(3:35 p.m. EST) -- Crystal Cruises, one of the most traditional of cruising's luxury lines, announced today at the annual Cruise Shipping Miami convention that it would bow to the times and introduce Perfect Choice Dining, a dining concept that embraces both classic and flexible options, in its main restaurant.
Perfect Choice will continue to feature the line's "classic" early and late seatings at dinner (in which passengers are matched with other travelers to dine at the same table, at the same time, each evening). Those who opt for the new twist, which Crystal's calling "Open Dining By Reservation," can reserve times and tables pre-cruise (or while onboard).
Perfect Choice debuts on both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity in January 2011 and applies only applies to dinner; the Crystal Dining Room, pictured, is all open seating for both breakfast and lunch.
Interestingly, Crystal is the only luxury line to feature set seating at mandated times in its dining room (though Cunard's upscale Princess and Queen's Grill restaurants, dedicated to its highest paying passengers, still serve assigned tables and mates).
Many of our passengers "enjoy the familiarity of the experience, the same table and same section of the dining room at night, the same senior waiter who knows their preferences," Crystal President Gregg Michel said today during his announcement. Also special: "The relationships that are built with tablemates, some of whom become friends for life. That's the signature Crystal experience."
But as the luxury cruise market increasingly pursues a younger, more active traveler, Crystal's lack of options at dinner was a drawback to attracting new-to-Crystal customers. The challenge, Michel said, is "how can we offer the ultimate choices in personalized luxury dining and satisfy the demand for open dining?"
Bill Smith, the line's head of hotel operations, succinctly summed up the challenge facing Crystal. "We didn't want to throw the baby away with the bathwater cause this really works for us. Traditional dining has been a hallmark of Crystal for so long. It is part of the dining experience our guests enjoy."
When contemplating adding the more flexible options, Crystal had other considerations as well, such as how to re-arrange tipping for passengers who choose "Open Dining By Reservation." Travelers are strongly encouraged to make reservations in advance -- either before their cruise, via Crystal's Web site, or while onboard -- so that shipboard chefs can balance demand and keep cuisine quality levels high. And, so as not to disrupt the choreography of the dining experience, flex-diners will eat in their own section of the restaurant.
Why Is Crystal Introducing Flex Dining Now?
New developments in technology (which enable the ships' onboard reservation system to operate with its Web site system) made now the perfect time to implement the change, Smith told an assembled throng of journalists and travel agents. It's a massive shift for a one of the industry's most highly rated traditional-minded cruise lines.
How It Works
Beginning immediately, passengers who book a 2011 cruise on Crystal's Symphony or Serenity will be able to choose classic main, classic late or "Open Dining By Reservation" (those who booked their 2011 cruises before the open dining option was announced should contact travel agents if they want to make a change).
On July 1, Crystal's new online Priority Check-In and Planning Center will launch on its Web site. At that time, travelers who've paid for their cruises in full will be able to actually make reservations for the open seating option. (Crystal already offers pre-cruise restaurant reservations for its specialty venues like Prego and Silk Road).
Passengers can also book onboard -- or simply show up at the dining room when the mood strikes -- options that are available on almost every cruise line, luxury or mass market. But unlike those lines for whom ultra-flex options are the norm, Smith does still urge Crystal customers to reserve in advance, noting that chefs want to maintain the line's highly acclaimed a la minute quality and that reservations help balance demand.
"Open Seating By Reservations" features tables for two, four, six and eight.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
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Traditional-Minded Crystal Cruises Introduces Flexible Dining
March 16, 2010