”. Their version amounted to simply taking one or two of their already existing dining rooms, and allowing guests to choose to dine at unstructured dining times. Other lines followed with their own, yet similar to Princess, versions; each in turn trying to come up with their own “cutesy names” to describe very similar programs.
One has to assume that the trend to more “open seating dining” was in response to demand the lines have received in their own customer surveys and polls. I do see some inherent problems for the lines which offer both traditional and variable dining. For example, I’ve personally experienced the situation where my preference requested was traditional dining, yet in the end were assigned the variable dining because the traditional dining rooms were already fully booked. The result… the choice was the cruise line’s, not mine. To be fair, similar problems do occasionally arise on ships with only traditional assigned dining, when one of the dining times is over subscribed.
A significant problem when offering both dining types is the scheduling of evening entertainment on the ships, especially featured showroom entertainment. Generally with traditional dining times, shows are scheduled twice nightly; once for early diners, and again for late diners. If you’ve chosen variable dining times, but enjoy the showroom entertainment, you must examine your dining options quite carefully to coordinate with the entertainment schedule.
As NCL has been functioning in its “Freestyle” mode for the longest time now, it has also worked on the functionality of those issues, now offering more varied and flexible entertainment schedules as well. The goal – to make cruises on their ships a “Freestyle experience” as opposed to simply offering Freestyle Dining. As the more traditional cruise lines move to offering the variable dining-time option, I believe they’re going to find they’ll need to find those issues are more difficult to deal with than they may think.
During the past decade we’ve already seen most cruise lines adding alternate restaurants as an option to the traditional dining rooms; normally only one or two, and almost always carrying an extra charge for their use. Once again NCL was ahead of the curve, where their most recent new builds have offered up to 10 different restaurants onboard (and even more on their newest ship currently in the shipyard; NCL Epic). Some may argue with my “ahead of the curve” terminology, but with the manner the competitors have moved to push towards variable dining times I foresee them also adding many more alternate restaurant choices as well, and of course at an extra cost.
In many ways I am a fan of the variable time/ open seating dining options, but only if it’s done well. However there are situations where it may not work as well as hoped. The very best I’ve ever seen it work was on Silversea Cruise Line. As guests entered the dining room they’d ask if the guest would like to join a table, or prefer to dine by themselves. The Maitre D’ took the initiative, which created a very social situation. Almost each evening of the cruise we met and dined with new and interesting people. We even met people who, though they were cruising together, dined separately each evening, simply to enjoy meeting new people. Our experience on other lines with open seating, if it were just two of us entering the dining room, we’d almost automatically be seated at a table for two.
Open seating also does not work well if you’re traveling with a larger group. It can be difficult finding a table for 8 or 10, and even more difficult if it’s a large group wanting multiple tables in close proximity.
Combined with other recent trending changes in the cruise industry, like designing some ships to resemble amusement parks rather than cruise ships, it seems like there’s a concerted move afoot to create resorts and amusement parks that happen to be on the water.
There’s no question land based resorts and amusement parks can possibly appeal to a broader audience for the cruise industry. Personally though, I’m looking to go on a cruise ship to cruise. The closer the experience gets to an amusement park or land based resort the more likely I am to stay on land. So there may also be a cost in the loss of the “traditional cruise passenger” while attempting to appeal to the “new crowd”.
Does the slow demise of traditional dining strike you as yet one further step closer to the demise of “cruising” as you’ve known it, and come to love? Or has this entire blog simply showing I’ve become an old curmudgeon?
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Posted: June 23rd, 2009 under Kuki.