June 21st, 2018 | By Mike Raven
I interviewed Wes live on a very busy day aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship in the fleet, Norwegian Bliss. It was about to depart from Miami on its maiden voyage through the Panama Canal on its way to Seattle and the excited guests were already coming aboard. I want to give special thanks to Andrea Sugranes, who handles the PR for Norwegian Cruise Line, as well as Simone Terblanche, the ship’s photographer, for her beautiful cover shot and photos shots of Wes.
Mike Raven – Wes, how long have you been with Norwegian Cruise Line?
Wes Cort – I have been with Norwegian Cruise Line for nine years!
MR – You bring a history of success from the hotel business from shore-side. How has that helped you shape your approach with Norwegian Cruise Line?
WC – I have worked for some of the premier hotel companies such as Marriott and Wyndham. I learned a lot from them on how they really analyze guest expectations. To tell you the truth, going back nine years ago, the cruise industry really didn’t do a great job with that. I think Norwegian was one of the first ones to start doing market research and I understood that very well, so that really helped a lot to analyze where the needs were. We have taken the beverage segment very far in nine years for Norwegian. That was probably the most helpful; that background experience was formidable.
MR – I know you received a promotion recently. In your new role as Vice President of food and beverage, how will your culinary responsibilities evolve?
WC – Food is one of the top features that guests look for when booking a cruise. Certainly the ship and where it’s going are a big part, but when guests arrive on board, they have very high expectations of what the food should be. It really impacts their overall judgment of how great their vacation was. They eat 3.7 meals a day, seven days a week, so they’re in a food venue over 25 times a week. Food is critical. As far as evolving, I think it’s taking what we’ve learned and done in beverage and applying it to the food side. Working with someone like IMI has been a big boost to what we’ve done in beverage. It’s been a great partnership. We’ll look for some of those opportunities on the food side, too. All the vendors out there are willing to help – we need to ask them to do that as they have a lot of resources.
MR – With ships all over the world, how do you and your team make the beverage selection activations reflect desires of a guest in relevant destinations?
WC – That’s important, too. Guests want that, they expect that and it’s one of the reasons they take a cruise. So whether they’re in Europe for the summer, or up in the Northwest or Alaska, they’re going to those destinations not just to see the landscape but also to experience what the people eat and drink. We do that quite well, on the food side and on the beverage side. We’ve created some great partnerships along those lines including Gosling’s in Bermuda, Kona in Hawaii and Alaskan Brewing in Alaska. Europe provides us with a lot of opportunity to partner with some of the wineries there and some spirit brands as well. Our guests look for that when booking a cruise. We do it more so in the summer because that’s when we’re all over the world; wintertime, we are back here in the South. We also work with partners in the Caribbean including Bacardi and some of the other Rum companies. It’s very important and it changes seasonally and annually. We are starting our summer program called “Drink What the Locals Do” next month and we change that up every year.
MR – Regarding the process of issuing RFPs and choosing products from the suppliers, is it the same as traditional land-based companies use, or how does it differ?
WC – It is a little bit different in that we are in a bonded environment, so product comes to us duty free. It’s a different division for all the suppliers; they all have a travel/retail division that handles strictly bonded products. It’s the same products but the logistics are extremely more complex than they are for land-based. As you can imagine, if I’m out of Miller Lite today, I’m not getting a delivery tomorrow if I’m sailing over the Atlantic Ocean. So logistics is probably the most complex aspect of what we do in food and beverage, in finding product all over the world.
MR – So you have to plan way ahead of time and carry enough product, so you don’t run out.
WC – Yes, but we have systems in place for that. For the most part, when we get into a season and start doing our regular runs from different homeports, it stays pretty consistent, except for certain holidays. Forecasting is easy once we get going, but when a new ship goes into a new itinerary, sometimes it can be a little challenging. It needs a lot of planning.
MR – Beverage packages have been a significant purchase by your Norwegian Cruise Line cruisers. How does this option impact your beverage profitability and how do you get your staff to upsell on the brands?
WC – It is the number one, most preferred bundle or package our guests select. It’s created some challenges to our beverage operation, in which we’re much busier than we were five or six years ago. Most of our guests sailing have an all-inclusive beverage package. The challenge for us was meeting those high volumes, so we had to adjust; we picked up our game as far as creating great cocktails over the last few years. I think, like everyone else has realized, making cocktails with five or six ingredients is not the best thing in the world when you have people waiting for drinks. We’ve done a lot of things to tackle that, such as a cocktails-on-tap program. We have a great partnership with Kathy Casey, who assisted in developing this program. On this ship, Norwegian Bliss, we’ve rolled out her program and for the first time, it’s included in the draft lineup in several bars. It has been extremely helpful in making the process easier and guests enjoy this first-time experience. They might have been a little skeptical of the quality of the cocktails, but once guests tried them, they were amazed. We’ve had to do quite a bit to help our operations teams to better serve our guests with that volume.
As far as upselling, that’s a challenge we give our suppliers. Typically they’ll come to us with new products and most of the new products today are all premium, boutique, handcrafted and small-batch. For us, we certainly want to provide great products, but cost is important if we are giving product away for free. As far as upselling, we look at trying to sell guest experiences. Whether it’s a wine tasting, or a souvenir, or an experience that involves a sommelier, or a head bartender hosting a cocktail training – we sell experiences, and guests really look for that in a cruise.
MR – We were just in the whiskey bar, Maltings. The back bar is full of magnificent products, peaking with Louis VII. That’s not obviously in the beverage package (both laughing). I’m assuming all the single malts you have are on their own. How do you handle that?
WC – We make it very simple for the guest, as well as the bar staff, to understand that it’s a $15 limit that is included in the package. When a guest upgrades his order, say that Louis VII customer, he’ll get a $15 credit towards it.
MR – I’m curious how the logistics of storing and distribution of all the liquor, beer and wine is handled. You must have one main storage area, where all the outlets go to procure their products.
WC – It’s pretty straightforward. The storage on a big ship like this is incredible on the food and beverage side. We have a whole deck or two just for storage. When we take people on a behind-the-scenes tour, even people in our industry that are land-based, that’s the one thing they are most impressed by – the size of our galleys and kitchens and the size of the storage rooms. Imagine, on a seven-day cruise, people are drinking a lot of beer and there are thousands of guests onboard! But yes, it’s all dispersed from there, requisitioned from all the different bars. On this ship, all 22 different bars and lounges all requisition out the night before and it gets delivered the day of.
MR – Norwegian Cruise Line operates their own private island, Great Stirrup Cay, which features a number of bars. I imagine this has some logistical issues, speaking along the same lines. How do you supply that island?
WC – Yes, it’s very challenging. We’ve invested heavily in Great Stirrup Cay. We were just there a couple of days ago and took a tour because we are renovating different areas on the west part of the island. Additionally, we have a great amount of storage on the island. One of our ships, Norwegian Sky, has great storage space and she goes to the island twice a week to ensure we have enough supplies.
MR – How do they power everything on the island?
WC – We have a full infrastructure on the island that includes generators and a water purification system We have a full staff that lives and works out there – well over 50 people.
MR – How many beverage outlets do you cover?
WC – We have 22 bars onboard Norwegian Bliss. Throughout the fleet, we are close to 180 bars and lounges operating everyday, 365 days a year. That’s something most people don’t realize about this industry. Unlike land-based operations, every night is like a Saturday night – flat out every day and night.
MR – We’re in a brand new ship. How long does it take to prepare all these different outlets?
WC – Norwegian Bliss is the third in the Breakaway-Plus series. This is in a class of Breakaway and Breakaway-Plus ships; this (Bliss) is the fifth in the series of these ships. They are all very similar although some of the outlets change a little bit from one ship to the other. In that regard, we certainly have some history and knowledge when it comes to that, but it’s still a lot of work and planning. Just setting the ship up, we were in the Netherlands and Germany also – we got there in March and started the work with supplying the ship, getting it stocked, getting the uniforms fitted, getting the crew on and starting the training. We didn’t launch the ship until April 19. So it took about a month and a half to get it to that point. Obviously everything before that was all construction and getting furniture in.
MR – I never thought about the uniforms.
WC – We have multiple uniforms for the concepts and venues we have. Every one of our crew members gets fitted and tailored uniforms. We want them to look good.
MR – Last year you received the VIBE Vista awards. You won some special awards – can you expound on those?
WC – We are extremely proud. We won the “Best Bar Concept” for The District Brewhouse on the Norwegian Escape, which is also featured on Norwegian Bliss. We have a great selection of beer, a comfortable environment and good entertainment. We also won “Best Wine Concept” for The Cellars Wine Bar, which is a partnership we have with the Michael Mondavi Family. The Cellars has been very successful for us, not necessarily because it’s a wine bar on a ship and the Michael Mondavi partnership is great, but it’s really what we do in there for the guest. We have all kinds of different experiences. We have also partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and are offering guests the chance to experience Northwest wines and cheeses on Norwegian Bliss.
MR – Norwegian has become very “Instagramable” with its creative artwork on the hulls. How many more ships do you think will be arriving in the coming years?
WC – We have one more in this class, Norwegian Encore, which will debut in the fall of 2019. Following Norwegian Encore, we have the next series of ships that we are extremely excited about, the Leonardo class. It’s going to be very different class of ships for the brand. We will launch our first ship in the series in 2022 and then we will debut a ship every year after that until 2025, with an option for two more. Leonardo will be a bit different, a little bit smaller and more premium; the food and beverages will certainly be unique on these ships. We will also be catering to a different demographic. With this series, we are looking 10 years down the road and demographics change quite a bit in that time. Millennials will then be the front and center, so we will be focusing a lot of our energy on Leonardo in a few years.
MR – There are some popular higher-end cruise lines and I’m sure you would like to take advantage of that clientele.
WC – Certainly would!
MR – Wes, I know you’re busy and I want to thank you for your time in the middle of preparing for Bliss’ inaugural cruise.