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.
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The Ins and Outs of Guest Lecturers
Specialized talent agencies and the cruise lines that use them put hundreds of guest speakers on passenger ships every year. These speakers generally fall into two categories: destination lecturers, who present topics related to the ship's itinerary, and enrichment lecturers (also called special-interest lecturers), who may talk about anything else the cruise line thinks the passengers will find interesting. Duties typically include giving two or three 45-minute presentations a week; guest lecturers are typically not called on to host dinner tables or assist with other shipboard programs.
Destination lecturers are usually about twice as much in demand as enrichment lecturers and may cover many aspects of a region's recent and ancient history, politics, arts and culture, geography or even its wildlife and food and wine.
On the other hand, enrichment lecturers cover uncounted subjects -- forensics is a hot topic these days, thanks to the popularity of "CSI" and other crime dramas, and maritime history is a perennial favorite. Also popular are all manner of presentations dealing with the creative arts (such as music, film, literature, photography, TV and theater), scientific disciplines from archaeology to zoology and almost any other topic that can grab the attention of a cruise passenger for an hour -- in short, a range that is intriguing and, at times, even bewildering.
But, this isn't a job that just anyone looking for a free cruise can do. "This is not a program for somebody who wants to go on a discounted cruise and give a few lectures; it's truly for people who have a passion for their subject matter, have an ability to communicate in an educational fashion, in an entertaining fashion," explains Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing owner Doug Jones, whose company places lecturers onboard ships. "They have to have an expertise, and they have to have the presentation skills."
Jones' last comment is key. It isn't realistic to think that subject mastery is the only requirement for a guest lecturer -- the ability to entertain is equally important. This may come as a rude awakening to some educators, even those with long careers speaking in front of captive audiences in their classes. Here's the difference: On a cruise ship, audience members attend lectures out of curiosity and for fun; they don't need to pay attention or take notes in order to pass an exam. They are free to walk out when their interest wanes, and they will -- the casino may be only a few steps away, the lido grill is open most of the day, and there are always other activities and options.
Simon Mitton, an astronomy enrichment lecturer and research historian of astronomy at the University of Cambridge, advises, "Lecturers who teach in universities need to bear in mind that passengers have paid a fortune. They expect to be entertained, and if there is educational content that's all to the good. Lecturers need to remember at all times that they are working for the Cruise Director, whose main task is to ensure that the passengers enjoy the cruise."
If you don't have extensive experience speaking in front of groups, you'll be doing yourself and probably everyone else a favor by polishing your skills before you apply for a guest lecture slot. Carol Williams -- owner of Posh Talks, another placement agency -- explains, "People want to see a professional product. You can't read from your notes, you have to know your business." Active retiree groups and senior centers are often looking for public speakers and could offer both an appreciative audience and a good setting to record a DVD of your presentation. Toastmasters, a service organization dedicated to practicing and improving its members' public speaking skills, may also provide valuable feedback in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.
Know Your Cruise Line
Requirements for speakers can vary appreciably among the different cruise lines. Crystal Cruises tries to have a world affairs lecturer on every cruise, a distinct category no other line mentions (although some, like Silversea, include world affairs experts among their destination lecturers). For a time, NCL used only enrichment speakers with presentations about digital technology, such as computers, the Internet and digital photography.
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.
How to Apply
For many speakers, the easiest path to becoming a guest lecturer on a cruise ship is through an agency that specializes in such placements. All of the major cruise lines that use destination and enrichment presenters rely on agencies at times, and some use agencies to book a majority of their guest speakers.
The five major agencies in the U. S. that provide guest speakers to cruise lines are Posh Talks, Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing, Tim Castle, To Sea With Z and Compass Speakers and Entertainment, Inc. (More information about these agencies, including their specialties, can be found in the "Contact Information" section at the end of this article.) All operate in much the same manner -- none charges an application fee if you want to be considered for placement, but you usually will pay the agency an administrative fee of $50 to $100 for each day they place you on a cruise. These fees are how the agency makes its money. As a guest speaker, you will be allotted a stateroom, and you are allowed to bring a companion with you at no additional charge. Transportation to the ship is almost always the speaker's responsibility, as are gratuities (typically $10 to $15 per person, per day).
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.
Expert Tips for Delivering a Great Lecture
One of the most important steps in getting started is mentally preparing to accept that first assignment. Compass Speakers and Entertainment president Niklas Sardana III suggests, "If a cruise line or agency calls you, and it's your first opportunity to cruise, I would highly recommend taking it even though it may not be the dream itinerary, or maybe not the perfect dates that you were looking for. Generally, if you turn it down, the chance of an offer coming again in the near future would (usually) be slim." If you don't establish a track record, you risk going back to the bottom of the call list.
So, if you are good enough and lucky enough to land that guest lecture spot, always keep in mind these five key rules to effective cruise ship lecturing.
Start on Time
This one's the easiest. If you don't start promptly on time, impatient audience members may leave to do something else. Before your first presentation, you will probably work half an hour or so with the stage manager to set up and make sure everything functions as expected. Be there as early as is practical on other days, but if the room is in use the hour before your presentation, you may still get only 10 minutes to set up. This is not the time to experiment! By this point, you should be able to set up quickly and efficiently, and if a passenger wants to talk with you "just a minute" before you start, politely say you have to set up first.
Keep Your Audience Entertained
Pace your presentation to best engage and entertain your audience. Remember that the job is more theater than classroom, more show biz than instruction. If you don't, you may be faced with the discouraging sight of your audience slowly dwindling as they decide they can find something better to do with their time.
Foolproof Your Technology
Microsoft PowerPoint is now the de facto standard for onboard presentations, and you will need to bring your own laptop computer. Lecturer Don Klein advises that PowerPoint "can be your best friend, used properly and at its optimum, or your worst enemy, if the layout, text, images, animation are boring or -- god forbid -- it crashes." Before you leave home, back up your PowerPoint presentations on a CD/DVD or USB memory stick, or both, just in case something bad happens to the original file. Keep those copies in your carry-on luggage. Another worthwhile investment is a wireless remote control for your PowerPoint presentation; some come with built-in laser pointers.
End on Time
Keep within your allotted time slot without fail. Lecture venues are typically booked on tight, one-hour schedules, and if you run long -- usually you're limited to a maximum of 45 or 50 minutes, including questions and answers at the end of your presentation -- you may incite the ire of the cruise director and the speaker or department using the room next. If you go long, you may lose audience members who leave for other entertainment options that are starting on time, but even if you've sparked a spirited Q&A exchange you hate to cut short, know when and how to make a graceful exit. If you make the almost unforgivable error of cutting into a bingo session or other revenue-producing activity, don't be surprised if you get a negative report from the cruise director and you're not asked to return for another engagement.
This is so important that I use several timing devices to stay on track -- a large-faced watch and a flat digital travel clock that I can read without my glasses, as well as a couple of silent alarm timepieces that vibrate. PowerPoint has a "presenter view" function that puts an on-screen timer prominently on your laptop but is not seen by the audience. Always set your watches, clocks and alarms to ship's time, and make sure you know in advance which days the clocks are set forward or back.
Respect the Q&A Session
Don't let your careful planning be thrown off by the addition of a question-and-answer session at the end of your presentation. In order to keep to your allotted time, shorten your prepared program by about five minutes or so. At the end of the hour, tell your audience that you will continue to answer questions outside the theater and quickly remove your laptop and other belongings from the podium. (Audience members still may approach you while you do this, but tell them to give you a minute, and you'll walk with them to the exit.)
Also, it's always a good idea -- essential if your presentation is being recorded for later playback on the ship's TV system -- to repeat a question into your microphone before you answer it so everyone can hear. And finally, don't let a Q&A ruin your reputation as an expert. How? By following the advice of destination speaker Martyn Green, whose expertise on more than 200 different ports has been tested by audiences on many cruise lines in the last ten years: "Never hold an open question-and-answer session unless you know your subject 110 percent."
Contact information for cruise lines can be found in Contacting Your Cruise Line.
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