Updated: Jan 1
Question. What’s the difference between first class on the world’s best airlines?
What’s the difference between the world’s very best cruise lines?
What makes one flight or one cruise stand out as being the very best that you have experienced?
For me, it comes down to making a connection. Let’s face it although the cabin on an aircraft or a luxury ocean liner might have different décor, bells, and whistles, and all have unique signature features, and they all have truly exceptional service - in the broader scheme of things they are all surprisingly similar. Eg there are only a few types of aircraft (747,777, A380) that feature the first-class cabin so the real estate or ‘bones’ are essentially the same.
As too with ships. If you look at the size and layout of the top three cruise lines, their ships are in many ways almost identical. This has been an evolution, not unlike that found in nature, where they have all come to the same conclusion about what constitutes the perfect shape and size for the high-end market.
And so to the service onboard. If you are routinely charging passengers 30/40k per person you really can’t survive by having any element or individual staff member providing subpar service.
As a package, all things, both big and small, must be superlative. And anyone who has cruised with these first-class operators will report they invariably are. They must be.
So, if the baseline is so high, which it is. Why do people choose an operator? And once they do, and prefer one, what makes for an exceptional penultimate experience?
What makes a cruise on their favorite operator stand out, head and shoulders above the rest? Why or how can one voyage become more memorable than all the others - if it’s not the ship, the design, the cabins, the food, or the destinations? The smiles in the video might give you a clue.
I stumbled across what I feel is the magic formula to make this happen - the holy grail - when I hosted a cruise on Seabourn last year. I am utterly convinced it make your next cruise in all probability the best you have ever experienced.
So, here’s how I stumbled onto the mother lobe.
In my role of a host on board I naturally got to meet some of the senior officers on board. After hosting a cocktail party one night for my group I had time to sit and chat at length with the delightful Karla who’s position onboard was similar to a HR function. Rather than being assigned to particular ship for a full contract of 6-9 months, she would be flown in to join different ships in the fleet for a month or two at time. With a focus on training and development of specific departmental teams and/or individuals within those teams. What a great gig.
Eg. One of her projects involved a ship that had consistently been scoring below the rest of the fleet for housekeeping. She ran intensive workshops and team building sessions and within a month or two that ship started getting consistently the highest reviews.
Anyways we talked at length about some of the similarities of a life sea to our role as cabin crew. Things like being thrown together for extended periods away from home and family. And the closeness of bonds that develop, the highs and lows of providing service to people with high expectations and just being in a simply awesome part of the travel sector.
And then of course there were the differences such as 6-9-month contracts instead of 6-9 day trips, and actually living in very close quarters with all your colleges (to the point of sharing cabins) for such extended periods. But I digress and I’ll add another post about life working onboard a ship at another time.
Short of the long. I mentioned that when the current cruise ended in Rome, I was jetting off to LA to join Sojourn for a transpacific cruise.
I was so fascinated by her role and interaction with staff across the fleet I asked a very simple question. Hey you must know almost all the crew onboard. Who should we look up? Who in your opinion are the best crew members each venue and/or department? And went further to ask her to drill down on who were the larger than life characters - the really naughty ones.
She said she’d think on it and write down a few names. For the rest of the cruise every time I saw her I’d ask her not to forget that list.
It wasn’t until late on the very last night that she presented me with a list. It wasn’t just one or two names. It was two full pages.
Short of the long again. On boarding in LA I went out of my way to track down those on her list. It was such an incredible door opener. Just like boarding an aircraft and being best mates with a popular cabin crew member.
It wasn’t just an ice breaker. It created an instant and compelling connection that sent our onboard experience into over drive.
In the main restaurant we met Rossi, one of the most senior, and perhaps the biggest character and sweetheart on board. I told him Karla insisted we look him up and we wanted the table with the very best wait and bar staff in the main dining room.
He said with a wink and an over the top flourish, “Well certainly gentlemen come this way, you’ll be dining at Wendy’s tonight”. And after that, we dined at Wendy’s every night. Macy was the assistant waitress and OMG did those girls spoil us. And every single night we had the very best service in the dining room. And we laughed so many times to the point of tears.
We’d see Macy every morning and she’d keep her specially made fruit toast just for us.
And so too were our experiences across the ship from day one of that voyage.
Now obviously you won’t have a list from Kara prior to boarding your next cruise. But you will have equal opportunity to find staff like Rossi, Wendy and Macy.
From your very first night on board in venues across the ship seek out the most senior officer and say who is your very best team member? Who is the naughtiest? Do that and not only will the service be beyond compare, from that very first night you will have made a connection.
And it is that connect that is the secret key to unlock the most memorable cruise EVER.
And before I close, the same applies to other passengers. My partner who is an introvert, really hates meeting new people. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to literally drag him to any gathering of new people. And because of this we’ve done some really long cruises of 21+ days and hardly spoken to anyone - by choice. We are very comfortable with our own company and many times we enjoy the simple luxury of being by ourselves.
That being said, our best cruises before I discovered seeking out the best staff, have always been when we have met some simply awesome people onboard. A cruise is not like any other holiday. You are all thrown together, much like school camp. And with a similar dynamic - you build often instant but deep and life long bonds. For me it’s one of the joys of cruising.
It’s a common human trait to avert our eyes when in a lift with others. To stay silent when in the vicinity of large boisterous groups. But I now, as does my beloved introvert, that this is a mistake. A lost opportunity.
Instead lock eyes with everyone. Smile and say G’day. (It’s amazing how our accent still opens doors), go to gatherings on board. Seek out the nutty. The loud and the boisterous. Join a roll call for your ship on cruisecritic.com - I can guarantee that just as seeking out the most fun staff, the same rules apply for fellow passengers.
Two quick examples.
During my hosting cruise - on the next table, every single night was a very unusual character, an elderly gentleman with a pencil thin moustache who was always so immaculately groomed.
He seemed to be known to all the staff on the ship and they all made an exceptional fuss about greeting him.
He was certainly eccentric and along with his very unusual look we christened him Howard Hughes.
About the third night we asked if he’d like to join us. And lordy how that little invite transformed that particular cruise. He was from Texas with a deep slow yet very soft drawl. His family was the third richest in the state and owned the best baseball team in the USA.
He had the naughtiest sense of humour and his stories were equally so. And too blue to share here. So anyway Howard is now an going part of our lives and we hope to go cruising with him again.
And just one last quickie. On the next cruise there were two rather loud and at first blush obnoxious queens. Dripping in gold and jewels and a different custom-made outfit every night. Certainly not our usual cup of tea. But again, we reached out to them and oh la la. They in turn invited us to the best costume party ever. It was Halloween and it was in two of the biggest and most expensive penthouse spa suites onboard. It was literally insane. With all the key officers there in full white starched uniforms. Free flow French champagne and seafood.
But again, if we had have stayed in our comfort zone and bubble, we still would have a had wonderful cruise but we would have missed one of the best parties we have ever been to.
So to close. My advice to uber charge your next cruise to super awesome status. Go all out, especially in the first few days, to make a deep and sincere connection not just with the staff on board, but with your fellow passengers as well.
Even my shy and retiring partner will now grudgingly admit, that my advice is sound, and I no longer have to drag him to meet and greets once onboard.
If my dearly beloved little introvert can see the magic and the sense of it, which he can, it really must work.
Read the next post in this series.
FAB - Step by step guide to find your perfect cruise
FAB Last Minute and Interline Cruises