How do passenger ship operators meet guest expectations?

Executives from MSC Cruises and Finnlines discuss how hotel operations delivery is evolving

How do passenger ship operators meet guest expectations?


There are a range of dining options available onboard Finnsirius

By Amber Hickman |

From the moment a guest steps onto a ship for the first time to the moment they disembark, they are looking for a quality onboard experience. However, the lines between what have been considered as luxury and standard services have become increasingly blurred, with all guests seeking unique, personalised experiences, high-quality products and, ultimately, more value for their money no matter the ship, itinerary or brand. 

“In recent years we’ve found that guests have much higher expectations in terms of service delivery, which stems from the pent-up demand for the very best in hospitality that built over the course of the pandemic,” says Bernhard Stacher, vice president of global hotel operations at MSC Cruises. “The shortage of qualified and experienced staff worldwide was a valid excuse a year ago, but now guests are less forgiving and want us to exceed in every area for the duration of their holiday at sea.” 

Guests are expecting a high-quality and memorable service onboard ferries too, regardless of the duration of their journey. 

“In general people are more conscious about sustainable travel options and experiences,” says Kristiina Uppala, head of customer service and onboard concept development at Finnlines, who prioritises quality control to ensure that guests have the same experience every time. “Extensive standard procedures are a must, and this includes all the suppliers and third parties. Various quality control methods support our daily routines and operations.” 

When guests are only onboard for a short amount of time, they focus on key elements like the dining experience. 

“Passengers are now more aware of the different aspects of dining onboard the ships, including the origin of the food, how well we can accommodate dietary requirements and dining as an experience,” says Uppala. “The traditional buffet still appeals to families, but it has lost its glamour.” 

Finnlines approaches this by presenting guests with a variety of choice across its ships, including traditional buffets, à la carte restaurants, ‘grab and go’ spots and restaurants that offer separate areas for families and pets. 

The interior design of a vessel also plays an important role in delivering high-quality guest experiences, according to Stacher. “The ability to serve our guests efficiently is always built into the initial design of a vessel and never an afterthought,” he says. “The hotel operations team spends considerable time not only developing the look and feel of our newest spaces but also how the operation can run effectively.” 

A key interior design priority for Finnlines is to choose the right materials (and suppliers) to ensure the longevity of the surfaces onboard the ship as well as the comfort of the guests. 

“Material choices are key and in a hotel environment, maintaining the areas is one of the biggest challenges,” says Uppala. “When you select the right materials for the surfaces, spaces look fresher for longer. Instead of implementing what others have already done, we try to experiment and bring something new to guests.” 

Finnlines also carefully chooses interior design elements to help create a specific ambience and positively influence the emotions of guests, leading to a more luxurious experience. 

“Through different themes and set-ups in the interior, we can effectively achieve different behaviour among customers,” says Uppala. “Senses have an important role too; not only visually, but also in terms of what guests hear and smell, how comfortable the chairs and mattresses are, and so on.” 

In order to deliver high-quality hotel operations, shipowners also need to ensure the crew is well-equipped to attend to the guests and their different needs. According to Stacher, MSC Cruises continuously trains crew members to ensure they develop the skills and experience they need to provide a consistent service to all guests. 

“We have a highly professional network of ‘travelling trainers’ who develop and enhance the technical skills of our onboard departments,” he says. “Our fleet supervisors coach our shipboard leaders in operating their departments to the highest possible levels, with a fully comprehensive training programme that is laser-focused on service and hospitality.” 

Technology can also help boost the guest experience in various ways. Finnlines is utilising self-service technology in different ways to give guests more control over their onboard experience and free up crew members to focus on critical tasks. 

“Self-service options through digital channels reduce the workload of the crew, while modern equipment also supports efficient working hours,” says Uppala. “Some good examples of this include the central vacuum cleaning system, digital signage and self-service kiosks for guests. Also, pay-in venue access will be controlled with automated turnstile gates.” 

Stacher agrees, noting that MSC Cruises is investing in technological solutions to innovate the guest experience too. 

“In the past few years, our hotel operations team has invested a great deal of time and energy in developing a new property management system that has both service and service recovery heavily factored into its core,” he explains. “The system interfaces with a separate hotel maintenance programme to provide our staff with a full and comprehensive 360-degree view on what factors might detract from our guests having a wonderful holiday at sea and gives us a structured way to remedy any issue in a timely manner.  

“We have also digitalised our onboard activity tool to allow shipboard and shoreside staff to be more effectively connected in experience planning. This allows us to share best practices on an enterprise level that in turn enables us to adapt to our guests’ requirements even faster.” 

Partner perspectives 

We asked selected design and outfitting firms to share their perspectives on how they can help cruise and ferry brands rethink ship interiors to deliver better hotel services 

“To deliver outstanding hotel operations, passenger ship operators must focus on providing a deeply personalised level of service and memorable experiences for guests, all within an authentic interior setting. At The Deluxe Group, we have assisted clients in spatial storytelling, creating interiors that weave a narrative throughout food and drink offerings from The 40 Elephants Bar in London, UK, where every cocktail tells a story and the interiors contain hints to the notorious London female criminal gang of its namesake, to dining experiences where guests are ‘shrunk’ in size amongst jam jar lids that function as tables in a larger-than-life eatery. We can provide similar design and bespoke fabrication for cruise ships too,” says Karen Argue, Business Development Manager, The Deluxe Group. 

“As designers, we can use our expertise to help elevate the quality of hotel operations and service delivery on cruise ships by using thoughtful interior design and integrating technologies to optimise the guest experience. We can prioritise sustainability and safety, design efficient spaces, and promote cultural sensitivity and inclusivity. By focusing on aesthetics, flexibility and eco-friendly initiatives, we enhance the overall cruise experience, contributing to increased guest satisfaction and the success of the cruise industry,” says Debra Breslauer, Vice President, Design, Tomas Tillberg Design. 

“Today, every cruise brand aims to offer luxury hotel services for their guests. To deliver outstanding hotel operations, cruise lines must keep in mind customers’ expectations, especially when planning interior layouts during the engineering and construction phase. At Gerolamo Scorza, we offer innovative products and efficient production methods to help them achieve this goal. For example, we recently completed outfitting work onboard Oceania Cruises’ luxury vessel Allura and Seabourn’s ultra-luxury expedition cruise ship Seabourn Pursuit, ensuring that we met diverse quality standards across all the public spaces,” says Isadora Corazzo, Administrative and Technical Officer, Gerolamo Scorza. 

“Making relevant information accessible to the hotel operations teams after our refits is vital to help them maintain high-quality service delivery to cruise passengers. As one example, our TAPP system provides easy access to cleaning instructions and material datasheets, indexed by ship area and space. This means the onboard hotel team has access to live information on all of the materials we have installed so they can maintain the areas to the highest possible standards. Having instantly accessible records of all materials used in a space also helps down the line when it comes to refitting other ships in their fleet,” says Nick Farrell, Co-owner of Trimline. 

“We believe that outstanding service on cruise ships starts with ensuring that guests enjoy themselves as much as possible. This means cosy cabins, delicious and unique dining options, and a sense of high-quality service. Once this foundation is set, we add extra elements like special services, innovative ideas, and exciting themes to enhance the experience. We’ve noticed that cruise concepts focused on learning, awareness, personal growth, and adventure are becoming more popular. Onboard hotel teams that help to provide personalised programmes, eco-friendly trips, cultural immersions, and educational voyages will ensure that guests have memorable experiences,” says Hanna Långström, Vice President, Marketing, Almaco. 

“The central pillars of outstanding hotel operations when it comes to the dining experience is consistency of operation, food quality and food delivery. Through the continual monitoring of equipment and the latest equipment software updates, Welbilt Marine helps ship operators to keep costs low and performance high. Created to reduce downtime and maximise the lifespan of the equipment, our GalleyCare provides ongoing assessment and monitoring of galley equipment throughout their lifetime,” says Nicolas Lesbats, Sales Manager, Global Marine After-Sales, Welbilt Marine. 

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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