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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

So Your Teenager Wants to go to Sea?

You have a teenage girl, just 16. She wants to make an education substitute, swapping international travel for textbooks. She wants to go and work on a cruise ship, as a dancer. She has a good head on her shoulders and you trust her…but she is only 16.

"What are we going to do?" Lisa Ball says her parents asked. "Do we say no, or let her go and get it out of her system, and hopefully come back after a year?"

They let her go. Today, more than a couple of decades later, she is a cruise director for Princess Cruises.

"Mom and Dad were incredibly brave," she recalls. "The first five years were scary for them. They didn't understand. They were more comfortable after they were on a cruise ship., with the safety…the comfort. They probably thought it would be more scary. It's such a safe job, and it's not like some run-down hired you over the phone."

She didn't say so, but the fact that Princess Cruises was such an established and respected brand in England, where they live and where she was born, probably gave the Balls a modicum of comfort. Like all parents, they envisioned something…well, different…for their daughter when she became an adult.

Like veterinary medicine, for instance.

"I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon," Lisa laughs, during a pause in the action on the Crown Princess — and for a cruise director there is always a lot of action, no matter the cruise ship. "To get into veterinary school, you need to have high grades or physics and chemistry. I began to realize if I studied for 24 hours a day I was not going to get them!"

A friend persuaded her to attend dance college.

"I was drawn to it and I really enjoyed it, and I was a professional dancer 11 years," she says. "About 10 years ago, I decided I needed to retire from that."

So she turned to the next best on-stage occupation (and maybe the best one): cruise director. It didn't happen overnight, of course. She invested six years in getting the "CD" label on her lapel, the third Princess woman to attain that status, and six more in perfecting her craft.

How long she'll continue is, like everything in life, unknown.

"It's a hard job to give up when you enjoy it so much," she says, "without worrying about where the next contract is coming from…especially the way things are at the moment whereso many people have no idea about the next paycheck. But It's all about enjoying your job. I can't imagine doing this job if you didn't enjoy it. I love the challenge of it. It's definitely a lifestyle choice. You miss family birthdays, that sort of thing, but when I have time at home, it's quality time. I have four best friends and we've been that since we were five. We all make the effort to get together. Now we have quality time and I get to be the favorite aunt."

Lisa Ball is not a cruise director 24/7. She does escape the ship in some ports — Cozumel is a guarantee escape when she's on a Western Caribbean itinerary — and she still enjoys teaching ballroom dancing. And on her 60-day breaks every four months, she does have a life that goes beyond being a favorite aunt.

"I've had a partner for eight years…he's an audio engineer and we had a little chat," chuckles Ball. "If he worked for bands on land, and I carried on with my career, we were not going to see each other for months. We made that decision as a couple. He goes on tour with bands, and I love my job. We're happy with that for now. If that changes, that's another conversation we'll have to have. When he's not on the road, he travels with me. He's comfortable on ships and he loves Princess. We probably see each other four months of the year. When I take a block of time off, I travel with him. It's incredibly quality time."

And as Lisa Ball's parents discovered all those years ago, it works for their daughter.

Holland America Prinsendam
15 nights
November 11, 2013
Rome, Cadiz, Portimao, Lisbon, Funchal, Fort Lauderdale
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $53

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

Royal Caribbean — No Gamble Here

Employees in the cruise industry know you can go from the bottom to the top if you play your cards right, and nobody knows that better than Dean Bailey.

He is part of the management team in Royal Caribbean, most recently as hotel director on Explorer of the Seas.

In the beginning, he was a casino dealer.

"It was either blind luck…or I wasn't very lucky at sea," laughs the personable British-born, 20-year cruise veteran. "I tell people I'm really a casino dealer masquerading as a hotel director."

The current CEO of Royal Caribbean, Richard Fain, started as a purser.

"A great message for our employees," says Bailey. "The sky's the limit. From the 20 years I've been with the company, I can see that we rarely lose people."

Like so many who people work on cruise ships, Dean Bailey's story is interesting, perhaps even fascinating. And like so many, he's in a time and a place that as a 20s-something he could never have imagined he'd be.

When he was just six, Dean was told he was destined to be a gambler.

"I used to know every card game," he says. "I never have been a big gambler, but I knew the mathematics…the strategy…and I guess I was that good it was logical to say I'd probably be a professional gambler."

Young and single, he and a buddy were looking for work in the remote parts of the world because "most casino workers like to go traveling" and they wound up with two geographical choices — Eastern Europe or the Bahamas.

"I was thinking that Eastern Europe was cold and I couldn't speak the language…Bahamas, sun and sea and sand…sold to the man in the white suit!" he explains Bailey, who was hired by Royal Caribbean after acing a "table test." in his interview. "The woman who hired me said I had all the skills and then she asked me "Why should I hire you?' And I said: 'Because I love people and I have a great smile!'"

His first was Legend of the Seas. Between that and Explorer of the Seas, his personal armada of ships has taken him from Vladivostok to Vietnam and from New Jersey to New Zealand. When he returns from his 10-week vacation at the end of this month, it will be to Majesty of the Seas, sailing from Miami.

It really wasn't supposed to be that way.

"I was studying mechanical engineering and I only worked in a casino to take time off from engineering," he chuckles. "The same thing happened when I went to work on a ship — it was a time-out from getting on with my career."

His buddy went to Budapest. Ironically, today Dean Bailey lives in Budapest, but that's a story for another day.


Disney Dream
3 nights
August 29, 2013
Port Canaveral (return): Nassau, Castaway Cay
Inside: $735
Cost per day: $245

Starting With 'Mary Had A Little Lamb'

Athletes are athletic, educators are educated and cruise directors are…well, characters. It's part of the job description because within any given two-minute span they have to be entertaining, serious, funny, talented, spontaneous, thorough, athletic and fast on their feet, which are sometimes called upon to do the two-step, kick balloons and get them off a stage before the curtain goes up or down.

Leigh Xuereb is a fit.

He's currently cruise director on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. There is no job in the cruise business that is more demanding of a person's energies 24/7, or close to 24/7. And Xuereb took the first steps down that road not long after taking his first steps, period.   

Age four.

"I wanted to be a performer since then," he says. "Ever since the day I walked away from my parents in an open-air shopping center and wound up in a nursery rhyme contest, doing Mary Had A Little Lamb. I went to the final and did Ten Little Indian Boys, but I didn't win."

What he did was get hooked on performing. That was in Australia, his homeland, and he went on to work almost nine years at a theme park called Warner Brothers Movie World. He became known as one of the world's top Austin Powers clones but has played a cast of many characters along the way…Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Wylie Coyote, The Penguin in Batman, the Cadbury mascot, Dr. Evil in Austin Powers…

Is there a trend here?

"Austin Powers was my 'Ground Hog Day'," he laughs. "When I was 20, I was still a kids' entertainer. I didn't want to be a 40-year-old Austin Powers impersonator. I needed a change."

The change came on his 30th birthday. His girlfriend ended their nine-year relationship. By then, his Australian theme park and Austin Powers roots were deep, so he took the recommendation of friends who worked in the cruise industry, for Disney and Royal Caribbean. He chose Royal Caribbean not to escape the kid thing, but because it was the first cruise line to respond to his resume.

Looking back, he is grateful to the old girlfriend.

"It was the best present she could have given me," he explains. "It changed my life."

His first job was on Voyageur of the Seas. Between contracts, he was in Atlanta for an Austin Powers convention, doing radio spots, appearing on TV, being picked up in limos. Back on the cruise ship, he was teaching scrapbooking and line dancing.

"I thought: 'What have I done?'" Xuereb remembers. "But it was a challenge. I was always hiding behind characters, and never performing as Leigh, and I wanted to see how Leigh worked out."

Understandably, that also took time. And ships — Adventure of the Seas, Splendour of the Seas, Grandeur of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas. Floating from one ship to another, Leigh worked jobs ranging from assistant cruise director to activities manager to stand-in cruise director, bridging the gap between contracts of two full-time CDs.

Less than three years ago, another girlfriend story. Her name is Olga, she is from Siberia and they met while she was performing in Swan Lake On Ice on one of the ships. During a break between his contracts, Xuereb was home in Australia and wondering about Olga. An email exchange later, he discovered she had left Royal Caribbean and was vacationing…in Australia.

Today, she is back with the cruise line. When she was skating on Explorer of the Seas, he turned down a contract to go to another ship because they wouldn't be together.

"Money…career…it doesn't mean anything if I don't have anyone to share it with," he says. "We've been together for two and a half years, the most time we've spent together is six months, but we'll be back on the same ship [Explorer] in October."

Then, he'll be doing what cruise directors do.

"Performing every day," he says. "Honing skills. Making people laugh. Discovering something new. When you try something new, you never know when it'll work. When it does, there's no drug like it. My humor can be a little edgy. I always make fun of myself, and other people…it's cheap laughs. Just like at the theme park, I'm still playing dress-ups, making a fool of myself and enjoying it. Just like when I started doing Austin Powers, practising in a mirror, you first want to be competent — not just wear a wig and glasses and talk like Austin Powers. You want to be the best you can be. This is no different."

Passengers on cruise ships can make or break cruise directors. On the New York-to-Bermuda runs that Explorer of the Seas makes, it seems Leigh Xuereb is just the right fit.

Carnival Ecstasy
5 nights
September 9, 2013
Port Canaveral (return): Half Moon Cay, Nassau, Freeport
Inside: $209
Cost per day: $41

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