Viking crew members gather around a table.
River cruising's boom applies to staffing, too
By Michelle Baran
The incredible growth of the river cruise industry is impressive enough just in terms of the sheer amount of hardware being built and launched each year. But there is another aspect to the river cruise boom that is mostly overlooked: the people, or, more specifically, the people who are staffing the rapidly growing number of river cruise ships.
When it comes to the ships themselves, building them is arguably a process that can be somewhat automated: create a design framework, execute and repeat, with some tweaks here and there, of course.
But when it comes to people, there are myriad variables that could result in inconsistencies. And with the river cruise product rooted so heavily in service and in developing personal connections between the crew and the passengers due to the smaller size of the vessels, river cruise companies are having to develop sophisticated recruiting and training programs to ensure that service standards keep pace with the growth.
"If you want to look at where innovation is really occurring in river cruising, it is: How do you create a hospitality team of 50-odd folks that makes your trip abroad unforgettable," said Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing at Viking Cruises.
A Viking crew member on a ship’s sun deck.
Because Viking is churning out so many new vessels each year, it also has to invest a lot of time and money -- millions of dollars, according to Marnell -- to properly staff those vessels. In 2014, Viking hired 1,400 employees for its river cruise business. In 2015, the company hired 1,600 employees, including additions to both river and ocean teams.
That's hundreds of new hires each year just for one company. So where are river cruise lines finding all these recruits? Traditionally, many of them hail from Eastern Europe. Anyone who has been on several river cruises will start to recognize certain origin countries popping up regularly -- places like Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic. It's not uncommon to have staff from Western Europe working on river cruise vessels, as well, especially as cruise directors and hotel managers (though plenty of Western Europeans can also be found throughout the vessels). And increasingly there are more crew members of Asian origin on river cruise vessels, including from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Marnell noted that in total, Viking has some 50 nationalities represented onboard its vessels.
As for experience, river cruise executives say that crew members often have previously worked on ocean liners or in hotels or restaurants. Of course, more technical positions, such as on the nautical teams, require relevant educational and licensing credentials as well as experience. But there are also plenty of onboard staff who are trained from the ground up.
For the 2015 sailing season, Viking held two larger training sessions for its employees, with approximately 900 employees participating in a session held in Cologne, Germany, and another 200 participating in a session held in Venice. These sessions, according to Marnell, are as much about training people for their respective tasks as they are about grooming good managers.
"The management on the ship is trained not only in their own tasks but even more so in leadership and in training, because they are key in developing the needed skills in the people that report to them," Marnell said.
But in the end, he noted, successful staffing really comes down to one main thing.
"Overall, our philosophy is that our best employees are hired based on the right attitude," he said. "With an adequate educational background, we can train a new team member with all he or she needs to know. But the attitude has to be there."
captions for large images, from top: Crystal Cruises President Edie Rodriguez
walks with Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of operations, on the
promenade deck of one of Crystal's ships; Maryland Transportation Secretary
Pete Rahn and Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy; Holland America
Line President Orlando Ashford speaks at Cruise Shipping Miami; Princess
Cruises President Jan Swartz with Princess’ float for the Rose Parade in
Pasadena, Calif.; and Norwegian Cruise Line President Andy Stuart on the ropes
course of one of Norwegian’s new-generation ships.