John Heald: Q&A With Carnival's Most Famous Cruise Director

Cruise blogs, as we chronicled in a recent Trendwatch feature that also revealed our favorites, are becoming as ubiquitous to cruising as deck chair hogs, stingy casino payouts and service charges at alternative restaurants. But John Heald -- longtime Carnival Cruise Lines cruise director and, in his spare time, author of the simply titled John Heald's Blog -- has created the industry's first must-read online cruise column.

Heald, who launched his blog in March in conjunction with the debut of Carnival Freedom, has been summering, so to speak, with the ship on its Mediterranean itineraries. His writings cover everything from behind-the-scenes tidbits about life at sea (both positive and negative) to happenings in the ship's various ports of call, which include stops in Italy, Greece, France, Croatia, Spain and Turkey.

What's made his blog so fresh, funny, startling, revealing -- and informative -- is its blend of features. He tells tales about Heidi, the ship's assistant cruise director (who also happens to be his wife). He interviews honchos from Carnival HQ ... and beyond (a recent guest happened to be Cunard's Carol Marlow). Personal photos liven up the picture. And what might be the most unexpected development is the huge popularity of his own Q&A; within the blog there's a place for fans, passengers and just plain Joes to comment on Heald's, er, commentary and ask questions of their own. He answers 'em, too.

As well, Heald's on a mission, one that he recounts via his blog. It's his goal to entice his idol -- actress and activist Angelina Jolie -- to serve as godmother for Carnival Splendor, the line's next new ship. Stay tuned....

Before we get started, here's a little bit of a pre-interview. Known as the Conquest-class expert at Carnival, he's launched 10 ships (nine as cruise director, one, on Fantasy, as assistant cruise director). He joined Carnival in 1986 as a bartender. After transferring to the entertainment department, Heald moved on to become a social host. In 1990 he got his first posting as cruise director -- and in 2004 was named the fleet's only "senior cruise director." He's now responsible for introducing each new "Fun Ship."

Along with writing his blog, Heald's duties on Carnival Freedom entail hosting shipboard orientation sessions, port briefings and a daily Jay Leno-like "morning show" on in-cabin television (note the resemblance). He also serves as emcee for Carnival Freedom's diverse entertainment line-up, including lavish production shows such as "Ticket to Ride," “"Jump, Jive and Wail," and "The Big Easy."

Heald hails from England's Essex. He typically sails with his wife, Heidi, who works as Carnival Freedom's assistant cruise director.

Cruise Critic Contributor Lynn Seldon caught up with Heald a couple of times during a recent 12-night Mediterranean voyage. Reports Seldon, "the experience and wit we'd come to love in his blog were immediately obvious during far-ranging interviews and photo sessions." So…here we go:

Cruise Critic: What inspired the blog in the first place?
John Heald: I got a call from the entertainment department of the home office. They said they had an idea of doing a blog of the Freedom and would I mind doing it. I didn't even know what a blog was. They said to just tell what was going on onboard the ship. We started two weeks after the launch of the Freedom.

CC: Is there a blog writer who inspired you to do this or inspired your style?
JH: No one inspired me because I really didn't know what a blog was. All I knew was that I didn't want it to be a sales pitch. I insisted that it be done the way that I wanted to do it.

CC: What's the hardest part about writing it?
JH: The time. Also a challenge is deciding what to leave in and what to leave out.

CC: Where are you physically when you write it?
JH: Physically, I'm in a state of confusion. But, seriously, I usually do it in my cabin. I typically write at the end of the day, and my stateroom is just homier and cozier than my office.

CC: How long does it generally take to write each blog?
JH: Two hours -- mostly because of the Q&A. Initially, I started cherry-picking the questions. But then I got negative comments from guests asking, "Why didn't you include mine?" So I started answering all of them. But I do limit it to 50 per blog.

CC: Which of your blog entries has been your favorite and why?
JH: Tough question. I think my favorite was probably the last series of blogs featuring a guest who was known as Mrs. Knee High. She was one of the most difficult guests I have ever encountered but the blog turned her into a bit of a "cult hero." I think I had more postings about her behavior than on any other outside of the 9/11 blog I wrote called "You'll Never Walk Alone." This blog was written as the answer to "What is the most difficult cruise you have ever done?" and I think so far this is my best blog just because of the emotions that returned to me while I was writing it.

CC: Have you had any retractions or corrections?
JH: No retractions or corrections thus far.

CC: What's the most shocking thing that's happened that you haven't mentioned on the blog?
JH: During the middle of a show, a woman in the 3rd or 4th row decided that she didn't want to be with her husband anymore. The whole nine yards -- drink in the face and screaming "I hate you" -- all while Peggy Mathisen was singing "The Sound of Music." The hills really were alive that night!

CC: What's the most shocking thing you've written about in the blog?
JH: The blog must be honest and if I or the ship make a mistake or need to improve in a specific area then it must be included in the blog. I don't ever want it to be scripted or for me to be dictated to as to its content.

Therefore, I have been honest in mistakes we have made such as our first call in Dubrovnik when we really did not organize the shuttle service from town to the vessel correctly and thus created longer lines then there should have been. I have also made sure that as well as praise I include guests who did not care for me as a Cruise Director, or had specific comments that I also have shared in the blog. So, in answer to your question, I have left nothing out so far and if it's good or bad I want to share it with everyone. I continue to be shocked that the blog thingy continues to be popular and although it is a lot of work I enjoy writing them very much and will continue to do so as long as I can.

CC: On your blog, problems onboard occasionally are a point of discussion. Have you solved any (specifically the ongoing challenge surrounding deck chair hogs)?
JH: Some suggestions have been to give out numbers for chairs or to just take the guests' belongings and have a "white elephant" sale. We haven't really been able to solve it -- it happens on every ship on every line.

CC: What's the most common complaint you address in the blog?
JH: Amazingly the majority of the 60-plus comments and questions I answer each day are mostly positive. I have had one or two who need me to follow up with situations that happened on their cruise but it's not been too often. I really hope this trend continues. People seem to be more interested in sharing their cruise experiences and asking questions about forthcoming cruises. I have addressed a few comments with the help of Guest Relations in Miami but overall they have been few and far between.

If there is one complaint it is that they want more blogs. I started off by posting a blog every day but now with answering 60 plus questions each and every blog the frequency of the postings has dropped to one every other day.

CC: How long do you think you'll continue to write the blog? What will happen when you go on vacation? Do you know where you'll turn up next?
JH: I have a commitment with Carnival Freedom, so I don't have any plans to take a vacation though I did take a few days away recently to visit my folks in England (and wrote the blog from there). I will write the blog as long as it stays fresh and people keep tuning in. I am committed to it for at least the rest of the year until the "bloggers' cruise."

CC: What's the "bloggers' cruise"?
JH: The Bloggers Cruise was a suggestion of mine, which I tagged onto the end of a blog. It was just a "maybe we could all get together on one cruise" casual comment and then everyone got excited and said yes, let's do it!" So, now we have a "blogger's cruise" in January and I am very excited about this. We are putting the plans together and I am sure it will be a brilliant cruise experience.

Editor's note: The Bloggers Cruise will take place on Carnival Freedom -- naturally -- on January 19. The seven-night sailing roundtrip from Miami will head to the Western Caribbean and visit three of Heald's favorite ports of call: Jamaica's Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman's Georgetown and Mexico's Cozumel. Activities are still being organized but Heald says that among them will be a welcome aboard reception, trivia contests, a "live" (as opposed to online) Q&A session and more ... and Cruise Critic will be there!

CC: Are there any VIPS or celebrities who have asked to be included in the blog?
JH: Carol Marlow, president of Cunard Lines reads my blogs. I also have a mystery [person] onshore who finds out interesting tidbits within the cruise industry and shares them with me for use on the blog. But I can't reveal my secret source!

Editor's note: Regular readers can glean regular references to this heroic Carnival staffer who knows industry news before, well, everyone else.

CC: The personal questions and messages seem to be an important part of your blog's popularity. How did that get started? Does this take up a lot of time and how do you keep track of them?
JH: People started using it as information for future cruises. About 70 percent are on, or are going on, the Carnival Freedom. Then the people started sending in the questions.

CC: Do you have a regular cast of characters in the blog? Can you name drop a few of those folks who are mentioned often, like Big Ed and ... whomever? What's made them such characters?
JH: There is indeed a cast of characters who have emerged as the blog has grown. These include Big Ed who has opened his own John Heald fan club site; he posts every day without fail. Another popular character is my best mate Alan Adkins. We grew up together and the stories that I have written about our teenage years and his constant failure to attract women have become very popular with requests for more. The blog has, thanks to people like these and many others, morphed into a site that is not just about cruising but about so much more. The latest subject is briefs versus boxers. I look forward to meeting many of the characters on the bloggers cruise as it is hard to imagine what they look like with names like: Big Ed ... Roscoe P. Coltrane ... Sewing Nut ... Bonnie Prince Charlie ... I Love Grandma's House.

They are all great characters and I am so looking forward to meeting them.

CC: Okay, this is a diversion but we're all curious about the new Carnival Freedom. What's your favorite thing about Carnival Freedom and what would be your recommendations to passengers?
JH: Personally, I love the Habana Cigar Bar. It's perfect -- big leather chairs, great ambience for cigar smoking, jazz music. In the "don't miss" arena, I encourage passengers to check out our shows and the Sun King Supper Club. Even though I've made the offer to pay for anyone's dessert who didn't enjoy the experience, I haven't had one person ask. [It's a joke: dessert is included in the $30 supper club price.]

CC: Tell us about your wife, Heidi, and your life together at sea.
JH: We met in a little village in Amsterdam while I was there on a boys' weekend with several other cruise directors. She was an auctioneer at the flower market. We will have been married three years in December. She started with Carnival on the Fascination as a chaperone in 1997. Then she went with me to the Destiny. Now she is the assistant cruise director. She takes care of everything ... including me. She allows me more time to be on stage, walking around the ship ... the things I really love to do.

CC: Speaking of women, what's the deal with your fixation with Angelina Jolie?
JH: On a trip to Capri, she walked past me in a cafe and smiled. I felt all kind of funny. She didn't speak to me, but I know she felt a connection too.

CC: And finally -- now that you're an experienced blogger, how would you define your own blog?
JH: A guest once called me "the sperm of the devil" so I guess it should be called "The Sperm of the Devil's blog thingy about cruising and a bit about life."

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