Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Luxury Cruises: The Culture and Nationality of the Staff Does Have a Significant Effect.

I am going to discuss a subject which from a scientific and sociological perspective is not controversial, but from a luxury cruise guest's perspective just might be.  I am not going to say anything that I haven't said before...I just haven't discussed it in a while and some recent experiences have brought this back to the fore.

Before your eyes glaze over with the premise I am about to give, I want to you read this and wonder "What the heck does this have to do with my luxury cruise experience?!"

Earlier this month I attended a seminar offered by Lloyd's Register in conjunction with The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) entitled, "Human Factors in Cruise Ship Design, Construction & Operation".  It was a discussion on how to design, for example, an aspect of ship's bridge or engine room considering everything from the expected heights of the crew using it, to maintaining it, to how decisions will be made based upon the anticipated manning of that area....The Human Element.

As I have long observed and said, for example, European and South African staff on a luxury cruise line are generally more engaging and Filipino/Indonesian staff are generally more subservient.  As I listened to this seminar I truly began to understand the "why" more than simply observing the result of the cultural differences.  (If you really want to delve into this subject, I found this article:  Reasons As Carriers Of Culture:  Dynamic vs. Dispositional Models Of Cultural Influence On Decision Making from the Standford Business School very interesting.

Let's take a quick look at what I am talking about, but let us stay away from the dining room or favorite lounge.  Consider what happens on the Bridge: There is a ship heading for us and it is not responding to our warnings or radio calls!  What is going through the each crew member's mind?

.....Some cultures stress that people make individual decisions while others are based upon communal or group decisions.  Americans are, for example, taught to seek out a solution to a problem, own that proposed solution and "make it yours".  Most Southeast Asian cultures, however, stress harmony and less conflict, so they are taught to find consensus.

.....Some of those same cultures are so focused on group decisions or consensus that if one person receives a compliment it may actually been seen by the others in the group as an embarrassing failure and an incident of shame.  As most of us know, Americans, for example will heap praise on the one receiving the compliment and, in fact, may well use his/her success as motivation to do better so as to obtain that praise the next time.

.....Error avoidance is yet another concern.  I have spent far too much time lecturing this point, "If you 'sit on the fence' and are indecisive only one thing can happen:  You rip your pants."  Put another way, if you delay in a decision you have already made a decision...NOT to act.  One interesting point raised in the seminar is that in one study Bulgarians rated almost twice as high in requiring all possible information before making a decision; not all "relevant" information or sufficient information to have a high probability that a decision is correct.  Hence the decisional issue becomes "Do I have all the information?" rather than the actual issue.  I, personally, have had this sort of frustration with some superyacht engineers...and now I understand a bit better why.

...The perception of hierarchy is also very different among cultures.  It is referred to as being "steep" or "flat".  In other words, is what the captain says absolute or is it appropriate to discuss, question or even challenge it?  We know that nobody is perfect so while the idea that the Captain (Hotel Manager, etc.) is the one in charge is one thing, but to never ask about something that seems incorrect is another.

On most cruise ships you find Norwegian or Greek captains and officers, right?  When you think of Norwegians and Greeks do you think of  shy or indecisive people or strong and commanding types?  There are, of course, American and British, and other nationalities representatives on board cruise and other ships.  However, there are very few Asians, for example.  These are not the result of "stereotypes", but a recognition of what their cultural and societal upbringing generally results in.  Of course, there are those that do not "fit the mold" and, as the Stanford article points out (if you really read it), there are experiential changes and multi-cultural alterations (hanging out with other people and seeing the results, so to speak) that can change the tendencies of some individuals.  To that end, more Southeast Asians are finding their way onto and more than competently handling some of the most critical and decision-making oriented tasks.

OK, now to the important subject:  How does all of this affect my luxury cruise experience?  I answer that with a scenario:  You stroll near the bar or stop and think about taking a few minutes rest in a lounge chair.  Carol Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, wrote in her review of the Seabourn Legend that one of her lasting memories was:

Standing at the deserted stern, away from the hullabaloo of the pool deck on our first sea day, watching Montserrat pass by, I started to think that "it would be nice to sit here all afternoon in a lounge chair," when Ian, one of the most attentive of an already attentive crew, called out to me: "May I set you up here?" Within minutes I had a fancy tropical drink , a lounge chair pulled up to the railing, and even a little table on which to rest my book. He would have brought me lunch from the Sky Grill, too, but I declined.

Ian owned that moment, good or bad.  He saw an opportunity to make a difference to a guest...individually...and decided that his actions would not be taken as an imposition, but appreciated.  And he took the initiative to not only set up a lounger, but to create a setting.  He was not wrong...but he most certainly did not engage in asking many questions to assure his approach was correct. 

If most (obviously not all) Filipino crew were in the same situation...and not confusing the multi-cultural and long term experience issues...the tendency would be to assure that no offense was taken, that there was sufficient information, and to have the group decide what to do (unless the group already decided how to always handle such situations) and, to be sure, not to make it appear that he was doing anything which would call him to the fore individually.  The result:  You probably would secure the lounger yourself and the crew would then politely ask if you would like a towel.  You probably would have to ask for a drink and it would be efficiently provided with a smile.  It would all be quite pleasant, but not a luxury experience.

Obviously this same cultural and societal situation exists throughout your cruise experience from the moment you check in to the time you step off the ship...Think:  Dining Room Service especially.

But let me be clear about this one point:  IT IS YOUR CRUISE.  You may well prefer being asked first.  You may prefer not being engaged by the staff, but keeping to yourself.  There are many that will say, "If I want a drink I will ask for it, so don't bother me until I call you over."  I would suggest, however, that in a true luxury experience the adjustment will be made, but in other circumstances the initiative to "break ranks", but might make individual requests a bit more difficult to accomplish.

I was, and remain, highly critical of Regent Seven Seas' virtual elimination of European and South African staff (an admitted cost savings measure) and, to be sure, of Silversea's venture into the same approach.  And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.  Since those changes have been put into effect there have been consistent comments about the changes in service levels; more so on Regent Seven Seas, which operates with almost exclusively Southeast Asian staff.  (Remember my comment about multi-cultural exposure and experience altering the cultural tendencies?)

Take it from me, who has been told is an assertive New Yorker (even though I am from New Jersey), where you are from and how you are raised does make a difference.  We are not all the same nor should we.  I celebrate cultural differences every day...Heck, I am in the travel business and as you know soak up cultures, customs, food and wines everywhere I go.  But...and it is a big "but":

When I hear, "Mr. Goldring!  So glad you arrived at the hot tub at 3:30 p.m. as expected.  Here is champagne and glasses for you and Mr. Smith", I know I am having and enjoying a luxury experience.