On-the-Job: Cruise Line Manager Interview
Bernard Stolberg is the manager of vessel services at Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises in Seattle. He began working in the cruise industry as a waiter many years ago and has worked his way up the corporate ladder. Bernard took some time out of his schedule recently to reflect on what it takes to succeed in this industry and what it’s like working for a small cruise company such as Glacier Bay.
I interview a lot of young people, and I see a lot of people who are looking for the experience of being away from home.
They want to travel-that’s a large percentage of our applicants. People want to travel and experience Alaska, or experience the Pacific Northwest, or wherever the vessel operates.
When I’m interviewing job candidates, I look for someone who has met challenges before, someone who is outgoing and a go-getter. Especially in our sector of the cruise industry, with the small ships. It is vital that people can talk and are willing to get along and meet new people. The cruise industry right now is really competitive, but I think it’s still fairly easy to get a job, especially if you have background experience. A lot of times the background experience is in the hospitality industry-working for a restaurant or hotel. Those industries are key because of the customer service and guest experience you learn.
Applicants can have little in the way of experience, but still be successful with the kind of qualities they do have, the people skills, determination, and work ethic. On a smaller cruise line such as Glacier Bay, you have to work on your own and be independent. You become, in a sense, your own manager. It’s the one thing I always talk to people about when I’m hiring. It’s to your benefit to demonstrate that you have an excellent work ethic and to be able to quickly do an efficient job while maintaining standards of quality.
We’re not a formal ship. Our crews are small and more tight-knit, like a family. When the passengers come on board, they become part of the family. Our niche as a small cruise operator is the family-oriented experience. Our company is going more toward the eco-tourism and adventure cruising. For the past five years we’ve developed the Wilderness Explorer vessel program; it’s a soft adventure program.
Well, now that vessel’s becoming an active adventure trip, which is going to promote our floating base camp. And the Wilderness Adventure, the vessel we’ve just acquired, will promote the soft adventure cruising.
The difference with adventure cruising is, instead of going on a shore excursion to a big city such as Ketchikan, the emphasis is on getting out in a kayak, or hiking. We do stop at Ketchikan, too, but our focus is on experiencing the wilderness of Alaska. It’s one of the benefits of the small ship: We can go places where the big ships can’t. So, you’re getting out, you’re experiencing wildlife, you’re doing a lot of hiking and kayaking, those are the focus points of our trip. And being on a small cruise ship, crew members get to do a little bit of everything. So there’ll be times when we say, “OK, why don’t you get out and kayak with the passengers? Why don’t you lead this expedition trip and take them on a shore walk?” What’s really neat, is that when you’re kayaking along the shore, you can be within ten feet of a bear. Recently, we were cruising on one of our small vessels and as we got close to the shore a moose swam about three feet away from the boat! It was pretty remarkable.
Working on a cruise ship is a unique life. It can be very rewarding, but at the same time, it can be challenging because you’re working twelve hours a day, and many times it’s a split shift. But there are a lot of benefits, especially with a small cruise ship. You develop very close, personal relationships with, not only crew members, but also with passengers. They become your family. And they say the pay’s not good, but I think the pay is excellent, especially in the hospitality end of things. For the majority of jobs [working for Glacier Bay], you get paid a daily rate, and also tips on top of that. The tips are based on the quality of the work you do and the atmosphere that you present to the guest. So you’re making anywhere from $80 to $100 a day, which is both tips and your daily wage.
You do have the ability to go out and shop, but, for the most part, you’re not going to the movies every night, you’re not walking down the street and deciding to get a latte. Therefore, the ability to save money is incredible. And you get free room and board. I figured it out one time when I was working for another line that just room and board alone can be a savings of $10,000-$15,000. That’s one of the key things for college students, is that there is the opportunity to save a lot of money. Because a lot of times, they don’t have their own apartment, they’re living at home or something like that, and they don’t have that many outside responsibilities, bill-wise, so they can really pocket their earnings. I had someone tell me yesterday that within the first month of working, he had saved $1,000 already.
It’s a unique opportunity, too, if you want to take a semester off and save money. We have a bonus program for people who work the whole season. Our season runs March until October. However, we’re also going to be starting a Baja winter season, so we will continue to run. That season will probably run December through February.
It’s hard to say how many people we hire each year because we have a lot of people who stay, and a lot returning each year. But occasionally we have people who come on and it’s not for them. You don’t have very much private space, you’re always sharing a room, between two or four people, and you’re working long hours. Normally you’re working six weeks on, twelve to fourteen hours a day, and two weeks off. To put it another way, you work every day for six weeks, but then you get two whole weeks off. That’s pretty much a standard for the industry. That’s why it’s unique; somebody can either do it or they can’t. That’s one of the biggest things I miss about boat life, is that I don’t get two weeks off every six weeks.
If you want to get hired on a cruise ship, you should be persistent. Because the more persistent you are, the more times you call, the more times you say “I want to come see you,” then the more your name is going to be there. It also shows that you’re determined. It shows a lot about your work ethic. Also, having a good resume does help. You’d be amazed at how many resumes come in that are of poor quality. Sometimes they’ll be handwritten. I get letters all the time that are handwritten. You really need to type!
One thing I’ll point out about the small cruise ship industry is, if you want to get in with the big ships, it’s a stepping stone. You have a better chance going through a small cruise ship and working your way up to being a purser or something like that, and then stepping on to a big ship. And you can always start out in the hotel industry. The hotel industry is very similar to the cruise industry. Basically, we’re a hotel floating on water. The difference is, you don’t go home at the end of the day, you live in the hotel. And you travel, too.
The cruise industry is growing continuously. You read the stories about the big ships that are coming out, and the smaller cruise lines they’re finding their niches, like ours. Adventure cruising, eco-tourism – we keep expanding because that whole niche is expanding. So there are many opportunities.