Andy Stuart was standing in the middle of Food Republic, the Asian-fusion, small-plates eatery aboard the Norwegian Encore, talking about his very first cruise back in 1988, on the Seaward.
To mark Stuart's last days at Norwegian Cruise Line -- he stepped down as CEO at the end of last year -- I proposed back in November that instead of a standard interview, he walk the Encore during its New York inaugural and discuss the changes at the line and in the industry during his 30-year tenure. So there we were in Food Republic talking about the days before Freestyle Dining, before "alternative dining" was an industry buzzword.
Stuart recalled his bemusement over the dining procedures on the Seaward, where he was sent onboard by Steve Odell to meet with a travel agent but also to experience the Norwegian product.
"I didn't know anything about cruising. I got on the ship, and in my room was this thing saying: You're dining at 8:30." He remembered being shown to a table for eight, and there was a family sitting there. "This family of seven. And me."
"I sat at this table, and I'm like, 'This is really weird, why am I being seated with these people?'" he said with a laugh.
The Seaward was unique at the time, Stuart said, in that it had the first a la carte restaurant at sea, called the Palm Tree. It cost $35 per person to dine there.
It took another dozen or so years for alternative dining to become a major trend. The Norwegian Star, for example, debuted in 2001 with about 14 eateries. And around the early aughts, most ships had specialty restaurants and a variant of flexible dining options. Norwegian, with help from owner Star Cruises, arguably took it further than most big-ship lines. Stuart by that time was running sales and marketing from the line's Miami headquarters.
Stuart said the move to restaurant-style dining seemed obvious. But he added that he had underestimated how much cruisers loved fixed seating and the special bond they formed with their dining crew.
Yet 20 years after the debut of Freestyle Dining, "the expectations are restaurants like this," Stuart said of Food Republic. "The restaurant is on every ship we bring out," he said. "But it's just one of the choices."
The Encore has about 20 distinct dining locations, from fleetwide standards to new concepts to restaurants with branded culinary and drinking partnerships.
The entertainment factor
Freestyle Dining changed a lot about the cruising experience, and as we left Food Republic and wandered into midship Deck 8, we talked about the move from envelope tipping to automatic gratuities.
Stuart took the stairs down to Deck 6 and walked into the Social Comedy and Nightclub, a flexible space and an appropriate venue for him to talk about the evolution in entertainment. A decade ago, he had been involved in the negotiations with Blue Man Group as a bid to partner with a "named" production and change the caliber of shipboard entertainment.
How long did it take to get Blue Man Group to agree?
"A long time," he replied.
Stuart found himself battling ingrained perceptions about cruise ship entertainment. He recalled "American Idol" and then-judge Simon Cowell. "It was frustrating for me," he said. "If someone was truly awful, he'd say, 'You belong on a cruise ship.' He said it a number of times, and it really irritated me. … But it told a story: That's how the cruise industry is perceived."
In the meantime, passenger expectations were changing. Broadway shows were going on the road. Dining was being elevated across the country. And as onboard dining became less of an early-or-late choice, performance times needed to become more varied and flexible.
The options opened up for Norwegian when it built the Epic, which followed the trend of megaships that enabled designers to drop in more dining spots, more galleys, more bars, more entertainment venues. The Blue Man Group deal, Stuart said, was a game-changer for Norwegian. It was certainly different from the traditional cruise-entertainment fare -- "radically" so, Stuart said. Subsequently Norwegian partnered with other productions, for example, "Kinky Boots" on the Encore.
"The highlight for me was when we did 'Jersey Boys,' with Frankie Valli sitting in the audience," Stuart said.
We went back out to the atrium. During our walk-through, Stuart was occasionally greeting crew or being stopped by guests. He said he would miss new-ship launches.
I asked about the first time he took delivery of a ship as the CEO of Norwegian.
"I was nervous. I didn't bring a pen," he recalled. "Someone ran around and found me a nice pen. Dan Farcus, our general counsel, said, 'You should bring a nice pen to the first signing,' and I'm, 'Ahh, I've never done this before!'"
The ship within a ship
We debated where to go next. The top-deck innovations, such as the go-kart track? The Galaxy with its array of virtual reality games? We decided on the Haven.
The luxury-ship-within-a-ship concept has gained ground in different ways with different lines. For Norwegian it started with the Norwegian Star and the Dawn, which were conceived for Star Cruises with two giant suites for high rollers. But the ships were turned over to Norwegian so it could compete with new tonnage in the North American market.
"We had the debate: Should we keep them or turn them into smaller suites," Stuart recalled. "We decided in the end that they would just be a story, that we wouldn't get the revenue per square foot, but they would tell the story of a more upscale experience. And it turned out they told a story, and we got revenue, so it turned out to be a double win."
The concept was modified on various ship classes until it became the Haven of today. For a vacationer who wanted to duck in and out of the big-ship experience and come back to an intimate, upscale haven, "there wasn't really a product for that audience, until we built it on the Jewel. And then we saw it. We saw immediately that there was an audience."
Throughout the tour, Stuart was keen to downplay his role as an innovator and to emphasize his place within a larger team.
"I don't want to be [portrayed as] the brilliant mind who did all this," he said. "I was on this journey, and there were a lot of brilliant people."
But when pressed to name a place on the Encore where he feels particular pride, he allowed that he likes "my bar."
That would be the A-List bar, whose name gives a subtle reference to Stuart, on the Deck 8 aft. "I've always liked that area of the ship," he said. There are a few nods in the cocktail names, too, like the Boss vodka and tonic. And the Gunners gin and tonic might require an explanation for those who don't follow soccer -- but not to people who know Stuart and his English Premier League loyalties well.
"I'm a huge Arsenal fan," he said.