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How Catering to Crews Became Business

On every cruise ship we have sailed, in every interview we have done, the single most important secret to success is people. That's the people who make up the crews, who make officers and companies look good, and who make passengers want to come back.

So it's a cruise company mandate to do whatever is possible to keep the crew happy.

Enter David Hirsch, now 43.

He worked on Royal Caribbean ships for almost five years, as a cruise director. Some time after he left, Hirsch and his wife Ashley created Crew Concierge, with the idea of making cruise ship crews happier…and creating a business at the same time. What he later told Cruise Industry News best explains their idea:

"“There were times when I needed basics – shampoo, toothpaste and maybe some snacks when the mess was closed. I needed these items, but was unable to get off the ship because I was on duty. And when I was able to get off, the prices in the ports were two to three times more expensive."

So Crew Concierge sourced what crew members from dozens of countries needed or wanted — from their countries — and started pitching it, in Florida.

“We walked up and down the ports, handing out flyers at the crew gates, hoping for orders," he remembered. "After two weeks and no orders from crew, we got a $5,000 order from a ship. The flyer had made its ways into the hands of officers looking for a more efficient way to supply their ever growing crew needs."

The result has been on-board stores, solely for crew. If items are marked up at all, profits fund crew welfare activities.

Today, Crew Concierge services 40 ships. The $5,000 first order had grown, last year, to $3.2 million.

Lucky Hirsches. Lucky crews.

Today at Phil Reimer's portsandbows.com: Golf lessons at sea?

Royal Caribbean Majesty of the Seas
4 nights
September 1, 2014
Miami (return): NassauCoco CayKey West
Inside: $249
Cost per day: $62

Norwegian Workers Come First

While cruise lines are famous for bragging rights when it comes to innovations, and without keeping score, it seems to us that Norwegian leads the league in firsts. Going right back to 1966, when the "Norwegian Caribbean Line" first came up with low-cost Caribbean cruises that now dominate cruise-line itineraries.

Other firsts have been well-documented — Freestyle Cruising is probably the biggie — and now Norwegian has claimed it is once again leading the charge.

This one? International Standards for Seafarers.

This week, Norwegian claims to be the first cruise line to be certified and in compliance with the International Labor Organization's Maritime Labor Convention. Why should you care?

Well, first of all, because it protects people who work on cruise ships by giving them comprehensive rights to working conditions. So as people who care about humanity, it is our moral responsibility. And anybody interested in cruising has heard too often about how crew members are (allegedly) taken advantage of, specifically when it comes to wages and sometimes living conditions.

Secondly, if the crew members are happy doing their jobs, the customers benefit. Rarely have we met a crew member who didn't appear to be happy serving food or making beds, so it's kind of part of their job descriptions. Having standards to be enforced at least means they don't have a reason to fake it.

Sometimes cruise lines get a bad rap for treatment of crew members. We've met several who climbed the ladder in a company when perhaps, by citizenship, they weren't expected to be promoted. Do a good job, expect a promotion. Isn't that the way of the working world? Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and — yes — Norwegian quickly come to mind.

There are an estimated 1.2 million seafarers at work on the sea and the new labor standards will force all cruise lines to comply. The 17,000 crew members on Norwegian ships fall under the Maritime Labor Convention now, and they work for the first cruise line to implement the standards.

Is anybody surprised?

Carnival Sunshine
16 nights
November 1, 2013
BarcelonaPalma de MallorcaMalaga, Las Palmas, Grand TurkNew Orleans
Inside: $479
Cost per day: $29

Explorer of the Seas…Changes

The Explorer of the Seas will be going in for a major refurbishing after Royal Caribbean introduces Quantum of the Seas near the end of 2014. 

Having been on Explorer of the Seas, we have five unsolicited suggestions on what to change — and five on what not to change — when this beautiful, 13-year-old ship gets a facelift.

What not to change:

1. Stairway of the Stars: As artwork on ships goes, this is fascinating for our demographic. It was not just photos and artifacts of "stars" like Bruce Springsteen, the McCartneys and The Rolling Stones, it was also items like a self-portrait by Peter Falk and paintings by Herb Alpert.

2. Promenade: It's not likely to change much because it's a staple on Royal Caribbean ships now and it (almost) always gives you an idea exactly where you are on the ship, and it exposes the heart of the ship from several perches on the floors above.

3. Ice Rink: Having an ice rink on a cruise ship is cool and, besides being a double-entendre, that makes it unique in the industry.

4. Quality of food and servers: We ate in the main "My Time" dining room every night on this 9-day cruise…because that's where we wanted to be. The servers — Tankica Gogova and Vivek Golsalves — became friends and the head waiter (Balachandran Sankaranutty) was exceptional. The food was so good we didn't dare take a chance on missing the new items each night.

5. A changing day-of-the-week inserted in carpet in elevator: Hey, it's a small thing, but doesn't everybody forget what day it is when you're on a cruise?

What to change:

1. Spanish omelette on the breakfast menu in the dining room: This creation is eggs, potatoes and onion…no ham, no peppers, no spices. Even in Spain, they call that a potato omelette. One of the staff said "Don't have it" — too late.

2. Room 9514, and any others like it: This room is directly below the bridge, on the starboard side, which is fine. It has an ocean-view window and if you walk over to take a look at the view, anybody over five feet tall is certain to bump your head on the curved ceiling.

3. Internet: Always an issue on cruise ships, this one only had hot spots and, in this day and age, having it everywhere on the ship is becoming the common practice. As an aside, and this doesn't apply just to Explorer of the Seas, don't you wonder if cruise staff who depend on Internet connections, too, have the same slow speed as passengers who pay 75 cents a minute? Just wondering…

4. Televisions: This is certainly a no-brainer, because almost nobody has what one Explorer staffer said his daughter called "fat TVs" nowadays. The fat shall become flat. However, when the renovators get rid of the old TVs, they should make sure that access to CNN doesn't go with them.

5. Window tables for two: For those of us who enjoy "My Time Dining" and who enjoy each other's company because cruising is not a mission to make new friends, getting stuck under a staircase or against the back wall at every meal is unacceptable when there are many tables for four not being used by the windows.

Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas
7 nights
July 7, 2013
Seattle (return): Juneau, Skagway, Tracy Arm, Victoria
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $114

The Queen, Olympics and…Breakaway?

The Norwegian Breakaway arrives in Bermuda today, its first port on its first cruise, and we're hoping Richard Janicki is on the ship.

Who's Richard Janicki?

He is a Norwegian employee, a hotel director, whom we happened to meet when we were last on the Epic. He's an interesting guy and — here's the reason we hope he's on the Breakaway as expected — he has paid his dues.


As a boy in France, he wanted to work in a hotel. He did, and cooked twice for Queen Elizabeth II…the woman, not the ship. His surname sounds as French as Wilson or Smith or Jones and he lives in his "paradise" — Greece. He has worked, as a volunteer, at seven Olympic Games.

Is that interesting enough?

"Usually, the boys, they want to be a firemen, you know," says Janicki, who was scheduled to work on the Breakaway's inaugural cruise this week. "I always wanted to work in the hotel industry when I was a kid…cooking and all that. You are quite fortunate when you are young and you know want you want to do."

Fortunate, later, to work at the Berkeley Hotel in London.

"I was a chef there," he says. "I cooked for the Queen of England twice. I make one dish for her…lobster salad. She just came for dinner. She was on a night out with her husband, that's all it was. Not formal. She was out on a date. The second time, the hotel was celebrating its 21st birthday and when you reach 21 years of age in England, it's a big deal. We brought in chefs from around the world during the year and on that week it was Chef Miko Lee from Tokyo and since he spoke more French than English, I was assigned to work with him the entire week, and she came the second time to eat from the menu of Chef Miko Lee."

Working at the Berkeley was one circumstance that would shape Janicki's career. The Olympics was another, beginning in Albertville, with the Winter Games of 1992.

"They were looking for volunteers and I applied," says Janicki, who has worked on cruise ships for 17 years, the last 13 with Norwegian.  "My sister and my brother were in Lens, and they volunteered. At the Olympics, I worked for a group that catered to VIPs, in hospitality. You learn a lot of things there. Cooking was my major but I worked in dining rooms and bars, a lot of logistics…accounting, because you need to learn about these things. You never know if you're going to work on a cruise ship one day or if you're going to own your own restaurant, so you need to be a good accountant, too."

After Albertville, there were Summer Games in Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004), and Winter Games in Lillehammer (1994), Nagano (1998) and Torino (2006). Some of those experiences surface on cruise ships today.

He elaborates this way:

"Sometimes I explain to the crew when things have to happen right now…it's like a 100-meter race. They have billions of people watching on TV, and more in the stadium, and the race is going to happen right now. So the guy with the gun who starts the race, the gun has to work. And the guy with the chrono, the chrono has to work because it takes less than 10 seconds, and you don't have a re-take, like a movie.

"When guests come on the cruise, they save money all their life to buy a cruise for their anniversary or they're honeymooners, and it's their first time cruising. It's irrelevant how good we were the cruise before, or how good we're going to be for the cruise the next week. We have to be good for them right now, because that's their time — right now. And people will judge you on that because it's their cruise right now. You cannot spoil that and say, 'Well, sorry, we'll do better next time.'"

This week, that means the Breakaway's inaugural guests.

Holland America Zaandam
7 nights
June 2, 2013
Anchorage, Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $299
Cost per day: $42

Cruise Crews Enter Epic Era

Every time we have been on a cruise, we’ve made friends with crew members. Sometimes, we exchange contact information, promising to keep in touch. Almost always, when we disembark, it’s the last we see of each other.

One of our new friends invited us to visit him in Turkey. Maybe we will. Another said we would be welcome in Trinidad. Maybe they mean it; maybe they’re just being nice, in the spirit of the moment. But none of them has ever shown us what crew quarters are like on a ship (naturally), much less given us much in the way of insight of what’s behind the doors marked “Crew Only.”

Yesterday, far from a stateroom, we gained some insight.

It came from a website called Cruisemates. It’s an article — two actually — written by editor Paul Motter, and it’s fascinating stuff. He once worked on a cruise ship and, on a press tour just over a month ago, he was given a tour of crew quarters on the Norwegian Epic.

What astounded him the most is that 85% of the crew on the Epic live in single cabins, with their own bathrooms. To appreciate this, Motter points out in a second article that as one of the “privileged cruise staff” on his first contract, a couple of decades ago, he was fortunate to live alone, sans toilet and shower. In fact, he said all such cabins were equipped with stools so that residents could…er, well, reach the sink when nature called in the middle of the night.

On the Epic, crew members have a large recreation area (ping-pong, air hockey) with a DJ booth and dance floor, accompanied by state-of-the-art sound. They have a large-screen projection TV and hundreds of DVD movies, an Internet cafe with 20 work stations, a gym that mirrored what the passengers have, crew cabins on every passenger deck and a private swimming pool.

In his words, the Epic crew people have it made. Not that those on other ships face the primitive situation he did 20 years ago, because clearly they don’t. Motter points out that working on a cruise ship “ends up being one of the most memorable things a person can ever do” and there’s nothing quite like it.

And from all this ex-crew member saw and heard, as working on ships goes, there’s nothing quite like the Epic.

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