The Cruise Director: What does he really do? What's his training? What does he do for fun? These and other questions were answered for me during a June 1998 Alaska cruise on Celebrity's Galaxy when Don Fluke, a senior cruise director with Celebrity, took time out from his busy schedule for an interview with yours truly.
Don, age 41, is originally from Portland, Oregon but now calls Palm Springs, California his "land home." I was fortunate to meet Don on my Galaxy cruise in the Caribbean in February of this year, and I was pleased to see that he was still on board at the time of my Alaska cruise this month. In my 30+ cruises, I have met many cruise directors, and Don is certainly one of the finest I have ever met.
WALKER: What does a cruise line look for when hiring a cruise director, and how does your background fit into those qualifications?
FLUKE: I had already been a cruise director with Royal Caribbean before I joined Celebrity, so I didn't need to work my way up the ranks in Celebrity. I have worked for other cruise lines, beginning in 1980 (actually, I was in Alaska cruising in 1980). Most people get their foot in the door with cruise lines as something other than a cruise director, and work their way up. Some cruise directors were originally assistant cruise directors, fitness staff, assistant pursers, entertainers, and so on.
I lucked-out originally because I got involved with a company called "Admiral Cruises" who needed the cruise director to be the lead vocalist in their production shows and there were so few cruise directors who would have been able to sing in a musical comedy - so I fell into it; I never really intended to be a cruise director. I thought of myself as an entertainer. In my present job - as with most cruise directors' jobs nowadays - it's not necessary for me to be an entertainer as such.
WALKER: Did you have a professional background as a singer?
FLUKE: I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and endeavored to get training in all aspects of entertainment. I have experimented a couple of times at being a songwriter, actor, and singer on shore, and at one time my goal was simply to be an entertainer on ships, just singing.
WALKER: Passengers are always curious about the life of a cruise director. How long at one time do you stay on board, and how far ahead do you know your schedule?
FLUKE: In recent years I have been on this one ship and I return here after my vacation. I usually do four months on, six weeks off, although I sometimes extend from four months to five months.
WALKER: And what do you do when you get home for those six weeks?
FLUKE: I stay away from water [laughs]. If friends want to take me out for a nice lunch on the water, or a dinner cruise, that would be the last thing I would want to do. I now choose to live in the desert when I'm not working. I do love the water - I've always really been around it since I was a little boy and I guess I've just placed myself in a position where I am around it all the time. But I do enjoy being away from rain, and that eliminates being in Portland where I'm from originally.
WALKER: And do you really "veg" when you're home?
FLUKE: Yes. I read, watch a lot of movies, but I also do silly things. I like to walk through the aisles of the supermarkets, and look at the fat-free products [laughs], because I'm not actually in a supermarket for five months at a time. Simple things, like getting a real newspaper every day, looking at the local news on TV - things that people living on land think are absolutely nothing, all of a sudden become very interesting and enjoyable when you've been at sea for a while. I take a little trip once in a while, but mostly I'm happy to stay home. I've never actually been a passenger on a cruise ship although I've gone onto ships as an observer for companies before, but I'm there for a reason other than just to enjoy myself. I think I would feel frustrated if I was on any ship and not working.
WALKER: Don, I note that you, as cruise director, do all the announcements during lifeboat drill. Does the cruise director have a special role in safety on board the vessel?
FLUKE: The cruise director is mainly concerned with communications with passengers. If there were an emergency, I would need to go up to the bridge immediately, and speak with the captain. In the few times of rough weather, I might advise guests to hang onto the rails, watch out for slippery decks, not to wear high heels, and things like that. Although it is not a requirement in my job, I am fully-trained in operating a life boat. I've been on cruise ships since 1980, and I have certainly noticed how safety guidelines have become more strict since I first started. While I believe that the communications role is important, it does not compare with the role of the safety officer on board who is responsible for ensuring that every single crew member on board knows what to do in the event of any emergency.
WALKER: As passengers, we see the cruise director being the MC for the main shows, hosting special events such as cocktail parties, running trivia games and karaoke. What does the cruise director do that passengers may generally be unaware of?
FLUKE: Probably the administrative part of my job - the desk job, including my supervisory role in respect to the scheduling and discipline of the musicians, entertainers and cruise staff (although the final word in discipline comes from the staff captain). Also, the scheduling of passenger activities, the daily activity sheet that comes out, and making sure that, technically, things go OK. On board this ship, everything is so state-of-the-art that many things can go wrong, whether it be the computers, lighting systems, sound, the interactive stateroom TV system - there are many little things like this that people might not think I have much to do with. What I don't have to do now, but used to have to do when I worked for smaller cruise lines, is to hire the entertainers and the cruise staff - that's all done by our head office in Miami. On most of my mornings, I try to schedule myself for some activity that involves passenger interaction, but I always have to look ahead a week or longer and make sure that, with all the different groups coming on board, we don't have scheduling conflicts (such as use of the cinema for private functions).
WALKER: What kind of hours does a cruise director usually work?
FLUKE: It depends on the individual cruise director, because, to some extent, we can schedule ourselves to be more or less visible. For example, I like to stand at the gangway when passengers disembark at each port, and say hello. In the Caribbean where we are mostly in port in the morning, this can mean getting up at 7:30, and that same night there might be a theme night that keeps you working until one o'clock in the morning. It can be a long day, but there are obviously breaks in there. Days at sea tend to be long days because there are more on-board activities. As a cruise director, you need to find a balance between delegating too much to other staff and losing touch with the passengers, and being a one-man show and not having enough time to plan longer-term goals.
WALKER: In such spare time as you do have Don, what do you do?
FLUKE: If I do anything, it's probably to go ashore and have lunch during a port call, because that's the time of the day when things are quietest. I might read if I have an hour or two free on the ship, or watch a movie. I also try to keep up-to-date with the news by watching CNN whenever I can (sometimes when I'm doing my paperwork [laughs].
WALKER: We're always curious about when the cruise director eats - we never see him or her in the dining room.
FLUKE: While I do have the privilege of eating in the dining room with passengers, if I did, I would be huge [laughs]. It's actually a lot easier for me to go down to the staff mess, have a salad or whatever, and be out of there in 30 minutes - in contrast with a minimum hour and a half in the dining room. I'd love to be more sociable joining in the formal dining experience, but there's rarely time.
WALKER: Does your job as cruise director vary very much depending on whether you're doing a Caribbean or Alaska itinerary?
FLUKE: When Galaxy is in the Caribbean, we're in a different port every day, except one. Most of our guests are out for the day, often staying on-shore even to eat and I can relax somewhat. But in the evening, I'm going constantly: I host the first and second seating shows, possibly a cocktail party before each of the shows, between seatings I always host trivia, and then sometimes we have theme nights after the second show. On days at sea we keep busy all the time with a few exceptions. In Alaska, for example, when we're in Glacier Bay or at Hubbard Glacier, then we go easy on the activities because people want to see the glaciers - one of the main purposes of their cruise.
I should mention my assistant - he's one of the best and is very important to me - I count on him more than people probably realize. Having been an assistant cruise director myself, I know the cruise director might be credited with work that the assistant has actually done.
WALKER: In the old days, it seemed to me that the cruise director also had a lot to do with shore excursions but it seems that nowadays the shore excursion department is a totally separate operation from the cruise staff.
FLUKE: When I worked for Royal Caribbean they were part of the cruise director's responsibility. Now that Celebrity is part of Royal Caribbean, I can't say that the same thing won't happen again. Celebrity decided at the outset to set up separate operations for cruise staff and shore excursions.
WALKER: Who does the cruise director report to?
FLUKE: I report directly to the Hotel Manager on board (he has 4 stripes, I have 3-1/2). I also report informally, usually on a daily basis, to the Entertainment Director or the Entertainment Manager at our head office in Miami. It could be something like "we need an emergency order of pyrotechnics for one of the shows" or "one of the dancers needs to go home for a family emergency and we need a replacement". There are times when Miami might need to fill an unexpected vacancy among our performers at a moment's notice. Fortunately, I can talk to Miami by phone on our special C-band satellite, without having to worry about the cost of the phone call.
WALKER: Do cruise directors ever have conventions?
FLUKE: Not for cruise directors from different cruise lines. Some companies, such as Royal Caribbean, will put some of the assistant cruise directors in charge while the cruise directors go to their own in-house convention. Obviously, there are logistic problems in getting a bunch of cruise directors from different lines together - but I think it would be educational and entertaining. I do get together with my counterpart on the Mercury, especially in this part of the Alaska itinerary when we are often in port at the same time. But of the cruise directors with Celebrity, I usually know of them rather than know them, unless perhaps one of them worked as my assistant in the past. Occasionally, we'll do a "handover" where the incoming cruise director will come on board a week early if he's unfamiliar with the ship or the itinerary, and watch what's happening.
WALKER: Now that Celebrity is part of Royal Caribbean, is there a chance we might see you one day as a cruise director on a Royal Caribbean ship?
FLUKE: No, I don't think so. From what I understand, the brands are truly going to remain separate. They have no intention of bringing the cruise ships and their staff into one big company. I think they really feel it's important for the brands to have their own identity, and along with that comes the philosophy of particular cruise directors who work on the RCI ships, and the ones that work on the Celebrity ships. Our guests are not so different that our guests wouldn't enjoy a cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship, or vice versa. Lots of our guests do go back and forth between Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, but there is a slight difference in the type of things involved for guests and the approach is different too. With the exception of the casino, we have not had any sort of pooling of personnel. In the casino, it might not make much difference how a blackjack game is dealt, but how someone actually serves a meal in the restaurant, or how someone may perhaps prepare a cabin, or how someone may schedule activities, may actually be part of the separate identities of the two cruise lines which they wish to maintain.
WALKER: The "live interview" show that you do on board is an interesting feature. What do you think it accomplishes?
FLUKE: The "Galaxy Live" show is a way to utilize the television facilities of our ship, and to offer our guests an opportunity to find out something about our entertainers, or about someone with specialized knowledge on board, such as our Alaska lecturer, or about the ship's key personnel. It gives passengers an opportunity, at their leisure, to find out more about the people around them. Many of our guests seem to enjoy learning about the off-stage persona of some of our entertainers.
WALKER: You don't stage fights between your guests?
FLUKE: [laughs] Maybe we could have something like cruise staff fights where two cruise staff members after the same job go at each other - a la Jerry Springer.
WALKER: Most people reading the transcript of this interview will be browsing an internet site, and will have a keen interest in e-mail facilities in the future on cruise ships. What are Celebrity's plans in this regard?
FLUKE: It has certainly been talked about. As you know, we have a computer center on board which is an "intranet" - the computers are linked for e-mail to each other so that we can demonstrate e-mail and other computer capabilities to interested passengers. The cost of satellite time is still so high that no economic system has been developed yet for e-mail - even if all outgoing messages are collected and sent out in one quick burst, and all incoming messages could be collected in one pass. While I know that Celebrity is still looking into this, I doubt that anything much will happen until satellite time is seriously reduced in cost.
WALKER: If there is bad weather in one or more ports, does the cruise director have to go into overdrive to create programs for passengers' daytime entertainment?
FLUKE: Absolutely. A good cruise director will always have a contingency plan - to cover a missed port and perhaps even a rainy day in the Caribbean where people don't want to go ashore (rain seems to be expected in Alaska). We make announcements over the TV (which is unusual for us - we try to keep announcements to a minimum), letting people know about extra activities - such as extra movies on the cabin TV's, an extra movie in the Celebrity Theatre or some organized games. You definitely should have something ready.
WALKER: At the end of the cruise, we get to rate the cruise director, the cruise staff, etc. Let's turn that around. How do you rate passengers? Do you have any definition of a "good" passenger versus a difficult one?
FLUKE: I don't think of individuals that way but as far as how you are received by the passengers, you do get an idea in your head "wow, that was a great crowd". But sometimes you can see a performer who has been on the ship for four weeks walk out there and get so little response, you tend to think, knowing that the performer did the same show that was well-received before, that its an unreceptive crowd. On the other hand, and what I think happens much more, we find really responsive audiences who come up and tell us they loved something, it was fun, or this performer was absolutely great, and they give standing ovations. Those are the times when I think "these people are really wonderful". But I don't think of individual "bad" passengers. Sure, there are people who complain anywhere, and I think it is just how you deal with the complaints. I just expect that, every week, there will be a few who find fault with some things that we might do, but I still try to listen and learn from those criticisms, and very often I do.
WALKER: Do you find the passenger "mix" any different on an Alaska cruise versus a Caribbean itinerary.
FLUKE: The Caribbean itinerary obviously lends itself to the outdoor activities like Island Night, Country and Western Night, dancing under the stars, fun in and around the swimming pool - none of these work in Alaska. But there's a different kind of person that comes on an Alaska cruise. It's not a Caribbean party atmosphere - for most it's a beautiful, adventurous, frontier place to visit - a once in a lifetime experience. I don't think that passengers are any less appreciative at either end of the spectrum.
WALKER: Do you have a favorite port or ports?
FLUKE: I have to say and it's true, Vancouver, B.C. - I think it's the most beautiful city in the world. I love the restaurants, the people, I love the fact that it's so easy to get around, it's so easy for me to be able to just get off the ship and go for lunch if I want to or go - and people don't think of this - to a drugstore, and have everything easy to find, and close to the ship.
I like San Juan, Puerto Rico, too, but for completely different reasons. I'd much rather sail out of there than Miami. I love Acapulco for its night life and atmosphere, but not for its beaches and water. But I can't think of any city I'd rather sail out of than Vancouver.
WALKER: So, if I said I was from Spokane instead of Vancouver, you'd say Spokane was your favorite port, right?
FLUKE: Absolutely right [laughs].
WALKER: What are you going to be doing in ten years' time?
FLUKE: You know - I don't know. A couple of times since I started in this business I've taken a year off and tried to really pursue my songwriting and acting. But after a year goes by, without any great success, I think "I really do enjoy being a cruise director, why deny it". In ten years from now, let's see, I'll be 51, and yes, I could see myself still being a cruise director - there's certainly some out there who are over 65. The novelty of being on a ship has worn off, but I remember the first four years: I just loved being on a ship; I was enchanted. Now that that novelty has gone, and I am able to look at it for what it is, I can still say I enjoy the lifestyle (and it is my life because I'm on here more than I am on land). I do enjoy meeting the people. I still feel I'm part of show business, even though I'm not writing songs, or singing or acting. I feel good about it. I can't think of too many reasons why I wouldn't want to do this for ten more years.
WALKER: Thank you Don, for giving us this time today.
If you meet Don on a cruise, don't forget to tell him that
Alan Walker is quite an experienced cruiser and is a regular columnist and reviewer for The SeaLetter.
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