Technology is playing an increasingly central role in the recruitment and training of staff, helping cruise lines maintain high levels of service and quality. Orla O’Sullivan talks to Crystal Cruises’ Thomas Mazloum, Seabourn’s Christopher Prelog and MSC’s Tim Skinner about how on-board learning is going hi-tech.
When the cruise industry discusses technology, it is often about the latest state-of-the-art entertainment or cutting edge design developments. But behind the scenes, technology is helping the way cruise lines develop staff recruitment and training.
For Thomas Mazloum, senior-vice president of hotel operations for Crystal Cruises, online applications make it easier to recruit staff, with contracts signed in half the time it took before. However, the process does not always ensure suitability. "We get a lot more unqualified applicants," he says.
Once qualified candidates make it on board, they find that virtually everything on a ship has a computer chip in it.
As Christopher Prelog, director of hotel operations at Yachts of Seabourn, notes: "The coffee maker has a computer. The engineer used to be a guy with a wrench, now he’s a guy with a laptop. Embarkation is all automated and luggage handling is by bar codes."
Although cruise training schools have expanded their programmes accordingly, Prelog believes software and automation training have helped crew employees get to grips with key things they need to know, such as health and safety, as well as the specific tasks of their particular position.
"You used to be able to train on the job, but you can’t do that any more," he says. "That’s part of the reason why we created the Seabourn Academy; to get this training done beforehand, because they can no longer do it along with their work, it is simply too much."
The Academy operates on board, training 16 cadets at a time for a month. Four suites are given over to training. The Academy began early last year on three of Seabourn’s five vessels, in preparation for the latest, the Odyssey, which launched in June 2009. The Academy is now focused on future launches: the Sojourn this summer and the Quest in 2011. The plan is that each vessel will eventually have its own Academy, as the Odyssey does.
The Odyssey carries 450 passengers, a total closer to the lifeboat capacity of some cruises. A typical cruise carries about 2,500 passengers. "We have almost as many staff as guests," Prelog notes. A feature of Seabourn’s recruitment is that top executives interview hospitality staff in person. "These aren’t kids in summer jobs," he says, "but those serious about a cruising career." The company is equally serious, subsidising additional training for those who go to school between stints at sea.
Seabourn wanted to ensure that the high customer service ratings given to its smaller ships would also apply to its newer, larger vessels. "It was determined that, where possible, no new crew member would serve on the Odyssey without first having served on one of the original Seabourn vessels," Prelog says. The cruise line also has a system where new crew shadow experienced staff.
"Shadowing is key because the Seabourn way is a very different way of relating to guests than on most other ships," Prelog adds. MSC also relies on mentors, but as Tim Skinner, corporate hotel manager, notes, he hasn’t the luxury of hospitality staff being on board and off duty. "As soon as they’re on board, they’re working," he says, although "very deep training" takes place.
Technology makes this possible, without the need of assembling its 12,500 active crew (MSC has about 3,500 staff for its ten ships, including crew members on rotation or standby). "Staff can watch training programs at their leisure," Skinner says.
Crystal’s Mazloum echoes this advantage for staff who work seven days a week. "They can go at their own pace and can search for what they want, such as a new method of canapé presentation. They don’t have to look through a whole book," he says. It also allows staff to catch up on any new developments while they were away, he adds. "The big change with online training is standardisation, we’ve a lot of certifications."
However, Mazloum notes that the biggest benefit is that staff are happier. With staff sourced from 45 countries, Crystal employees can use technology such as the internet to keep in contact. "When they’re away from their family and friends for six months they can still stay in touch."