What Makes A Happy Ship ... Happy?

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.

What Makes A Happy Ship ... Happy?

I have been asked many times what it takes to create a positive atmosphere onboard -- and, as well, what aspects can contribute to a negative one. The strangest thing is that because cruise travel is more group-oriented than, say, independent hotel stays, one couple might have the voyage of a lifetime while another simply has a miserable time. Onboard atmosphere plays a huge role in that and neither couple would be wrong.

That's why asking what it takes to create a positive -- or negative -- ambience is a loaded question.

Some of my fellow staffers and I used to stand on the gangway as people embarked, playing a game in which we tried to figure out who would do ... what. Who would be fun? Who, being shy, would be more likely found in quiet corners, reading? Who would be a high-maintenance nitpicker? We ultimately got pretty good at predicting the correct outcomes.

From the get go, the most important key to a positive environment is you. If you are fighting with your spouse, have a grievance of some sort (such as lost luggage) or just didn't get up on the right side of the bed, this can affect the mood of your cruise. Subsequently, the crew should go into overdrive to turn you around. And indeed, a motivated and dedicated group of staffers from cabin stewards to shore excursion employees (among others) has the power to absolutely transform a bad mood into a good one, and make what could have been a disappointing vacation into a trip of a lifetime.

But what happens when the ship itself feels grumpy? No question, sometimes the vibe onboard can be untouchable and unexplained, with crew, staff and officers who aren't friendly, who don't smile and offer greetings, and who regard passenger requests as inconveniences rather than positive challenges.

Because cruise travel offers so many unique opportunities to interact with staffers -- quiet conversations with your cabin steward, waiter or a favorite bartender -- the crew is a huge factor in the success of your cruise. If, in individual cases, a crewmember's service is not up to par, ask yourself: Could he be dealing with a situation, personal or professional?

I remember an instance in which one of our very best cabin stewards fell out of sync with his job; he didn't replace used items in cabins, didn't answer phone calls and basically was just lethargic. Several complaints were coming in, heads were rolling, drugs were suspected -- now this kid was in trouble. However, he called me one day crying, wanting to talk. It turns out that his family delayed informing him of his father's passing on Christmas day, and he didn't know what to do. Instantly I advised him to write a daily journal of his most intimate thoughts every 10 days or so to send them to his mother. This way they are connected, on-the-spot thoughts are shared and healing begins. Instantly, his spirit had been lifted, normalcy returned and his work returned to its standard excellence. It takes one moment to listen and turn the situation around. And hopefully, in all such occurrences, managers onboard will do so when needed.

Sometimes a mandate, one that negatively affects crew members, will come from cruise line headquarters. For instance: tighter rules and regulations resulting in lesser freedoms due to an increase in passenger lawsuits. Or more onboard seminars that mean less time or even higher demands to increase revenue. Such occurrences can easily affect a broad swath of crew and can easily transform a ship from a happy one ... to a grumpy one. That's not fun for anyone, passengers especially.

But crew, too, have stresses. They do not go home at night or have weekends off, so there are constant demands from all angles. Any one of them can snap and trust me, they later regret it. Like in so many industries today, there's pressure to boost morale -- even as corporate cost-cutters are making drastic changes. Salaries are forever going south with each person working harder to earn less.

Management onboard makes a big difference in setting a tone as well. One department that proves this point perfectly is Food and Beverage, which encompasses all dining venues, and bars and lounges. This manager must be organized, fair and impartial; this department is so large, it affects the whole ship's attitude. If this manager is well organized, the staff moves in sync and with confidence. If not ... well, you can imagine.

Another noticeable department is that of the Chief Housekeeper, supervisor of another huge group of crew members that affects passengers. The attitude and effectiveness of staffers in this job can have an enormous influence over how smoothly cabin services runs. If there is one who is always looking for a scapegoat and not willing to take on responsibility, his staff is on edge with no trust, resulting in (trust me) a load of extra problems.

For every department fortunate enough to have a strong leader willing to throw a party, create better time off, listen to grievances and keep a positive outlook, there is a happier and harder working crew.

At the top of all commands is the captain, who oversees everyone. If the captain is angry the crew will become more sullen. Conversely, a captain who has strong control, is fair in his dealings, is trusted in safety and concerns, smiles when in public, and rewards and acknowledges staff standouts -- well, the ship will run itself.

Bottom line: How these managers react to a given situation will be how the crewmembers are going to act. It stems from control, confidence and respect. With a happy management team and a supportive captain, there is a calmer crew. With a decently paid crew, staffers can better concentrate on the job at hand in making your experience a positive one.

Mistakes can happen though and I, too, am guilty. I'm not proud of this one. One night, while working as a cruise director, and just 15 minutes before I was scheduled to emcee a talent show, I was told that a promised raise was being denied as a result of the ship captain's objections (typically pay rises come from headquarters). As I'm smarting from the disappointment, I head to the stage. On my way, a woman tugged at my arm, asking if she could perform even though she hadn't participated in the rehearsal. Something snapped in me. I bit her head off about missing the sign-up time and said, flat out, no.

Distracted, I didn't think twice about it. Until the next morning when I was presented with a letter from her husband stating how rude I was and how I'd ruined their cruise. It was to be his wife's last cruise as she was battling cancer. I felt sick and horrified.

While it's taught me a valuable lesson in treating others as I want to be treated, the experience has also enlightened me as to how one person can be experiencing his or her worst cruise ever -- while next door, passengers are having the times of their lives.

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