Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Aspirations in Luxury Cruising - Is Losing Staff a Good Thing?

During Cruise Shipping Miami's Upscale Cruising Panel was of great interest to me. 

While there were a number of interesting topics covered, it was the first time I could take in Silversea's new President of the Americas, Ellen Bettridge, and Seabourn's President, Rick Meadows and see their approaches side-by side.  Honestly, both were impressive with their mastery of their topics and their passion for their respective cruise lines.  Yet both have such different personalities.

And then the "aspirations" of the luxury cruise traveler were discussed.  Both had a sincere recognition that the luxury cruise guest is "aspirational" and that the experience of luxury travel is now more valued than the purchase of luxury goods.  (Luxury cars...well, that is another category!)

And then there was the head of VShips, a company that manages the crews, staff, hotel services, etc. and/or maintenance of all sorts of ships; including some cruise ships.  Its representative made some very interesting, and for me troubling, comments about staffing on cruise ships.  He extolled the virtues of Filipino staff because they are loyal and believe there is real value in their jobs.  And he claimed that Chinese see a cruise ship job as a life's career.  Meanwhile he asserted that it made no sense to hire staff that want to work for a couple of years and then open a restaurant or go to work in a hotel or something else.

Hearing that I said to myself, "Huh?" And then I asked a question of the panel, "With the luxury cruise guest being aspirational, do you believe having staff that is aspirational is a benefit or a detriment?"

Ellen Bettridge jumped right on it and said that having staff grow through the company is extremely important.  While, honestly, I have no idea the success rate in Silversea, I know that Seabourn has truly excelled in this area with people like Chris Prelog rising from restaurant staff to Vice President of Hotel Operations and Hotel Purchasing and Bjoern Wassmuth rising from a chef aboard the Seabourn Spirit to the Manager of Culinary and Beverage Operations.  (And, you may recall, there was a wonderful stewardess on my 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride that was taking her test to grow into a job as Purser.)

Bjoern Wassmuth (left)


But that is not the "aspirational" staff of which I was thinking.  I am thinking of staff that is looking forward to growing with Seabourn, learning everything they can and then move on to those jobs opening restaurants, working in hotel management, etc.  After the conference Rick Meadows and I had a bit of a private chat.  He said to me that Seabourn loves staff that look forward to growing and then moving on; asserting that it is great for Seabourn and its guests to have highly motivated young men and women who interact with Seabourn guests.  Essentially Rick believes having motivated staff that stays with Seabourn for two or three years and then grow into other jobs is great for the Seabourn guest experience.

Does Seabourn's approach cost more money as VShips seems to imply?  Honestly I am not sure.  If I hire intelligent, motivated, staff that aspire to something more than working on a cruises ship, they probably learn faster, take ownership of issues, discover ways to do things better and faster, and find it easier to "personally" interact" with their aspirational guests.  To me that is a great investment both for the company and the guests.

And, when they move on it should be a source of pride; not failure or an attack on the cruise line's bottom line at any particular moment and only as to one line item.  I, personally, believe luxury cruise ship staff and crew should be a source of pride because of their aspirations.

If my bar waiter says, "Good afternoon, Mr. Goldring!  How was your day?  Oh, I loved X.  Did you like it?  May I get you a glass of the Chablis you like?"  I like it a whole lot better than, "Good afternoon, sir. May I get you a drink?"   Do you agree?

As I close I remember one of the highlights of my cruise was when the stewardess was so excited to tell us that she did well on her test, but she still needed to work on a few things so it gives her something to work on.  Will she stay with Seabourn?  My guess is for a while, but her aspirations will have her wanting more.  I was blessed to meet her and she made my cruise experience more personal and more memorable.

I say crew turnover is a good thing...if for the right reasons.  Luxury cruise lines should be investing in their staff, nurturing their talents so that they grow...It adds a lot to the luxury cruise experience.