In March 2020, American Queen Steamboat Co. was in a similar situation to the blue-water cruise lines as the pandemic took hold and sent our beloved nation and industry into a tailspin. We shut down cruise operations, laid off and furloughed hundreds of teammates and kept hoping it was just a bad dream. My fellow cruise HR professionals can all relate to these challenging times as the industry we all so love was in the epicenter of the pandemic within hospitality.
Investing in people
During this time our company leadership reviewed procedures and systems, invested in technology and vowed to invest in people and pledged to come back even stronger. Challenging moments bring us all together and, as we learned as we came back, much can be applied every day and not just when we face the most difficult chapter in our industry’s history:
Tap into great people surrounded by great people: As we began contacting shipboard teammates about returning, it was apparent immediately they were ready to return and bring peers. A bartender on one of our vessels had been waiting tables in Wichita, couldn’t wait to sail again and brought colleagues with him eager to work on a riverboat after hearing his stories of the river. We provided incentives to bring peers on board. We hire our crew from across the US and cover travel to and from the boats, so we pride ourselves in a diverse and wide talent pool.
Communicate with team early and often: From the beginning of the pandemic through today we as an executive team knew it was critical to communicate frequently and with transparency. Regular weekly updates were set in motion by our president and quarterly all-hands meetings to provide teammates with information on the business and our path forward.
Listen so all are heard: While communicating and informing during times of uncertainty is of massive importance, listening to our team is a tie for No. 1. We learned so much from listening to our teammates and empathizing with them and how they were feeling during the pandemic (and still). We as leaders must truly hear the feedback from our teams and act on that feedback appropriately. Human beings need to be heard and sometimes just listening to what someone else has to say can make a world of difference to both them and to the company if we just take an opportunity to be silent and listen.
Sign blue chippers: I am born and raised near Louisville, Kentucky, where college basketball is in our blood as much as watching the ponies at Churchill Downs and sipping our world-class bourbon. Top cruise executives are just like top prospects and signing the right one can turn the program around. Our team sought out talent when the time was right so we would have a strong starting five and deep bench when we began looking to the other side.
RESPECT Service System
Adopt program for company culture: Pay, work environment and job duties are important, but I believe that people truly want to work for an amazing company with a fantastic company culture that is positive and supportive. Our company has built and implemented the RESPECT Service System that encompasses our core values (respect, environment, safety, professionalism, exceed, communication and teamwork) and tied our expectations of how we work and treat one another to each.
RESPECT starts to come to life as early as our job posting process. As soon as applicants view our job postings online, they start to see and feel our RESPECT Service System, operating principles and company culture. As an individual begins their employment journey with our company, they are continually exposed to the RESPECT Service System throughout their career in the following ways, but not limited to: inclusion of the system and its characteristics within job descriptions, continuous posting and updating of marketing materials in crew areas, rewards and recognition programs (including sharing of amazing stories across the organization), ongoing references to the RESPECT program within coaching sessions, performance development mechanisms and processes.
From the top down, throughout our organization, RESPECT lives and breathes in all of our interactions with both internal teammates and guests.
'The River is Calling'
Maximize marketing: Our potential talent pool needed to expand, attracting many teammates who might not have thought about working on a riverboat. Working with the marketing team we developed a recruitment campaign, 'The River is Calling,' on social media and in trade publications to attract professionals who might not have considered working on the river.
Compensate and recognize: Not only did we as a leadership team have to make very tough decisions regarding compensation during 2020, we had to take a hard look at compensation in 2021 and going forward as well. We learned it is extremely important to pay our employees for the value they provide and ensure that compensation is equitable. Sign-on bonuses and retention bonuses have been implemented in order to attract the best hospitality talent in the US. Happy employees make happy guests, and we believe in awarding top talent accordingly!
Recognition is free and easy
Recognition is also a wonderful thing that is free and easy — we tell our employees when they do great things and we reward going above and beyond, professionalism and treating each other with the respect and dignity we deserve as fellow human beings.
As cruise industry HR professionals, we know we are never 'out of the woods' but things are looking up again as we all resume sailing. Our company has onboarded almost 500 since January and is still working to fill another 100 positions. Recruitment, retention and development will always be critical for any successful company but the last year has proven to make us all stronger as we stopped to listen.