On-the-Job: Public Relations

Mary McDowall is an assistant public relations director with Windstar Cruises. By nature she’s an outgoing person and has always looked for
jobs that require interacting with people. When Mary realized she could combine traveling with her people skills, suddenly a shoreside job in the cruise industry made a lot of sense.

The irony of my current job is that it may have never happened.

Originally, I submitted an application to work on a cruise ship, but the timing wasn’t right when they called me, and so I never ended up going. In hindsight, I realized that shoreside employment is more up my alley. As a public relations assistant director I still get the opportunity to travel but with the stability I want. Many people in corporate positions start out as reservation agents or tour operators; it tends to be a very common launching pad in this business. Convenience is the number one reason I chose to work a shoreside job instead on board a ship. I have the flexibility of living in the same city, yet I can experience travel without having to commit to it for long periods of time. All company employees receive one free cruise a year, on a standby basis.

But I’m not just limited to this one opportunity to travel. Two or three times a year I get to escort a group of people such as travel agents, media people, travel writers and editors, or wholesalers (tour operators). As the designated tour guide, I accompany my group around the ship and on offshore excursions, answering any questions they might have, pointing out details, giving tours of the ship, arranging interviews between them and the different crew members, basically selling the features of our company’s ships and package. Last year I went to Tahiti on one of these tours.

On a day-to-day basis, my public relations responsibilities can be broken down into four different categories: correspondence, administrative, editorial, and promotional. About 25 percent of my day is spent responding to incoming inquiries, whether it be from consumers, travel agents, writers, or the media.
Another 25 percent is spent managing little details like scheduling appointments, setting up travel arrangements, and collecting port taxes from travel writers.

I also write, which involves researching, gathering and distributing information, and creating press releases, not only for outside sources, but also for our inside sales team. I make sure they are familiar with the ships and their itineraries and answer any questions for them that will help them become more informed overall.

Finally, I use the rest of my day for working on promotions and new programs.

This is one of the most exciting aspects of my job because it is constantly changing. It’s an opportunity for me to network with other people in the business, brainstorm for new ways to promote our cruises, and spend time implementing those ideas into some type of program.

My past sales experience as a customer service representative, salesperson and real estate agent has proven invaluable to my current job. You are trying to sell a product, whether it’s a flight on an airline or the full-blown cruise. Yet, in some ways I think cruising is easier to sell then an airline ticket because it is more appealing and you can offer added luxuries. Decisions around here are made based on revenue. Sometimes you come up with a great itinerary that you think would be really fun and interesting, but when you send it to the fleet department they say, “no way, too expensive.” Money is the bottom line in the cruise industry and it usually takes precedence over any ideas, no matter how great you think they are.

If you want a job in this industry, whether it be on a ship or shoreside, my advice is learn as much as possible about the company. Try talking to travel agents. They will tell you which cruise lines are easy to work with and what their reputations are like. Another suggestion is to talk to company employees if possible. Recently, a father called on his daughter’s behalf inquiring about her possible employment. I could have transferred him to Human Resources, but I went ahead and took the call. I gave him some background information on the company and answered his questions. Speaking with a current employee can be incredibly helpful in getting an insider’s perspective.

I would also strongly urge people to look at some of the company’s brochures. Take a look at the people featured in the photos. Are they conservative? Wild? Young? Old? Are there kids running around? What kind of clothes are the crew and passengers wearing? What types of programs and activities does the ship offer? That will give you an idea of the cruise culture and the corporate marketing. You should look for the right fit, just as you would for any other type of job.

A large cruise line like Cunard or Silverseas might be more appropriate for a more traditional type of person, whereas a smaller cruise line like Windstar or Windjammer might work better with a more outgoing or adventurous type. Holland America, our parent company, operates several large liners that carry over 700 passengers each. Windstar only has three ships in its fleet, with a passenger capacity close to 140 on each. This difference makes Holland more of a conservative watchdog and tight with the numbers. But they definitely have more pressure with thousands of beds to fill versus Windstar’s 400.

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of a large cruise ship versus a small cruise ship. In a small company you may feel like you have more ownership over your work and you don’t feel as if you are in the big rat race, but the downside is the lack of opportunities and mobility you tend to have in a big company. There is a ship for everyone, you just need to research the companies and do your homework to find the one best suited to your personality. It’s out there!

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