Crystal River Cruises' Dining Updates From Walter Littlejohn

“There is a reason why people are going to Germany or to Austria or to Hungary or to Switzerland,” Walter Littlejohn, vice president and managing director, Crystal River Cruises, told agents sailing on Crystal’s recent trade sales gala on Crystal Symphony. “It’s not so that they can have McDonald’s.”

Instead, he says, luxury river cruise guests desire to savor local food and wine and enjoy local music. Thus, all menus in the river line’s elegant Waterside restaurant offer both classic Michelin-inspired Crystal cuisine and regional/local specialties. Plus, 20 regional wines are included for lunch and dinner, in addition to California vintages.  

Each of Crystal’s river ships has three or four dining venues, plus 24-hour room service. On Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel, choices include Waterside plus the casual Bistro and the elegant, 12-seat Vintage Room. The larger Crystal Mozart offers those, as well as a casual Blue restaurant. So what’s new onboard?  

Breakfast & Lunch Ordering

While post-cruise guest satisfaction ratings for Crystal River Cruises are in the 90s (high), feedback from those luxury guests has shown a desire by some for ordering breakfast and lunch from their table, rather than going to the Marketplace, an upscale buffet concept for breakfast/lunch at the rear of the Waterside Restaurant. Dinner at Waterside is full table service with the Marketplace closed off.

So, “what we have done…in the [casual, alternative] Bistro restaurant on all of the ships for breakfast, we now have a Late Risers’ Breakfast that goes from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. that has eight dishes to order,” says Littlejohn. “So, for the client who wants to order off the menu for breakfast, they can do so in Bistro.”

And now the river line has added a lunch option, too. On the four sister ships, from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., the line now offers a menu option which Littlejohn calls “the Blue menu,” similar to what's available at Crystal Mozart’s Blue restaurant.

So for lunch, guests can order the pasta of the day, flatbread pizza, salad, soup, cheeseburgers, Reuben sandwiches and more, and “we have that menu now available through the Bistro restaurant on the four sister ships.”

New Culinary/Wine Shore Trips

In November, Crystal River Cruises rolled out an entirely new shore excursion program, Crystal River Collection, consisting of 255 new shoreside experiences in five categories. Among them is “Tantalizing Gastronomy,” which features excursions focused around local foods and beverages, with the goal of having at least two of these excursions in every port.

For culinary and wine buffs, it’s also possible to now design a customized shore trip with the line’s new “Design Your Time” category of excursions; some are already curated by the line based on specific interests that guests may request, or, alternatively, others are created to the guest’s exact desires from scratch. 

“We have a team of people in Miami who work with our ground operators in Europe and if your client wants to start with a blank sheet of paper and have us curate something that’s just for them – based on ideas they have – we can do that,” said Littlejohn.

Since November, Crystal River Cruises has received 1,400 requests from guests for custom shore excursions. The record so far is for a travel partner whose client was able to come up with something really unique, and the travel partner sold the shore excursion at $20,000.

“Many of you are able to do custom shore excursions on your own and you can continue to do that,” he said. “We’re not trying to compete with you on that, but if you want a resource, you can consider Crystal River Cruises to be a resource for you.” That said, the line, at least at present, isn’t planning to pay commission on those individual shore trips.

Dining Ashore Changes

“We’ve also changed our Dining Ashore program,” Littlejohn told the agent audience. "We used to give every guest on a sailing a complimentary Michelin-star restaurant experience [when they went ashore].”

But the line has made big changes to that program, mainly driven by guest feedback. Now, “we’ve broadened the program in terms of the types of restaurants that participate,” he said. 

“So now it’s not only ‘Michelin-star' restaurants, but we also have what we call ‘Highly Acclaimed’ restaurants, which are local restaurants that are highly regarded, won awards and so on, but they’re just not Michelin-star restaurants because they choose not to be a part of that program," Littlejohn explained. 

Littlejohn added that Crystal River Cruises also now has “a third category of restaurants that we call ‘Eat Like a Local’ that are highly regarded local places that the residents don’t want tourists to discover."

Under the new Dining Ashore parameters, guests in Penthouse category and higher suites receive one complimentary experience in any of these three types of restaurants ashore.

For all other guests, the experience is available for a charge -- $249 euros per person for the Michelin-star or Highly Acclaimed restaurants. This includes a four-course meal with wine, beer, gratuities and transportation. The Eat Like a Local experience costs 99 euros per person; it's also paired with wine, beer, gratuities and transportation.

The line also “grandfathered” all the guests booked before the program changes went into effect, so they will get the free experience they expected.

But moving forward, “now that we’re not offering it complimentary, and we’re able to have a need for a fewer number of seats, we actually now have more restaurants who are participating in the program,” Littlejohn said. 

He said that, in many instances, "we may only have two or four seats at a restaurant, particularly the very highly regarded restaurants or the Michelin-star restaurant. But at least it gives the guests options. On some itineraries you can see that there are eight restaurants that the guest can choose from in that program.”

One word of advice from Littlejohn?: “When you’re doing groups, please understand that for the highly Acclaimed and the Michelin star-rated restaurants, it’s really almost impossible to put a whole group into one of those restaurants, unless you want to change the entire caliber of the experience.”

“These types of restaurants are not used to groups,” he stressed. “It’s not what they do. Many of them only have 20 seats and they can’t seat all 20 at the same time, so please keep that in mind and let’s manage that expectation.”

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