One of the major issues to arise from the sinking of Costa Concordia in January 2012 was the response of staff, notably the captain, to a major incident that cost lives. In an emergency, the crew of a cruise ship is expected to know and follow established routines that ensure that the safety of passengers is the highest priority.

Emergency response is just one aspect of a complex programme of training that cruise operators must deliver and it is a task on which the industry places great emphasis. It is not the recent media coverage that drives the industry to improve standards, but an ongoing awareness of the importance of equipping employees with the broad spectrum of skills required to make cruises safe and enjoyable.

"There is more intense media focus now; however, safety training has always been our number-one priority and will continue to be so," says Camilla Bock, vice-president of shipboard human resources at Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas parent company Prestige Cruise Holdings.

"It is very important that training programmes are easy to comprehend regardless of nationality and culture."

Training staff that may be recruited from all over the world is a huge task for any large cruise operator, and the industry as a whole must draw on its extensive combined experience to create successful programmes. Every operator knows that it is vital to deliver standardised training to support consistent performance. That is why the best training on offer is designed to be accessible to all staff, no matter what role they perform or where they are from.

"It is very important that the programmes are easy to comprehend regardless of nationality and culture, yet in a way that the message we want to convey is clear," says Bock. "We do expect all of our staff and crew to possess adequate English skills at the time of joining. Our programmes are very practical, brief and to the point, consisting of short modules with a lot of interaction, which usually brings the participants together, videos of real onboard situations and symbols they can understand.

"Being a luxury cruise operator does create specific challenges from a staffing perspective, as it is very important that the staff and crew understand the product we deliver in order for them to be able to provide the service our guests expect, and to exceed their expectations," she adds. "During our ‘onboarding’ process it is our priority to teach our new crew members all about our company, product, guests and their expectations. This is mainly done through our service skills training scheme, Signature Service."

A framework for effective training

In early 2012, the Manila amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (the STCW Convention) came into force. These amendments to the convention and its accompanying code are intended to bring the regulations up to date with the many developments that have occurred since the original legislation was adopted in 1978, and subsequently revised in 1995.

The cruise industry, just like other parts of the maritime sector, has come a long way since then. Ships are getting bigger, cruises have become more popular and many more routes are in operation. The new legislation aims to incorporate these changes and anticipate issues that are likely to arise in the near future.

The new framework includes many important changes, including improved measures to prevent fraudulent practices associated with certificates of competency and to strengthen the evaluation process; revised requirements on hours of work and rest; and new requirements for the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as updated standards relating to medical fitness standards for seafarers.

There are also new certification requirements for able seafarers; new requirements relating to training in modern technology, such as electronic charts and information systems; new standards for marine environment awareness training and leadership or teamwork training; and changes to the training and certification requirements for electrotechnical officers.

Security training standards have also been revised and there are new provisions to ensure that seafarers are properly trained to cope if their ship comes under attack from pirates.

From a training perspective, the introduction of modern methodology, including distance learning and web-based learning, is a key focus of the updated regulations.

Cost-effective progress

What cruise lines have to do now is to ensure that they comply with these new rules and set the highest standards, while
also keeping an eye on cost. Comprehensive training must also be cost-effective.

"We have found that the most efficient and cost-effective way to undertake successful staff training is to make the training available on the internet as well as onboard in a classroom environment where the training sessions are conducted by the onboard HR manager," remarks Bock.

"We have found that the most efficient and cost-effective way to successfully train staff is to make the training available on the internet as well as onboard in a classroom environment."

It is equally important to recognise and reward performance in order to maintain established standards. In 2011, the Sea Trade Awards recognised Royal Caribbean’s Building on Talent leadership development programme, presenting the operator with its Investment in People prize.

The Royal Caribbean scheme identifies high-potential leaders and develops bench strength so leaders can potentially assume multiple roles throughout the organisation. The programme’s reach is global, both shipboard and shoreside, and cascades from senior executive to professional levels.

"The fleet Building on Talent programme has allowed us to identify high-potential marine and hotel officers, and help them develop their leadership skills and position them for more senior positions," according to Svein Taklo, vice-president, marine operations, Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Global chief human resources officer Maria Del Busto agrees. "By strategically managing our talent and thoughtfully planning the successors of our key leadership roles, Royal Caribbean will be better positioned for the future," she says.

A fleetwide approach

At Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the design and delivery of training programmes, as well as the monitoring of skill levels among staff, is approached with a consistent methodology across both fleets and brands.

"All our training programmes are mandatory and the approach is fully integrated across both the Regent and Oceania fleets," explains Bock. "All new crew members are required to go through a set of modules that contain general orientation, safety, environment, guest service skills – through Signature Service – and medical training. This training takes place in a classroom setting onboard.

"After completion of the modules and exam, the knowledge obtained is monitored through actual work application, and eventually leads to validation and certification. Refresher courses are mandatory for all returning crew."

"After completion of the modules and exam, the knowledge obtained is monitored through actual work application, and eventually leads to validation and certification. Refresher courses are mandatory for all returning crew," explains Bock. "We also offer management training, called Foundations of Leadership, for all supervisors and managers in order to prepare them better for their roles."

Remote possibilities

To ensure the required levels of training consistency across both brands and staff, it is vital to ensure that the correct balance is established between more conventional learning that takes place in centralised training facilities and ongoing training programmes that can be accessed remotely. As the new legislation suggests, the balance is inevitably shifting over time towards more remote learning.

"Due to the fact that cruise ships present an extremely busy working environment, it is important not to impose too much onboard training on crew and staff," explains Bock.

"We are in the process of moving more towards e-learning, where crew can obtain some of the skills prior to boarding. However, it is also very important to bring it all together in a classroom environment during their time onboard to make sure that our message has been understood correctly, and also to be able to provide ongoing guidance and further training."

"If there is anything to learn about safety training from the events on Costa Concordia, it is that standards are there for a reason."

The kinds of steps being taken by Oceania and Regent are representative of many large operators across the industry, and show that they are in line with the thinking that has driven the recent legislative changes. The industry is not playing catch-up on training, no matter what recent headlines about safety at sea might suggest.

If there is anything to learn about safety training from the events on Costa Concordia, it is that the standards that are put in place by legislators, and by the cruise lines themselves, are there for a reason. In general, it is only when the training or the established rules are ignored that problems arise, with potentially grave consequences.

In light of recent events, cruise operators will certainly look harder at their provisions for training in the coming months, but the industry as a whole should also take heart from the good work it has already done to ensure the safety of passengers and crew.