Monday, August 11, 2008

Seabourn Staff Receive Unique Training and Compensation

Last week I discussed a bit about Seabourn taking back control of its officers and ship's management by abandoning a short-lived V.Ships relationship.  Today I thought I would mention a unique aspect of Seabourn as it relates to its hotel staff; that is stewardesses, waiters, etc.

One thing that is unique about Seabourn is that it has maintained a European/South African staff while virtually (if not literally) most other lines, including other luxury lines, have focused on reducing costs by utilizing less expensive Filipino and other Southeast Asian staff.  In an industry where finding and keeping well trained staff is becoming an bigger and bigger problem, the challenges are many.

As a bit of background, most cruise lines hire staff, put them through a short shore-based program and then put them to sea; starting them out as assistant stewards and assistant waiters generally in the lesser cabins and easier areas of the dining rooms/buffets and allowing "on the job" training to run its course.  As the demand for crew has increased...as have the number and sheer size of new ships increase...some lines have taken to using private "schools".  The problem is, of course, that while it is better than just starting to work without any training at all, there is a big difference between the school room and the ship.

Seabourn is unique in that it does not hire untrained, or merely school trained, staff for its hotel service positions.  Generally, Seabourn has the following criteria:  1.  The potential staff must be a minimum of 20 years old years (eliminating many "youth issues"); 2.  They must have a certificate from a recognized professional training institution; 3.  (And I think this is key) they must have at least 2 years of full-time restaurant or hotel service experience in a five star establishment catering to an international clientèle; and, 4.  They must have a good written and oral use of English.

(Having suffered through Regent's overnight change from European to Filipino staffing, the frustrations of the lack of training and the lack of a good command of English was, to me shocking.  As time goes by this problem has dissipated quite a bit, but it still remains with too many new staff.  I have heard of similar problem on Silversea.)

But Seabourn does not end its training there.  With the Seabourn Odyssey coming onboard, Seabourn is in need of more staff...and the staff has to be experiences not only in a classroom and a hotel or restaurant. So Seabourn is taking the unusual step of taking a certain number of suites out of service so that the new staff can come onboard and shadow the existing staff.  Remember the term is "shadow"; not replace.  The full compliment of trained staff will remain on the ship to service the guests.  The new staff are in addition to the full compliment. So when some of the more experienced staff migrate over to the Odyssey, trained staff to replace them will already be onboard.  (Will this be perfect?  Probably not.  Will it be significantly better than pilfering the existing crew and leaving new and not so well trained staff on the triplets?  Every indication is that it should work quite well.)

[Side Note:  When it comes to hiring galley staff, Seabourn actually travels to the schools and puts the applicants for jobs as chefs, bakers, butchers, etc. through tests before they are hired; again taking that extra step which reduces the pitfalls of mere "on the job" training.  Many cruise lines take the graduate sight unseen, evaluate them once onboard and then figure out where they might fit.]

The other major issue is compensation.  Until last week's 5% drop in the value of the Euro, the U.S. Dollar has been the standard rate of pay for most crew...and one of the biggest bones of contention as crew has seen their net pay in their home countries actually reduce.  It is very difficult to maintain staff when compensation reduces.  It is, in part, why the concept of automatic gratuities being added to your onboard account started...and then the newest things:  mandatory service charges being added; the concept obviously being the higher percentage of passengers that pay the full gratuity (and the fewer that pay none...and those folks do exist), the easier it is for the cruise lines to boost or at least stabilize crew wages...but at the passenger's expense.

Seabourn, once again, takes a unique position in the industry.  It pays its staff in the currency of their residence.  So a South African has a contract paid in Rand, British in Pounds, Dutch in Euros, etc.  This is a huge benefit for the staff because their pay is, regardless of currency international fluctuations, their pay...just like it would be at home.  This sort of...consistancy...is a very good tool to obtain and retain high quality staff.

One thing to consider is that while as a guest Seabourn is a fantastic place to be, the employees don't get to have the same experience.  They are in charge of assuring you the experience.  This, in large part, can affect the international mix of the staff.  Some have wondered why there are so few American staff.  The reasons range from the rate of pay, to living conditions, to the requirement to work seven days a week at times.  With all of the employment opportunities in the U.S., obtaining and retaining U.S. staff can be very difficult.  Just ask Norwegian Cruise Lines when they were pulling their hair out in Hawaii.

Also, keep in mind that societal and cultural differences also come into play as to the type of service being provided.  While European/South African staff are more outgoing and engaging, Filipino staff can be very charming, but generally take a more distanced or subservient approach.  To be sure, each individual is different, but you can most definitely tell the difference when you walk aboard a Holland America ship versus a Seabourn ship.  It is, alas, part of what the product is that is being provided to the guests.

Hopefully this has helped answer some of the questions concerning training, pay and interactions with the staff aboard the ships.