Q&A: Princess Cruises' Rai Caluori on Entertainment

Rai Caluori has one of the biggest jobs in all of cruising. He's not just senior vice president, fleet operations for Princess Cruises, overseeing operation of the 15 ships in the fleet. He's also the chief of operations for Cunard.

On this job, Caluori is responsible for marine and technical operations, fleet personnel, medical services and hotel operations -- including food and beverage, entertainment and onboard revenue. Caluori also handles onboard product development, and (in his spare time) is actively involved in the new-build design process.

How do you get what for many passionate cruise travelers might seem the ultimate job? Start as a cruise director! Indeed, Caluori began his career with Princess in 1984 as an assistant cruise director. He soon worked his way up to cruise director, and during his six-year stint at sea, served on almost every Princess ship. In 1989, he came ashore to the line's Los Angeles headquarters to serve as director of entertainment.

It took eight years for him to get promoted to vice president of entertainment, the top job in his arena, where he oversaw the production of many of Princess' award-winning original stage shows, but that was the last long spell for Caluori, who found himself on the fast track a mere four years later, when he snared the job of vice president of hotel services and entertainment. It took only three years until he segued into his current position in 2004.

Caluori hails from London and says he's had no problem in adapting to the southern California weather (with a wink to suggest "who could?") and lifestyle of Princess, which is based north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita. He's a dedicated dog dad and has two golden retrievers. He swears that some day he'll test out the kennels on Queen Mary 2 and issue an evaluation.

Cruise Critic: What was your first job on a ship and what line and ship was it? Do you remember any specific highlights?
Rai Caluori: It was the Pacific Princess -- the original Love Boat. I was a 23-year-old working in the theater in the United Kingdom, when I saw an advertisement for a job with a cruise line in America. I'd never been on a cruise ship in my life, but within months, I was in uniform and boarding the ship in Acapulco -- where, later that night, I was on stage and introducing myself to passengers.

CC: What lessons did you learn from that first cruise ship job that still serve you today?
RC: Whenever I walk on a ship, the excitement hasn't paled since that first night onboard the ship in Acapulco. To know that you have an impact is astonishing and I continue to feel humbled by influencing the vacation experience of our passengers. I'm still never bored and learn something every day.

CC: What types of entertainment did you see at the start that are still around?
RC: At the end of the day, entertainment is entertainment. What is crucial is the impact it has on the person in a seat -- whatever they're watching. It's an emotional thing, rather than how much money you spend on the show. Though the grandeur of the shows has certainly increased, a good comedian 20 years ago could still have the same impact today. At the end of the day, you have to touch people's hearts.

CC: Being that entertainment is such a major part of a cruise director's job, how has the concept of onboard entertainment evolved?
RC: The expectation level has greatly increased. You can't get away now with just a couple of production shows and one TV channel. The same traveler is also going to Las Vegas and they don't buy the fact that you're at sea and can't do certain things they can on land.

CC: Tell us about your current role. What past positions helped prepare you for it?
RC: From the moment you step on the ship, I'm responsible. My strengths are my team and the tenure of the people who work with me. At the end of the day, the ship is a stage. As soon as people book the cruise, the show starts and it doesn't stop until they get home. We're the producers and that brings in my entertainment background. From the menus to the entertainment, I always draw from my entertainment background. If you look at Cunard, for which I've been responsible since last September, I see the QM2 as a 30's musical in America -- almost a cinematic experience. The QE2 is more traditional -- like a British manners play or novel.

CC: Both Princess and Cunard are known for cruising to far-flung places in the world. Which region of the world have you sailed most often? What's your most recent favorite port of call? What about your favorite itinerary?
RC: I know Mexico quite well and still enjoy going down there. I also love sailing into New York City, by the Statue of Liberty. My favorite itinerary would probably be anywhere in the Mediterranean -- and maybe Alaska for the scenery.

CC: Where do you get your ideas?
RC: Martin Hall, our vice president of entertainment, is incredibly creative. He keeps a close eye on pop culture. People are bombarded with information and you have to come up with something that appeals to a broad audience.

CC: How was Movies Under the Stars, which debuted on Caribbean Princess, born?
RC: That really came from seeing the big screen in Times Square. Everyone thought we were crazy, but we made it happen. It's become an iconic offering for us.

CC: We understand the response to Movies Under the Stars has been awesome and its now on three ships (Sea Princess and Grand Princess are the other two). Any plans for expansion?
RC: We are actively looking at retrofitting the concept on other ships, along with putting it on new ships like next year's Crown Princess.

CC: Movies Under the Stars reminds us of a drive-in theater. We're assuming you're a movie buff. What's your favorite film?
RC: I love film and the experience of watching movies. And I agree that our concept is much like a drive-in theater -- but better. My all-time favorite film is "Now Voyager," with Bette Davis.

CC: What films have been the best received? Have any films been somewhat provocative?
RC: Our most successful move by far was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It had tremendous word-of-mouth and we couldn't run it enough. As far as provocative, we had two minds on showing "Titanic." But ultimately we're glad we did, in that it was quite popular. We're very careful about what we show and we do run adults-only warnings when it's appropriate.

CC: Have you seen other lines do something that made you say, "Wow, I wish we'd thought of that!"?
RC: We had thought of it, but they did it first! Everyone talks about the rock-climbing walls and ice skating rinks, but they're just not for us or our passengers. We want to have more people participating. Pockets of originality are a key to us, like Scholarship@Sea and the "Ultimate Balcony Breakfast or Dinner."

CC: What are the some trends you're seeing?
RC: In dining, there's much more room for development of alternative dining. Expectations have changed and any limitations at sea simply aren't relevant to guests. There's also more of a focus on enrichment programs -- QM2's Oxford University is an example as well. We're time-starved and we succeed if we can offer a cruise experience that's a true escape -- whether that's nothing at all or something new and enriching. We also see a trend in more interest in well-being, so we're trying to extrapolate the Lotus Spa into other parts of the ship, including cuisine or a balcony de-stress moment using a TV program.

CC: Everyone wants to know -- are you going to turn Cunard into Princess?
RC: I'm often asked this and the emphatic answer is absolutely not! We are totally committed to keeping the Cunard brand and I believe were doing a very good job. The integration is only meant for Cunard to leverage Princess' massive assets. I think that's already been proven, in that nothing has been changed -- only enhanced.

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