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Cruise leaders pitch benefits of joining the industry at 'Tomorrow's Talent Today'

From left, Azamara's Capt. Nico Corbijn, moderator Gina Dunnett, Disney Cruise Line's Michael Almeida and Virgin Voyages' Julian Narvaez
With the cruise industry expanding its fleets, demand is high to bring on quality personnel among all brands, and not just at sea.

The workforce theme was strong Monday during several panel discussions at Seatrade Cruise Global's daylong 'Tomorrow's Talent Today.'

During 'Cruise Line Career Paths,' participants from Disney Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages and Azamara touched on the growing demand among the brands to bring on and retain workforce.

'You'd be surprised how your land-based skills could be adapted to working on a ship or to working for a cruise line shoreside,' said Julian Narvaez, fleet experience senior manager for product innovation at Virgin Voyages. 'Don't shy away just because your particular niche of study is in a particular industry, that those same learnings can't be applied to the industry itself. It's an ever-evolving career. It's an ever-evolving field and any applicable land-based knowledge definitely comes into the industry very well.'

Narvaez accidentally stumbled into the cruise industry with a background in graphic design and fine art that led him to interior design work for Virgin's new ships. He's now been with the brand six years and oversees, he said, everything that customers 'feel, see, smell, experience, touch.'

'A beautiful industry'

'It's such a beautiful industry. It not only gives you a comfortable living, it allows you to explore the world, see people, do things you've never thought you would ever do,' Narvaez said. 'I think the industry needs to do more of this, more of communicating that there's a world out there where people can go and make a career out of it.'

That could mean such expertise as sustainability or machine learning, but there's opportunity for everyone, and even if coming on board at the lowest levels, there's more room in the cruise industry for growth.

Capt. Nico Corbijn, head of marine and land operations at Azamara, said turnaround among cruise jobs remains high — around 20%.

Opportunity to advance

'There's a fairly routine stream of people coming in and out,' he said. 'So for those of you who are looking for a job on the ship, promotion is fairly steady. If you keep your nose clean, you do your job, the chances that you're getting noticed and ascend is quite rapid. By the time I was 36, I was captain.'

Panel moderator Gina Dunnett, former head of land product development at Azamara, said opportunities abound.

Whether on ship or shoreside, 'it’s like a small city. Everything that a small city needs, the cruise industry needs,' she said.

Michael Almeida, director of human resources at Disney Cruise Line, echoed that, and hammered home the demand across the industry.

'The cruise industry is growing very rapidly and most companies are bringing on new ships year over year,' he said. 'So there's a tremendous amount of competition in the market for talent. All kinds of talent.'

While niche technical roles may be among the highest in demand such as those around environmental issues, the need for personnel exists across the board.

'It is this fierce competition for just strong talent, regardless of the department,' Almeida said. 'But in an industry that is growing so rapidly, how do we continuously find new talent to come into our organization, but at the same time, develop the talent that we have within our organization?'

Adjusting to life at sea

Almeida's job actually put him on board Disney's ships, and he spoke to the challenges inherent with work that takes people away at sea for long periods.

'When you think about a cruise ship and working on board, in HR we're supporting the entire employee experience, which means their work experience and also their living experience as well,' he said. 'So many of the challenges that came to us from our crew members were, especially if they were new to working and living on board, was the transition — the hard work, the amount of hours, the lack of personal space, the pace in which the operation moves.'

A big part of his job was helping people to adjust.

'We'd always talk about, it was roller-coaster. They come in, they're on a high, they're just learning about the industry and it's exciting and then a couple of months into their contract, they get really tired. They may get home sick,' he said. 'And then by the end of that first contract, they're coming back up, they've established relationships, they have friends, they figured out the routine and the balance.'

Mental health challenges

Corbijn pointed out that with the increased connectivity in today's world, the challenge of mental health while away is also a growing challenge.

'One of the things that we've seen over the last years since communication is so much easier with home is that the folks on board would feel a lot of guilt,' he said. 'Something happens at home, the washing machine breaks down, or Johnny breaks his arm. In the past, you didn't know about this until you got home and then Johnny's arm was better and the washing machine was fixed. Now, you get a call from your spouse saying, "Hey, this is broken." Then you're powerless to do anything about it because you're 1,000 miles away. So mental health is really, really important, not just for the folks on the ship but also the folks at home.'

Leadership lessons

The challenges that one might face, though, are often outweighed by the opportunity.


From left, Scenic Group USA's Ken Muskat, Roberta Jacoby of Jacoby Advisors. Carnival Corp.'s Marie McKenzie and Virgin Voyages' senior advisor John Delaney

That was the gist of some of the speakers at a session later in the day during a panel titled 'Leadership Lessons Series: Fast-Tracking Cruise Careers.' This panel featured some of the more storied executives in the cruise industry who brought their expertise to how prospective new employees might find their way into the industry.

They included former MSC executive Ken Muskat, now the managing director at Scenic Group USA, Marie McKenzie, SVP for Carnival Corp.'s government and destination affairs, and Ana Maria Sencovici, chief diversity and talent officer at Royal Caribbean Group.

Roberta Jacoby's happy career started by accident

Panel chair Roberta Jacoby, now president and owner of Jacoby Advisors, had major executive roles as both managing director for global tour operations at Royal Caribbean Group and SVP hotel operations at Carnival Cruise Line.

'It's kind of a happy accident,' she said about her journey into the cruise industry. It involved getting an education degree, but as a senior in college as a student teacher, she endured a snowstorm during which another car smashed into hers. 'I said to myself, this is the last winter I'm going to be here.'

She moved to Miami, didn't find a teaching job, but ended up getting a job as a reservation agent with Commodore Cruise Line.

'I went from being a reservations agent ... and I worked my way up to various different types of positions — senior executive positions — and it was exciting and fun and challenging. And I really loved every minute of it and the exhilaration really never wore off,' she said.

Her advice to several college-age students attending the session was simple: 'Make sure that you choose a career where you love the content of the job,' she said. 'That will make your days go by so quickly and easily, and everything else will fall into place.'

Another speaker, John Delaney, now a senior advisor at Virgin Voyages, is the former president of Windstar Cruises, and has had a career that started with the Cheesecake Factory in restaurant management followed by corporate finance with both Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Corp., and then marketing and sales with Holland America and Seabourn.

His presentation was a version he normally gives as a guest lecturer to students among several schools of hospitality at West Coast universities.

'Follow what you love'

'There is no exact best career path in the cruise industry. There really isn't. ... follow what you love. I really believe that's the right way to go," he said noting he had "zigzagged from boring capital management and accounting roles to running a cruise line, from marketing to sales, and now helping Virgin with their international distribution. So it's a fun industry with lots of different ways you could go.'

He extolled the benefits of working for a cruise line, including travel, and living with free room and board, even if it's close quarters, while saving money. It also gives exposure to every side of the hospitality industry with a great ease to shift from one job to another.

'So don't feel as you get toward your last year or two in school that you have to have it all figured out. You don't,' he said. 'I would really encourage students to just pick what interests you and don't be afraid to make career zigzags. Don't be afraid to move around a bit.'