By Don George
Toni Neumeister is Vice President of Food and Beverage Operation and Hotel Procurement for Crystal Cruises. I sat down with him for a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges and joys of overseeing the provisioning and service of a world-sailing cruise line. We present Part One of that interview below.
Your title is Vice President of Food and Beverage Operation and Hotel Procurement. What does that entail?
Basically, I’m in charge of hotel purchasing and anything food- and beverage-related.
How long have you been doing that?
I’ve been with Crystal since 1996, but I took over hotel purchasing in 2013. I’ve been VP of Food and Beverage since 2003.
It seems like you love your job.
I love it, yes. The difference between the cruise business and land-based hotel and resort operations is that we have more challenges when it comes to provisioning the vessel. On a cruise ship, when we set up a delivery date—for example, January 18th, Saturday, at eight o’clock in the morning—the supplier cannot come at eight o’clock in the evening, because we’re already gone. And they definitely cannot come a day earlier, or a day later, or a week later! So suppliers who are used to dealing with land-based customers have to change their thinking. We have seen a lot of things.
Not long ago, we had a supplier who just didn’t show up when he was supposed to. I said, “What happened?” He said, “I missed a week. I thought it was a week later.” Well, a week later, we were already on the way to Fiji.
Would you say that’s the hardest part of the job?
Yes. Logistics are the most challenging part of it, because you have to rely on so many different people. It’s all the communication, and then you have so many different mentalities, nationalities, and rules and regulations around the world.
For instance, we fly in a lot of goods, especially fresh produce, from California to French Polynesia, because they don’t have a lot of items there. They grow mostly tropical fruits and those kinds of things. Of course, we buy those there. But when it comes, for example, to arugula lettuce or raspberries, we fly those from California. However, the authorities in French Polynesia do not allow us to import a product that does not come from the United States.
So let’s say you need tomatoes. You go to a grocery store here in California to buy them and you think they must be from the U.S. But oh, it turns out they’re from Mexico! We have to be very careful that we check the supplier 15 times and make sure that what we’re importing to French Polynesia is really a U.S. product, because otherwise they would not only reject the tomatoes, but they could reject the whole container load.
You have to keep on top of all those laws and changes.
Yes. And the changes in some countries happen just like that! And then you have, of course, weather. We fly goods a lot; and when an airport is shut down for a certain time, once they resume service, they fly the guests and the baggage first, and then comes the cargo. That is challenging, and we just have to work with it. When one of our cruise ships was in South America, instead of supplying it with fresh produce from the U.S., which was in the middle of a terrible winter storm, we used a European supplier and flew it to the ship from Holland, Germany and France.
You mean you suddenly had to contract with new people?
No, we were able to use suppliers that we normally use in the summer.
So you suddenly call them and say, “I know it’s not summer, but….”
We said, “Can you supply us in Montevideo, Uruguay?” And they said, “Yes, we can do that.” And we were lucky because, two days later, the same snowstorm hit Europe. That’s the challenge of purchasing—you have to rely on so many different people and seasons. And then there are droughts. A few years ago, there was this huge drought in Australia, and suddenly there was a shortage of lamb, because they could not feed them.
Were you already anticipating that and trying to come up with other options?
Yes, I had a Plan B.
So you’re always trying to stay a step ahead?
You have to do that—a lot. It’s like that in the meat business. The corn price goes up, and then the beef price goes up. But the price is not really our biggest challenge, because we still need to deliver a refined product to our guests. It’s more about the quality. I’ve seen it in the past. When the corn goes up to a very high price, the meat companies cut down on production, and then you have a different quality on the market. There are all these effects and, of course, world affairs and politics.
At the end of the day, what makes you feel like you’ve done a successful job or a good job?
On a day like today–a provisioning day–it would be finishing the load–400 pallets–on time. Then, when the ship sails out, it would be nice not to receive multiple emails or calls that something is missing. When the day is over, and I have not heard of any huge challenges, then it was a good day. And it could be even better if, over the next few days, I don’t hear anything. Small things always happen. It’s all human error. But if, in the days after the ship sails, you’re still OK—you haven’t missed anything—then those are really good days.