In the lead-up to launching any brand-new cruise ship, Cruise Critic offers lots of views -- via photos, video and commentary -- on the process of building a new vessel. After all, you can't launch a ship if it's not seaworthy. But beyond that, there's also no point in debuting a ship without its hotel team. A ship's hotel staff is responsible for all of the "fun" stuff that travelers experience onboard, from interior design to restaurant operations and from crew service to entertainment.
Klaus Lugmaier, Norwegian Cruise Line's top hotel director, is an old salt when it comes to launching new ships for the line. Norwegian Epic, which debuts in June 2010, is his ninth (Leeward, Norwegian Sky, Norwegian Star, Norwegian Dawn, re-launch of Norwegian Sky (from Pride of Aloha), Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Gem). But Norwegian Epic, the 155,873-ton, 4,100-passenger ship, is by far the largest, most ambitious and most innovative vessel ever produced by NCL and offers a host of new challenges.
Lugmaier, in the midst of frantic preparations at STX Europe shipyard in France, chatted exclusively with Cruise Critic.
Cruise Critic: What's the first thing you want people to notice when they step onboard Epic?
Klaus Lugmaier: Our Epic is very, very hot. Wow. What a beauty. Sexy and beautiful. Beyond that, the first thing I would like our guests to notice is the variety of choices from 21 dining options, to world-class entertainment, to the largest spa at sea, the largest casino at sea, the amazing water park, all these choices.
CC: What kind of challenges does this present to a hotel director on a ship that promises "epic" changes to the industry?
KL: I was very lucky on this project. Since last year, I started to plan and was part of the Miami team to set up everything. Now here (in France), we've started the engines, and now the crew is here and with everyone here this is the heart of the operation - breathing the soul in. And now (in early June) I have about 1,600 crew members here training, with more arriving.
But let me say I don't see this as a challenge but as an opportunity to live up to this promise to our guests. We have great team members here, another hotel director too, two food & beverage directors from Miami. And we have the best and most experienced crew from the other NCL ships. Everyone has already worked on our ships; they're 100 percent seasoned people who know our product so we will deliver an excellent experience from day one.
Of course the “Blue Man Group” folks are new to ships, but they know what they are doing. We have the “Cirque Dreams” and Spiegel tent (circus) up and running. Already you can sit down and have dinner there, and you say, ‘wow.'
CC: When did you arrive at the shipyard? When did the crew arrive?
KL: I arrived first in March for a series of short visits, and have been here permanently since April 27. The crew started to arrive in early May, and now we have 250 or so arriving per day. As for the crew, we have all clicked. We are one team here. We have done training onboard for the past few weeks. When crew arrive, we give them a hearty welcome, check them into their cabin, and start training.
CC: What's the difference between this ship and others you have brought out in terms of training?
KL: It's a big ship and there's lots to learn. The day starts at 7 a.m. The basic concept is the same; it's a floating resort. But it's very different, much larger, 19 stories, 2,114 guest cabins, 21 food and beverage venues, state-of-the -art entertainment venues. The crew has to walk around for a couple of hours every day to study this. We want crew members to be able to recommend their favorite venues in dining, for instance, so they need to learn the whole ship. The crew is doing tastings at the Garden Café (the Lido restaurant) already – really it's a restaurant, way more than a buffet, with food action stations from all over the world and everything prepared fresh.
We are loading 400 palettes a day -- plates to cutlery, cooking equipment, everything that goes into the guest cabins, towels and linens and bedding, pots and pans for the kitchens. We are doing soft training with F&B (food and beverage), and cooking menus as per standard operating procedures. And of course safety training is ongoing. Everyone is busy. But it's a great ambience. Everyone is really, really excited – the adrenaline rush, as you say.
CC: So what's your typical day like during this "get ready" period?
KL: It's a long one, running from 7 a.m. to midnight or 2 a.m. And I love it, the excitement. I do food sampling -- I've eaten at Le Bistro and Shanghai, which are both up and running, so we do food tastings. We use the crew as guests and do role play. Beginning on June 1, every outlet open for crew to use as guests. So when the first passengers arrive they will receive the same service as the guests six months later. As managers we debrief every morning, do walk-throughs and see where we can help team members. I also have to make sure containers with supplies arrive from the warehouse. I have a cell phone, a 'crackberry' and a walkie-talkie. I sleep with these things, honestly. And once the ship system is running, my phone number is 8888. I tell people they can call anytime, crew and guests. And I mean it.
I will be onboard until the end of September, with Sean Wurmhoeringer (the other hotel director) too. And then back to Miami again as fleet director.
CC: Have you actually slept in the ship's curvy-walled cabins? Some were concerned the shower and toilet stalls are too see-through. What was your experience?
KL: The curvy walled cabins -- since day one I am sleeping in these cabins. They are very comfortable. I love the beds. There's a nice waterfall shower. There is a curtain to close, so the compartments are not see-through, not translucent. The sink for me is fine (across from the bed). The sink could be a little bit bigger. It does a little splash, but not that much. Some of the beds are rounded and it's nice. I love them.
CC: What about the other cabin categories such as the solo cabins and villas? Have you slept in them?
KL: The single cabins are being built as we speak now, but are very cool looking and very functional. I love the mood light you can put on and the way the wardrobe is designed. They are bigger than you think. The villas are being built onboard as well. I will sleep in them. Right now (two weeks before delivery) we have 180 passenger cabins occupied by subcontractors and shore teams from Miami. And the crew is in their cabins which are very different. There are a lot of single accommodations and two per cabin, so the crew is very happy (it's not uncommon on other ships for crew members to bunk four to a stateroom). 22 years ago when I started we had dull colors, gray. Now crew cabins are colorful and keep the crew happy away from home. I was four in a cabin back then, which meant forget about privacy.
CC: How did you pick crew for this ship?
KL: It was a team effort. Vice presidents in each category, from fleet personnel to hotel operations to food and beverage, worked on it. But the crew who wanted to come all had experience. It's an international crew. We are a United Nations at sea. We have 70 different nationalities. The crew in the Spiegel tent had to really be hand-picked because they are really part of the show. Neil Goldberg, the creator of "Cirque Dreams," handpicked them. They have daily rehearsals with the cast. They are really like entertainers now.
Each outlet, by the way, is distinguished by its own uniforms, which match the whole ambience of the room. Green polo-style shirts at O'Sheehan's and Asian dress at Shanghai's, and Cagney's has a beautiful, elegant uniform. The uniforms match the whole ambience of each restaurant. And there are so many unique restaurants on Epic. No other cruise ship offers so much choice. I am very proud to be part of this team, honestly.
CC: How did all these restaurants get chosen in the first place?
KL: They were picked by a team headed by CEO Kevin Sheehan and President and COO Roberto Martinoli. But we make them alive. We take their vision and that dream and make it happen. What is very unique and very exciting is the Spiegel tent. And the Churrascaria [the ship's Brazilian steakhouse] will be a huge hit, I will tell you that.
We have taken shipboard cuisine to another level. What will be a big plus on Epic will be the pizza delivery. We will bring you pizza anywhere on Epic (including in your lounge chair near the pool), though not during shows. Pizza made fresh and three or four different choices --vegetarian, margarita, you'll see. The pizzas are 16 inches and we will charge a $5 delivery charge. The delivery men have a special uniform.
I know the Shanghai's Noodle Bar will also be a hit -- also an industry first and you can do takeout.
CC: Do you expect customers to get confused with all the choices?
KL: They will be able to pre-book specialty dining in advance. We have a fantastic Web site. Passengers can look at all the options and discuss them with their family and pre-book in advance. That's definitely the future.
CC: What's your top responsibility as hotel director on Epic?
KL: We have the deck/engine and hotel. I report to the Captain (Captain Trygve Vorren), and we have a great working relationship. I am fully responsible for guest satisfaction, product delivery and crew satisfaction. I am running a city here and have to make sure my 1,700 crew members are happy at all times. Happy crew, happy ship, happy guests. The buck stops here. This is the reason I give my phone number to all guests. If there is anything they need, I am here for them. Call me at 8888 [Lugmaier's onboard telephone] and I will answer it. I have always done that and will. I have had this number since 2001.
CC: This ship combines food and entertainment like no other. What challenges does that present? How closely have you worked with the entertainment team?
KL: I will say I have worked more closely with entertainment then before, because it's so trendsetting. You can dine in the Spiegel tent and the Legends in Concert (celebrity impersonators) will perform in the Manhattan Room [dining room] some nights). There is more entertainment than I have ever seen in my life. I am grateful to have professionals here in entertainment, getting the shows alive.
CC: Does bringing out Epic make you nervous at all?
KL: Nervous -- not. It's excitement, because now it's crunch time. I am confident with an excellent, experienced team. We have a great opportunity to deliver a great product on a very high note from day one. That's the fun part of our business. I thrive on this stuff. You are creating something unique and an industry first. To physically walk in and see the ship alive -- wow.
And this is three years in planning. I hoped I could be part of Epic, and I was asked to be last July. Everyone in Miami (headquarters) contributes. My bosses are here now, the vice president of hotel operations, the vice president of new delivery, the vice president of food and beverage. I have all the directors reporting to me -- Sean, and the director of entertainment and the two F&B directors, the bar manager, the executive chef, three corporate chefs. The product will be ready to go. We are opening everything now. The gift shop already has merchandise going in place. The casino machines went in today.
CC: Where do you expect to hang out on the ship? What's your favorite spot so far? Where can passengers find you?
KL: You will see me at every outlet from the atrium coffee bar to Spice H20 (the open-air nightclub). I'll be in the Garden Cafe, in the Spiegel tent. I'll be everywhere as much as I can. I will definitely not be in an office, that's for sure. Favorite spot? There are so many favorite spots. I go up to Spice H2O and I can't wait to get this place alive; to actually see the progression from steel to being filled with passengers. It's just amazing how far we have come at NCL.
CC: What will be happening behind the scenes that passengers don't know about?
KL: Daily rehearsals, once the ship is in operation. Two hours for the Spiegel tent every day. These are world-class athletes and they need to keep their bodies in shape, and the same goes for other entertainers. The "Blue Man Group" show lasts 75 minutes, but the whole preparation is four hours to get it ready for each show. Same with the kitchen -- the preparation is time consuming. We will be loading the ship once a week in Miami. Also, laundry is amazing, fantastic new tunnel washing machines, environmentally friendly. It's really a whole city behind the scenes. And because of the entertainment and attention we've gotten already for that, we are really, really getting ready, not just loading the ship up and cleaning it. We are training. We don't want our guests to get a 'training experience.'
CC: Why did you feel it was personally so important to be onboard?
KL: I did it out of my heart. I have no time to breathe myself. Think MTV Unplugged version. But I love it. We have a fantastic crew. I cannot do this on my own.
For more information on Norwegian Epic, check out our Countdown to Launch.
--by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor. Fran is a travel news columnist for AOL Travel, and frequently writes about cruises.
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Q&A: Cruise Ship Hotel Director Dishes on Norwegian Epic Launch