Photo Credit: TW illustration by Thomas R Lechleiter

Rock staronboard

June 03, 2015

Top-shelf crew members inspire loyalty from cruise passengers and travel agents alike and can greatly influence cruise line selection.

Piano entertainer Perry Grant has been a fixture on Celebrity Cruises for more than a decade, and people love him. He sings Broadway show tunes, cabaret and pop tunes with a flamboyant style that keeps people coming back for more.

"There were people who cruised over and over and over again just to see Perry Grant," said Linda Carter, an Avoya agent and co-owner of Luxury Cruise & Travel in Tallahassee, Fla. "People were crazy about him. He had a very big following where people cruised just for this one performer."

Perry Grant is just one of many extraordinary cruise ship employees who are rock stars in roles both on- and off-stage.

Crew members like Grant are scattered all across the cruise industry. They inspire loyalty from passengers and travel sellers alike. Some have passionate followings. Others are not so famous but are on the ships waiting to be discovered by passengers.

Top-shelf crew members are found in almost every job that has contact with the passenger, from captain, cruise director and maitre d' down through the pursers and hotel directors, to the front-line cabin stewards, bartenders and waiters.

Some are so good they make a difference when agents recommend cruise lines to clients. While the fit between the line and clients always comes first, amazing staff can influence the decision.

"I think relationships are important. I think they're drivers," said Larry Pimentel, president of Azamara Club Cruises. "The personality of the line is created by the personalities on the line."

The storyteller

At Azamara, one of those personalities is Eric de Gray, cruise director on the Azamara Journey.  

A towering figure at 6 feet 6 inches tall, de Gray is a former figure skater who often appears on stage on roller blades, making him appear even taller.

His background includes a music degree from the University of Toronto, performing in Broadway and off-Broadway shows and writing scores for films.

Eric de Gray, cruise director on the Azamara Journey.
Eric de Gray, cruise director on the Azamara Journey.

He's legendary on Azamara for telling stories about his grandfather, which he has compiled in a book titled "Letters From Grandpa!"

But what makes de Gray really stand out is his warmth and engagement.

"He defines human connection," Pimentel said. "He has a way of being able to connect with guests and crew members with a sense of humor from a multicultural standpoint, through jokes, through storytelling and through incredible attention to detail about guests."

Not surprisingly, de Gray has become an attraction unto himself.

"We have people calling the call centers asking, 'Is Eric on that voyage?' So he makes a difference in that he makes people laugh," Pimentel said. "And the laughter is the joy and glorious connection that he gets."

Interaction with the crew turns out to be one of the most highly valued parts of a cruise experience, according to research undertaken by World Travel Holdings, parent to retailers such as CruiseOne/Cruises Inc.

In an analysis of more than 14,000 entries submitted by cruisers to the company's review site, staff and service were rated higher than any other cruise attribute, including food and dining.

On a scale of 1 to 3, the average review ranked satisfaction with service and staff at 2.71.

"It is where we find our highest scores, but people are also telling us it is very important to them, as well," said David Crooks, senior vice president of product and operations at World Travel Holdings.

Crooks said that when CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. held its annual conference last fall on Princess Cruises' new Regal Princess, Hotel Director Dirk Brand stood out.

"He was phenomenal," Crooks said, "and that ship does score really high."

For the six months that ended in March, Regal Princess tied with Celebrity Reflection as the third most popular ship among reviewers, behind only the Disney Dream and the Allure of the Seas.

As overseers of the dining and cabin staff, hotel directors supervise the largest number of crew on a ship.

They can have a dramatic effect on crew attitude, said Jennifer Gasser, vice president of supplier relations and product operations at World Travel Holdings.


The mensch

According to Tom Taffel, head of All-Cruise Travel in San Jose, Calif., all of those traits are found in Michael Shapiro, who has been cruise director with French Polynesia specialist Paul Gauguin Cruises for 16 years.

"Michael has a way of making you feel right at home the moment you step onboard," Taffel said.  

Diane Moore, president of Paul Gauguin, says it starts even before that, when passengers show up on the pier in taxis and buses to find Shapiro greeting them.  "That's above and beyond. He could be taking personal time while the ship is turning over," Moore said.

Once on the ship, "he's never sitting in his office, never just hiding behind the door; he is out walking the deck, and he'll sit down and start talking to them like they're his best friends," Moore said. "Every single night, he'll invite people to dine with him,"

Like many cruise directors, Shapiro's background is in entertainment. In addition to being cruise director, he also sings on the 322-passenger Paul Gauguin as well as choreographs and manages the Gauguines, a group of native Polynesian performers.

"We're a small ship, so he's the entertainer; he's a little bit of everything onboard," Moore said.

Combined with his knowledge of Polynesia, Shapiro's engaging personality keeps customers returning to Paul Gauguin, Moore said.

"On social media pages, people are always writing things like 'I sailed with Michael Shapiro in January. He's warm, gracious and knowledgeable, such an asset. What is Michael's schedule? When will he be back onboard? He's one of the reasons we sail on Paul Gauguin.'"

The team builder

Gasser said her favorite hotel director is Klaus Lugmaier, a 26-year veteran of Norwegian Cruise Line, who is now regional vice president of fleet hotel operations. In that role, he often fills in for vacationing hotel directors on ships, including recently on the Pride of America.

"He can be talking to you and still he's observing everything that's going on around him" on the ship, Gasser said.

Klaus Lugmaier, Norwegian Cruise Line's regional vice president of fleet hotel operations.
Klaus Lugmaier, Norwegian Cruise Line's regional vice president of fleet hotel operations.

In an interview from Hawaii, Lugmaier said that skill is just something he was blessed with "naturally and by experience. The key is you have to be a good listener, and you have to be willing to adapt and always learn and change. You can never stay still."

Lugmaier said his role as regional vice president is to support his team and set them up for success. He coaches them in what he calls "hospitality from the heart" and in making the job look easy.

"In any hospitality environment, it's never supposed to be a job," Lugmaier said. "It has to be second nature."

Training people to be hotel directors starts with working through others, Lugmaier said.

"It's not just a one-man show," he said. "It's all about the team. You've got to make sure you engage them and bring the team with you. In order to do that, it's important to give them honest feedback, and training and coaching is key to any team effort."

Drive, organizational skills and knowledge of both front and back of the house are important, but people skills are essential, Lugmaier said.  

"You have to be a friendly person by nature," he said. "You cannot walk around with a long face and not say hello to your fellow crew members. You have to be able to connect. Everybody has an important job."

As beneficial as training can be, many experts say that hiring outstanding hospitality workers starts with personality.

"I'm not sure you create rock stars," said Pimentel. "I think they have the DNA."

Outstanding cruise ship employees tend to share some of the same attributes. They're never sitting in an office. They love guests. They go beyond what's required. They have outgoing, charismatic personalities. The line between work and personal friendships tends to disappear.

Carnival Cruise Line's John Heald.
Carnival Cruise Line's John Heald.

The blogger

Another cruise director, Carnival Cruise Line's John Heald, attracted fans in part by writing a blog about his job. For the past eight years, he's hosted hundreds of blog followers on an annual bloggers cruise, and next year he will have two such cruises, one on the Carnival Freedom from Galveston, Texas, and another on the Carnival Miracle from Los Angeles.

The people magnet

With 24 ships, Carnival has more than one popular cruise director. Becky Piper, a CruiseOne agent in Cleveland, took a Carnival cruise last fall and came away impressed with Jaime Dee.

Dee joined Carnival in 2007 as an entertainer and has been cruise director on the Carnival Sunshine for the past year and a half.

"We've gone on almost 70 cruises, and she's the best cruise director we've had in eons," Piper said. "She was just so bubbly and enthusiastic. I don't know how much they're paying that girl, but it isn't enough."

In an email, Dee said she loves people and loves Carnival.  

"My favorite thing to do is lead big dance parties throughout the ship," she said. She also enjoys hosting Carnival's "Love and Marriage" game show.

While cruise directors tend to stick with one ship for a while, booking a ship with a particular crew member can be tricky.

Cruise lines generally don't announce which personnel will be working on individual ships because their schedules can change unpredictably.

Nevertheless, if a guest or agent calls the cruise line, they can often get an idea who will be working a prospective cruise, according to cruise executives who were interviewed for this story.

The butler

Two agents cited suite-level butlers as crew who memorably influenced their thinking about which cruise lines to send clients on. Both work for Crystal Cruises.

Almir Dulovac, butler on the Crystal Serenity.
Almir Dulovac, butler on the Crystal Serenity.

Lydia Santiago, an Avoya Travel agent in Las Vegas, said she was apprehensive about her penthouse suite last October on the Crystal Serenity.

"I didn't know if the butler would be kind of intrusive or bang on the door all the time," she said. "I just wasn't sure how the experience was going to be, but I was completely surprised."

Her butler, Almir Dulovac, was warm and genuine, greeting her by name and anticipating all of her needs.

"There was never a time I would call him for something and he wasn't right there answering the telephone," Santiago said. "I book a lot of Crystal, and I have some clients who say, 'What do I need a butler for?' or 'Last time I had a butler it didn't really do anything for me.'  So I explain my experience."

Likewise, Amal Mulhem, an agent with Carol's Travel Service in suburban Chicago, said she's placed a client on four consecutive Crystal world cruises in part because the client is enamored of her butler, Alexander Plaznic.

"She always wants me to book the same penthouse so she gets him every time," Mulhem said.

The head waiter

The head waiter on an Azamara Quest sailing last May caught the attention of New York agent Rachel Ringer of the Travel Network, a Virtuoso agency.

"It is a year later, and we still speak about how he made our trip exceptional," she said.

Pimentel said the waiter, Predrag Mekic, is especially good at overhearing diners talking about what they like and surprising them with the option to order it at the next meal.

"He's one of those guys that people will go on the ship and ask what section he's working so that they can sit there," Pimentel said.

Many of the rock stars cited by agents start in either entertainment or dining. Pimentel said those are the areas where a crew tends to have the most interaction with guests.

The concierge

Similarly, Chester Tercero, the Aqua Class concierge on the Celebrity Reflection, made a point to place a call from Haiti on his personal phone for agent Janet Torno (pictured with Tercero) of Conlin Travel in Ann Arbor, Mich., when he found out that her relative was celebrating a birthday.

"Chester was naturally able to surprise and delight his guests, and I will always remember him fondly as a star on my cruise," Torno said.

Chester Tercero, the Aqua Class concierge on the Celebrity Reflection, with agent Janet Torno of Conlin Travel in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Chester Tercero, the Aqua Class concierge on the Celebrity Reflection, with agent Janet Torno of Conlin Travel in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Carter, the Avoya agent, said every cruise line has at least one such star on staff.

"On our last Royal [Caribbean] cruise, the room stewardess made a little birthday cake out of towels and then sprinkled Happy Birthday confetti around it that she bought on her own," she said.

"That was just something she did above and beyond. That's not something that Royal has their employees do."

Carter said such employees tend to rise through the ranks.

"Those will be the ones that 10 years from now will be in charge of housekeeping or a maître d'.

"They stay with the program and move up because they're really good at what they do."