Hotel Director Sean Wurmhoeringer has brought several new ships into service including Norwegian Cruise Line's very successful Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. However, his enthusiasm for Norwegian Escape shines through when he speaks. “Another great ship. It's a hit. How could it not be? Great hardware, we have a great crew and a great product.”
“I would say that we have taken the Breakaway and the Getaway and made it even better. More space for pretty much the same amount of guests. We have 160 more cabins total, about 300 more guests than the Breakaway and the Getaway. But we have more deck space. Getaway and Breakaway are already super. But this is another level.”
“Food and beverage is another level in all regards. New menus, better ingredients, new concepts. The idea was to deliver a better product.”
The change is apparent even before you take a bite. “Every restaurant has different glasses, different napkins, different silverware - - every outlet is different. The cost involved in that sort of upgrade is huge - - a huge, huge investment. And the menus - - a huge investment. I'm sure this is an investment in the right area. it is just a better product.”
As part of this upgrading, existing concepts have been re-thought. With La Cucina, for example, “we went away from trattoria family-style, which it was originally with the big tables and no tablecloths on the other ships, to an up class venue. The new menu is more upscale.”
In addition to upgrading Norwegian's existing dining concepts, Escape has added several new dining venues to its line-up.
Of the new venues, the Food Republic has emerged as the most popular with guests. However, it was not obvious that it would be so from the beginning.
“The project name was 'food court' and it was [labeled that] on the plan. We said what is a food court? What do we expect that to be? When it kicked in .and the Pubbelly guys came aboard, started cooking and started training our crew, then we knew this is a winner. The concept, the ordering from the iPad, the pricing of the dishes, the whole concept of no sequence of service - - whatever is finished comes to the table. We saw that from day one, this is going to be a hit.”
It still is not an easy concept to describe. It is nothing like the food court at your local shopping mall. Rather, it combines elements of Asian, Latin, European and North American cuisines into dishes with strong personalities. “The challenge is how to we make sure that people know what it is. How do we explain this to the guests?”
Another new venue presented almost the opposite challenge. Almost everyone knows Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. “Our original plan was to go complimentary and it was for the first three weeks. . But we couldn't handle the crowds. We had 600 guests there but of that 600, 400 were waiting with pagers for up to two hours to be seated. Then the service was slow and the food came out sloppy. We had to do something because we could not execute it. Now we are down to 300 with the charge and it works.”
Yet another new dining venue is Bayamo. “Cuban, Latin-flavored cuisine by Jose Garces. An interesting concept that has been popular.”
Norwegian is also experimenting with new pricing concepts for its dining venues. Only the Moderno Churascaria and Teppanyaki have the traditional all-encompassing cover charge. The other specialty restaurants have ala carte pricing.
“It really is not playing a big role because nearly everybody has the [dining] packages and with the packages it doesn't make a difference. The few that don't have the packages and pay in cash, rather than choosing the whole menu, they are choosing to have this appetizer, this main course and they might not have a dessert. It has changed the way people are ordering. It helps service and reduces food waste. People are more conscious of it.”
The packages, Mr. Wurmhoeringer concedes, “make it more difficult to get into the [specialty] restaurants. We have to be careful we don't overdo it because [if we do] service is going to suffer and the food is going to suffer. We want to keep it at a level where we can still provide the service and execute accordingly. That is a balance. People don't expect to go [to a specialty restaurant] at five o'clock or 10 o'clock, they expect to go between seven and nine. You cannot accommodate 5,000 people in Cagney's or Le Bistro. The only way to control it is with a charge. If we were to charge $100 more a ticket and say everything is included, there would be no way you could do this.”
Norwegian has also bolstered the line-up of bars and lounges. “The District Beer House has been very popular. We have 24 beers on tap. The idea there is to have a certain amount of beers there that are always available and the rest are seasonal. In the winter season, you have that special beer or this special ale.”
“In the beginning, we thought we were going to miss The Bliss Lounge.” - - the nightclub on Breakaway and Getaway. “It turned out that this is actually better. Bliss, unless the place was full, people used to walk in and walk out. Nobody wants to stay in a place that is empty. [On Escape], we've turned the Skyline Bar into a nightclub. The Skyline Bar is open. People walking by can look in. People inside can look outside. It is a more friendly atmosphere.”
The Cellar occupies the area where the Ice Bar is on the predecessor ships. It is an intimate wine bar, that also has wine pairings, tastings and seminars. This venue is not seen as having mass market appeal but rather something that a few passengers might enjoy just as the new Le Coste and Carolina Herrera boutiques are targeted to appeal to a specific customer segment.
“With 5,000 guests, you will have guests who [enjoy sitting] in the wine cellar having a nice glass of wine decanted from the beautiful decanters that we have there, We will have those guests, not en masse, of course, but masses you couldn't fit anyway - - there are only 12 bar stools.”
Norwegian has also upgraded its entertainment. “All three [of the main production shows], Million Dollar Quartet, After Midnight and the Supper Club are top caliber. It is very powerful, high caliber entertainment.”
“Now we have two super screens on the pool deck, which allows us to show movies, games and whatever we want. We missed that on the Getaway. We had the one in the back and one in the atrium but we did not have anything poolside. “
What do all these changes mean for the people who operate the ship? “For us, it can only be good because we get to operate a better product. Anything that is an upgrade is always good for us. It makes us proud to present this.”
Of course, it means more work. “Although it is the same ship [design as Breakaway and Getaway], with all these changes, there is work to do in seeing how we can make things work best.”
In addition, the new concepts are not self-executing. “For us, the challenge is to see that the execution is how it is meant to be. On any ship, the challenge is to make sure there is consistency, that the guys follow the recipes, the procedures, that we get the right products from the suppliers.”
To aid in this, Mr. Wurmhoeringer actively solicits feedback from the guests. They supply “a lot of great comments, a lot of constructive feedback.”
Despite spending much time observing the operation first hand, he finds guest input valuable because “sometimes we don't see it or realize it.”
In addition, guest contact is important to Mr. Wurmhoeringer's philosophy of hospitality. “I take it personally, every single guest is my guest. I tell the crew I want to be sure my guests are taken care of. I tell them [under] the concept of hospitality, one three or 5,000, it is all the same.”
And despite all the positive feedback, he has received about Escape, Mr. Wurmhoeringer probably will never be satisfied. “There are so many things we can do but there are so many things that need attention. We need to take it step by step. Step by step, take these things further.”
Cruise ship interview - Norwegian Cruise Line - Norwegian Escape - Hotel Director