We have all heard the tale about the swan, moving gracefully above the water with furious paddling below the surface. Cunard delivers a consistently elegant experience that runs smoothly. How do they do it? How do they plan for the future? On our recent nine nights on Cunard’s Queen Victoria I sat down with the hotel manager and the food and beverage manager to learn more about what happens behind the scenes as the swan glides across the water.
How does the hotel side run?
While crossing the Atlantic on the first leg of the 98-night world cruise on Queen Victoria, I sat down with Neil Coleman, the hotel manager.
Do crew members have a career when they serve on Cunard vessels? Yes. People often join, starting in entry level positions and can move up. This might involve transferring between departments as opportunities arise. There are instances where the children of Cunard staff follow their parents into service at sea. Crew members might encourage extended family members to take up the same career. Cunard has a staff agency to identify new hires and provide entry level training. Cunard is one of the hardest, if not actually the hardest line to qualify to join. The advantage of staff loyalty is having skilled people in roles for the long term. The unexpected disadvantage is when career advancement becomes difficult because experienced people stay in higher level roles. The pandemic changed things because some in senior roles decided it was a good time to retire. This allowed people in the middle group to move up.
How does tipping work? Guests have a standard amount charged to their onboard accounts. This covers tipping. This large pool is split 50/50 between the housekeeping and restaurant staff. This means your steward and wait staff share along with the staff who look after you, but might not be as visible. Your night steward is a good example. If passengers receive excellent service and choose to also tip in cash, that goes directly to the person they reward.
The pandemic brought several changes to the Cunard experience. The dining room has more tables for two and few if any large tables. Are there plans to return to relax these rules and return to the pre pandemic experience? Cunard makes these decisions for the fleet at the home office level. As pandemic restrictions have been relaxed, Cunard has reintroduced larger tables in the restaurants. Freedom dining has also been introduced in the Britannia restaurant, allowing passengers to choose open seating instead of a scheduled seating. Large parties like the World Club reception were paused when sailings resumed post pandemic. The plan is to reintroduce these gradually, most likely as outdoor events.
What about the Food & Beverage Side?
Jeffrey Morgan is the Food and Beverage Manager onboard Queen Victoria. When I earlier discussed how people build their careers at Cunard, now I met someone who could speak from firsthand experience. Jeffrey joined Cunard as a cook onboard the famous QE2 in 1978 and has risen through the ranks to the senior position he holds today.
Ships in the industry are shifting to an open seating system in the dining room. Has Cunard moved in that direction or does it find the two-seating system more popular with passengers? Cunard has adopted a hybrid seating system. The ship continues with both an early and late seating, with the added option of Freedom Dining. Guests choosing to dine outside of the defined seatings enter the Britannia Dining Room from a different direction. They can also choose to be seated as a couple or join a larger table. A group of passengers who want to sit together and arrive for Freedom Dining at the same time can be seated together on a regular basis.
How does Cunard manage to keep food quality high despite rising prices? Supply chain issues have been a major challenge too. Some suppliers closed up shop during the pandemic when ships were not sailing. Although ships were traditionally supplied by chandlers, Cunard has moved to working directly with distributors with locations around the globe. The menus are designed onshore at the Cunard home office, where they also negotiate prices regularly and determine what are the best buys. Meals are tested in the kitchens beforehand. The onboard menu cycles on a 21 day schedule, meaning dishes don’t generally repeat for three weeks. Although they introduce new dishes, they also keep the passenger favorites like Beef Wellington, Surf & Turf and Baked Alaska in the rotation. There is flexibility onboard. The chef has a “toolkit” allowing them to amend the menu. On another subject, the food and beverage staff also pay attention to trends. If the ship is carrying a larger percentage of passengers from a specific nationality, the dining room may serve more dishes that are cultural favorites.
The number of formal nights has decreased, post pandemic. How has this been received by passengers? These decisions are made at the home office level. Cunard listens to guests and tries to anticipate trends. The newer clientele is trending towards more casual dining. Passengers choosing Freedom Dining generally prefer a more casual approach. There is still strong support for formal dining too, because as lifestyles generally become more casual, where can you go if you want to dress up? That is an environment Cunard tries to provide, seeking a balance between a more relaxed dress protocol and a formal setting for those guests who enjoy it. If a guest finds themselves needing a jacket on formal nights, the ship’s staff can provide it.
We discussed other topics, but these are selected highlights. My conversation with Jeffrey Morgan recalled the days when the QE2 was in service. I remarked ships today have larger cabins with standardized layouts, which is a big improvement from our first trip on the QE2, when our inside cabin measured 108 square feet! He explained on the QE2 certain cabins were designed as “maid’s cabins” because when entire families traveled, they would sometimes invite their household help to join them! He also told the story when the UK first introduced the national lottery, the press interviewed the British public, asking what they would do with the money if they won. A popular answer was “Book a world cruise on the QE2 and fly on Concorde.” This reputation is what keeps Cunard as an iconic luxury brand.
Many thanks to Cunard Line and to All Things Cruise.
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Queen Mary 2
Cover photo: Cunard Queen Mary 2 Britannia entrance