September 22, 2000
Princess Cruises announcement last week that it’s integrating a new “Personal Dining Choice” program -- where cruise passengers can eat, onboard, where, when and with whom they wish, lauded itself as an innovator. But guess what? This quickly expanding trend -- in large part in response to cruise lines' aggressive efforts to attract the never-been-cruising traveler -- isn't, um, new. The real innovator in transforming the inboard dining scene from its historic arranged-tables-set-times habit is Renaissance Cruises. When in 1998 Renaissance launched its R-series ships, which hold 682 passengers, it was the first “big” ship cruise line to show it could be done. On Renaissance there are four restaurants, open 6 p.m. - 10 p.m. The Club is the most traditional; passengers can show up wherever they want but unless they’re not in a large group they will more than likely be sitting with strangers. On a more intimate scale is The Grill, a steakhouse, where tables are generally smaller -- twos and fours, perfect for meeting up with fellow passengers you’ve met along the way. The Italian restaurant operates similarly. And then there’s an informal Lido choice. Norwegian took Renaissance’s concept and reworked it to suit an even bigger ship; in June it launched “Freestyle Cruising" on the Norwegian Sky. Freestyle’s m.o. eliminates the banquet-like, herd-like atmosphere; its three main dining rooms, plus specialty restaurants, were opened from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. An unexpected benefit, according to spokeswoman Fran Sevcik: “Passengers will now be able to linger over dinner or dessert without being rushed since waiters will be serving continuously throughout the evening. An added benefit is that meals are cooked-to-order instead of prepared banquet-style within two scheduled time periods.” Norwegian says it will have added "Freestyle" to all its Caribbean ships by this fall and to the rest of the fleet by mid-2001. Even Carnival’s trying out a more informal dining scenario. On some ships, such as the Inspiration, dinner seatings in the main dining rooms were expanded -- on a trial basis -- from the two-seating option to one with four different times that promotes a more consistent flow. One bottom line beneficiary with most of these lines has been the consolidation of the tipping process: because you are being served, for the most part, by different waiters in a variety of restaurants, cruise passengers are now spared that teeth-gnashing last-night handing-out-the-envelope ritual. If they want to be.