You may think that being a guest lecturer on a cruise ship is a dream job. I know that's what I thought when I first started giving shipboard presentations on astronomy 12 years ago.
It's not a bad gig, for sure; you travel the world, sometimes sailing to exotic places you otherwise never would visit. Your cabin is made up twice a day by an attentive steward. You can eat your fill of satisfying or -- even better -- gourmet fare around the clock (delivered directly to your stateroom if you wish) and never need to cook or wash a dish. You might work three hours a week and have people applaud at the end of every hour.
Because all types of cruise lines use guest speakers, it's also a great way to experience the gamut of cruising styles. I've given presentations aboard large ships (Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean) and small ships (including a transatlantic voyage on a 177-foot, three-masted motor yacht for Travel Dynamics International), luxury ships (Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea) and spartan excursion vessels (Cruise West) that sail to places larger ships could never go. I've traveled in all kinds of accommodations, even on the same cruise line (including Queens Grill, commoner and staff accommodations on Cunard), and dined with companions wearing tuxedos (Crystal), cruisers in "country club casual" togs (Oceania) and those who were shirtless (Windjammer Barefoot).
But, if your idea of a "job" includes getting a paycheck, you'll quickly realize that working as a guest lecturer is not a job at all. Paid guest speakers are a thing of the past, and sometimes even celebrities only get airfare and a guest suite. In fact, many presenters pay out of pocket for the privilege of lecturing onboard. If you want to be a cruise ship lecturer, you have to face the fact that guest speakers are among the few people aboard who are working for the ship without being paid. (Folks do come up with creative ways to make money off the cruise; I've seen authors sell copies of their books onboard, and travel photographers and writers use the trips to gain affordable shooting and research opportunities.)
That said, if you're a dynamic speaker with knowledge and passion about a topic, lecturing on a cruise ship can be a great way to educate people while you explore the world. But, guest lecturing should not be seen as an easy path to a free cruise. Nor should the lack of payment make you think that it's an easy gig anyone can do. You'll need talent and skill to stand out in the competitive hiring process. Rank amateurs need not apply.
Lines that court a multinational passenger base sometimes seek lecturers who can speak multiple languages. Naples-based MSC Cruises looks for guest speakers who can deliver presentations in at least three languages (English, Italian and German), although it makes exceptions when booking personalities for such occasional theme cruises as "baseball greats," big band and culinary voyages. A contact at Royal Caribbean told me the line is looking for Spanish- and Italian-speaking presenters for its European sailings and Portuguese-speaking presenters for its Brazilian season.
And some lines, like Carnival, simply don't use guest lecturers at all. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen explains, "While we offer a variety of activities, we don't offer guest speakers, as we feel that our current schedule of activities meets our guests' preferences." Carnival believes enrichment and destination presentations wouldn't have the broad-based appeal of activities in its Fun Ashore, Fun Onboard program.
The cruise lines that do hire lecturers also vary in the number of guest lecturers they employ. For example, many of Holland America's presenters are from its Exploration Team partners, including Microsoft, Food & Wine magazine and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. Celebrity's Celebrity Life program fills about 100 of its 500-plus annual guest lecturer slots with speakers from its partner, the Smithsonian Institute's Smithsonian Journeys. Disney Cruise Line pulls all enrichment lecturers for its Disney Behind the Scenes program from the far corners of the Disney empire, including animators, character artists and chefs from Disney's parks and resorts.
The effect is twofold. First, would-be cruise-ship lecturers will find that some lines are hiring fewer outside speakers than they used to. Before November 2008, Holland America hired 200 guest lecturers a year; now it uses about 75 destination and enrichment speakers and only on its transatlantic and long "grand voyages." NCL, which employed 300 special interest and destination lecturers a year up until October 2009, has now moved all of its lecture programs in-house, with cruise directors and assistant cruise directors delivering destination-focused talks.
Second, some onboard presentations touted as informative talks may actually be product pitches, geared at convincing attendees to buy something, such as a shore excursion, a spa treatment or a painting. While, in some cases, presenters may be highly knowledgeable speakers, in others, they are providing biased information to aid in their product pitches. But, most of the time, these presentations are not given by a guest destination or enrichment lecturer.
If you choose to be represented by an agency, you don't have to limit yourself to a single firm. None of the agencies requires you to register only with them. Conflict is not a problem because (except in unusual circumstances, such as a last-minute cancellation) the cruise lines won't offer a specific lecture slot to more than one agency. "We all get different sailings," explains Diane Zammel, owner of To Sea With Z. "The cruise lines have it worked out that each agency has a different ship and different blocks of dates, so it works out fine."
Sometimes there are perks, such as a discount on your bar bill or shore excursions, but this varies widely from line to line and even from cruise to cruise. (Usually the luxury lines offer the best benefits.) If you would otherwise pay full fare for a cruise, working through an agency does represent a considerable savings.
If you don't want to go the agency route, some of the cruise lines do book a portion of their destination and guest speakers directly. Many times it's difficult to reach the right person, and cold calls get little response. Your best bet would be to prepare a package (including a list of about a dozen presentations you can give, a DVD of your best lecture, a short biography highlighting your qualifications as a speaker and a "head shot" photo), and send it to the cruise line's Entertainment Department, to the attention of the "Guest Speaker Program." There is much stiffer competition for the slots booked by the cruise line, particularly for first-time lecturers, because there is no administrative fee, and the line may include gratuities and even transportation to the ship. (In other words, they may cover all the basic cruise expenses.)
So how will the cruise lines or agencies decide if you've got the qualifications to speak onboard their ships? "The key thing I get from the lecturer will be the DVD -- the DVD really tells you everything," explains agent Tim Castle, who owns his own agency. "You can normally tell in a couple of minutes whether you have an entertaining speaker or somebody who really shouldn't have taken the trouble to make the DVD." Castle is looking for "someone who speaks in an animated, enthusiastic, even passionate way,” but also "for any negatives, like halting speech, hesitations, reading from notes, too many ums and ahs." If your presentation is weak, agents are likely to stop watching after a few minutes, and you won't get the gig. But Castle (and most of the other agents I contacted) will watch the entire presentation of a speaker he thinks may show promise. To maximize your chances of getting hired, make sure you submit a DVD lecture with an especially strong beginning.
The following agencies place guest speakers for multiple cruise lines (some also book performers, dance hosts and instructors, clergy, bridge directors, yoga and golf instructors, arts & crafts instructors, watercolor instructors, etc.).
Compass Speakers and Entertainment, Inc.
Telephone: (954) 568-3801
Mailing Address: 2455 E Sunrise Blvd Ste 804, Ft Lauderdale FL 33304 Specializes in premium and luxury lines
Telephone: (760) 773-2715
Mailing Address: POB 14385, Palm Desert CA 92255 Has placed cruise personnel for 40 years
Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing
Telephone: (954) 462-6760
Mailing Address: 21 NW 5th St, Ft Lauderdale FL 33301 Places guest speakers and others on more than 55 vessels worldwide
Telephone: (212) 832-9617
Mailing Address: 255 E 49th St Ste 8F, New York NY 10017 Handles only guest and celebrity lecturers