Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.
"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.
A Cruise Director's Calling
A passenger approaches. "Excuse me, do these stairs work?" she innocently asked.
My reply, brimming with joie de vivre, "no, the stairs are out of order today, please take the elevator next to them." Turning with a silly grin on her face she giggled, "Darling, that was the daftest question I have ever dared to ask." We fell about laughing.
As a former cruise director, let me confess that we all have a long list of things people say that over the years just gets funnier. It's all par for the course in what is one of the most passenger-oriented jobs onboard any cruise ship.
Cruise directors come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Once, the position was male dominated; today, the female population is on a steady rise. I am proud to have been one of the few first women to have achieved the position. And yet, the gender really doesn't matter. What's more important is that the job requires a particular sort of personality, a person who is charming and energetic, but who is also organizationally talented and can confront challenges head on.
First, I'll tell you that cruise directors, if they're going to succeed, need to be self-assured and assertive leaders who can multi-task. Thin skins (taking things personally) are a detriment because cruise directors face the highest number of personality traits of any job known to mankind (and, indeed, we have our own egos to keep in check or face the wrath of passengers or coworkers!).
Some folks think that a position such as cruise director is a mere summer job, one that people do for fun. It can be quite fun, mind you, but there are tremendous responsibilities. First: Cruise directors are officers of their ships.
Cruise directors rotate between various itineraries and ships with distinct differences in operating procedures and personnel (and management styles). They direct passenger services, from activity programs and public announcements to "welcome onboard" and disembarking information. As passengers' most visible liaison, they serve as a conduit to those with problems, either finding a way to fix them or sending them on to the appropriate department.
As well, the cruise director must have full knowledge of ships' safety procedures issued by ISM (International Safety Management) and security measures, and keep staff informed of appropriate behavior and conduct among their fellow crew and passengers. The position also entails that these staffers manage their own ever-growing departments, keeping an eye over the conduct and performance of these staffers. Exhausted yet?
He or she must organize schedules for a staff of lecturers, speakers, special guest performers and on-staff entertainers for regular onboard programs. The position requires a professional with excellent public speaking and writing skills, confidence in working with large numbers of people, and an ability to keep their cool in even the most trying circumstances.
We must add that they are essential in attending VIP functions, private parties, such as the Cruise Critic onboard gatherings, and ship-organized events, such as past passenger and welcome aboard receptions.
For extra spice, we can throw in they must be able to use a computer for organizing reports and information for ship or corporate headquarter needs. And after all this, it needs to be noted that each cruise line has its own particular list of criteria that is expected of their cruise directors so the nature of the responsibilities can easily grow longer or shorter depending on the size of the ship, number of passengers and number of crew onboard.
It's also important that cruise directors have a distinct personality -- whether it is strong and irritatingly sweet, or painfully patient and aggressive. I must admit that I had a huge ego and found that being in charge of a fun-filled group of exciting entertainment professionals who gave their all to make sure passengers walked off laughing from an exhilarating experience offers up a satisfaction that's impossible to articulate.
The job was kept fresh each voyage thanks to the varied passengers that boarded. No two cruises have ever been the same. There is a magnetic aura surrounding the best cruise directors that seems to draw everyone towards him, or her, in a variety of ways.
In earlier days, cruise directors really did do everything themselves (or with a small group of helpers), from hosting all forms of games and activities to being the entertainer and emceeing all events. They sold tour tickets and then escorted them! They gave lectures and created their own passenger games and theme nights. In addition, cruise directors wrote trivia questions, called out bingo, conducted live wooden horseracing events and inspired CEO's, presidents and millionaires to do goofy things onstage that they would never do at home.
The job description has since gotten more specific and the cruise director's and staff, in large part because ships have gotten bigger and all-the-more amenity laden. There are assistant cruise directors (sometimes called deputy cruise director) with assistants to the assistants and a good number of entertainment cruise staff to fill in for numerous activities that circulate throughout the ship. Still, the cruise director has total say over what their staff does and how they do it.
Nowadays, the cruise director will attend company meetings to learn about ideas and issues that must be presented in uniform (and inoffensive) ways in a much more politically correct method. There is a system to be followed and guidelines to be met. Cruise directors literally do a lot of training today as they prep the hopefuls under them to move into the position one day. A group of well rounded cruise staffers are the ones who have a confident C.D. who makes sure if one falls ill, there is a well trained team member who can fill in at a moment's notice.
At the same time, while all the crew have long hours and responsibilities, they must also attend various onboard courses covering issues of safety, harassment, hygiene and company wants in the presentation of their ships.
How Do You Land a Job as a Cruise Director?
In the past, cruise directors were usually entertainers in their own right; whether it was comedy, singing, dancing or theatrical work, they easily could slip into this top position without a lot of experience.
A couple of names that come to mind are Willy Feltman, the well known Belgium ventriloquist who traveled onboard all the Royal Viking ships of the 70's and 80's, and later with all three Sun Line cruise ships. He found he loved entertaining at sea so much he became a cruise director (until his untimely death in a car crash in the late 1980's).
Leslie Jon, a well known singer/performer, mesmerized audiences since the age of 5 and later became (and still is) cruise director and show coordinator for various companies such as Princess, Sun Line and Oceania. He was last on the Regatta.
Jim Cannon was well-known for his vocal talents, organization and extraordinary people skills. Jim could easily slip into any mode that was needed: singing, calming a difficult situation, using a high level of diplomacy, reorganizing an entertainment staff gone wrong, and much more. He's worked for Seabourn, Crystal, Radisson and Celebrity.
Len Weir jumped onboard as a young Australian who wanted adventure and found his calling quickly. Being able to coordinate all entertainment aspects of sea life, his cruise directorship helped him create his own familial dynasty: His son Nick is on British television and while in between gigs cruise directs on various Celebrity ships. At the same time, Len's other son, Simon, is currently on the Millennium as hotel director and will head back to cruise directing when the regular Hotel Director returns from vacation.
Tommy Van, a hilarious comedian, took his gig onboard cruise ships and quickly became cruise director. He worked on Carnival, Commodore, Chandris, Celebrity and Star Cruises entertaining thousands with his unusual tactics while bringing great comic relief to a stressful job description. He is currently retired from ships though he continues to entertain in comic shows throughout Florida and various southern states.
Today, cruise directors are typically those who have worked their way up the ranks from various positions onboard. Disc jockeys move up, such as Dru Pavlov of Celebrity. Waiters move up -- as did John Heald of Carnival. Singer/dancers move up; Keith Cox of Princess and Kirk Detweiler of Royal Caribbean both worked onstage. Other jobs with potential for forays into the cruise director job include social hostesses, activities hosts and hostesses, youth counselors, and stage managers.
Whether tall, short, fat, skinny, masculine or feminine, American, Australian, Canadian, English or Italian, they are all a special breed.
High Points, Low Points
What was my favorite moment as cruise director? Every day was grand for me; however, the best feeling of all was to see passengers with familiar faces return for more punishment of our shenanigans.
What was the worst moment experienced? Any moment when a tragedy strikes; a death of a loved one onboard, severe weather or having a Murphy's Law day.
What was the funniest moment onboard? Too numerous to count, but one of them was the night we were playing Novelquest (an adult scavenger hunt) without leaving the room. The game is to bring up an item that is requested as ordered by the cruise director, such as "something that has black teeth" (a comb), a bra, lipstick, etc. One night we asked for two pair of men's pants -- and an overzealous passenger volunteered to drop trousers. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten to wear underwear. It took 20 minutes to calm the audience down and to get him to understand he was standing there stark naked.
For a cruise director, time in effect stands still. When all people are onboard and waves begin the motion of the ship, cruise directors are ready to turn up the lights, turn on their glee and guide you through your cruise. In spite of the demands of a heavy schedule and long hours, the satisfaction and rewards is amazingly immense. When the cruise flows well, a sense of self shines. A good strong pat on the back will get us through another cruise.
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A Cruise Director's Calling