It is opening night on board Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas. The house lights in the $42 million Broadway-like Palladium Theatre dim and the voice of production manager Cy Peck announces in his best Ed McMahan impersonation: "Please welcome to the stage your cruise director, Jeff Martin!"
I have found that you learn much about the cruise director in those first few public minutes spent with the passengers. At first blush there seemed absolutely nothing noteworthy about Jeff Martin. The curtain opened revealing a mustached man of average height and build. He didn't sing (as some cruise directors do when introduced on opening night) or perform in any other way. His pleasant voice was quite undistinctive. Even the jokes he told were the same ones I've heard from each of the cruise directors on our four other RCI cruises (i.e., "we'll make sure that with all the food you eat you'll still go home shipshape and not the shape of the ship"). Nevertheless, there was something quite unique about Jeff Martin. It was more than delivering his perfectly timed punch lines; it was more than his casual, conversational style and warm smile. Although there were nearly 1000 people in the audience, Jeff Martin made it seem as though he was having a personal conversation with you alone. There was nothing "put on," no sense of the slick, show business style of so many cruise directors. As he concluded his opening remarks, I realized that this was someone who would be worth getting to know better.
When Jeff Martin was 16 years old he took a cruise vacation on Carnival Cruise Lines and performed a magic act in the passenger talent show. By coincidence, the magician on board, a member of the cruise staff, needed someone to replace him during the summer and during Christmas vacation. Before he could say "David Copperfield," Jeff had been hired to work the next summer and subsequent Christmas cruise. The next thing he knew, Jeff had caught the cruise bug. "It really bit me," he acknowledged.
After just half a year at school, Jeff came to work for Royal Caribbean as a disc jockey. In stunningly rapid succession, he served as assistant shore excursion manager, assistant cruise director and, at age 25, became the youngest cruise director in the history of the company.
As cruise director, Jeff presides over a mini-empire on Grandeur of the Seas that includes the cruise staff, the entertainment department, the shore excursion program, and the youth activities staff, working directly with the assistant cruise director, the production manager, the shore excursion manager, and the youth activities director in managing the full range of passenger activities during each cruise. He estimated that "altogether about 80 people work under me." In turn, Jeff reports to the hotel manager, who reports to the Captain. On a ship with a crew and staff of over 900, Jeff's domain is relatively modest. But his responsibilities encompass the full realm of activities that is at the heart of the cruise experience, and his staff, while not large, has a more significant and direct impact on each passenger to a greater extent than anyone else except, perhaps, the dining and steward staffs and the Captain (but only if the ship encountered a problem). In his 16 years with Royal Caribbean, Jeff has served on almost every ship in the fleet, and has been cruise director on Sun Viking, Song of America, Sovereign of the Seas, Nordic Empress, Majesty of the Seas, Splendour of the Seas and, of course, Grandeur of the Seas. "They keep us on a ship for about two years," he explained. "I rotate -- I work for three months, come home for three months." Jeff was quick to note, however, that this arrangement only applies to a select group of four cruise directors. "I'm a senior cruise director; I'm one of the lucky ones . . . some of the newer cruise directors work four months on and two months off."
When Jeff is on leave, another cruise director comes on board (he replaced Greg Maxwell, who has been with RCI about 16 years, on the Grandeur). Sometimes the company will use one of the cruise director leave breaks to promote an assistant cruise director. "My sister's a cruise director," Jeff noted. "She was my assistant here and they [RCI] just made her a cruise director about 6 months ago."
Jeff lives in Florida, and during his breaks spends most of his time playing golf and tennis, fishing, and enjoying his family (he has two daughters, age 3 and 13 months). But the peculiarities of his job sometimes have a strange effect on his home life: "I get up in the living room and start calling a bingo game and my wife thinks I'm nuts!"
As far as the rest of the staff is concerned, "the cruise staff works four months, then they have 6 weeks off." It is very unusual for a cruise line to hire someone in the way Jeff was hired (although I know of at least one other RCI cruise director -- Kyle Dotson -- who came to work as a cruise staff member directly as a result of his performance in a passenger talent show), but Jeff concedes that "an entertainment background helps." After each staff member serves their contract, they may have the option of returning to the same ship or moving on to a different ship. "We evaluate everybody, that's how it works," Jeff explained. "If we can accommodate them, if they want to go to Europe or something, we let them work there."
I asked Jeff to contrast the cruise experience on Carnival with Royal Caribbean. Without hesitation, he noted, "it's a different type." On Carnival, for instance, "you have a younger crowd. You know -- they are the 'Fun Ships.'" With RCI, on the other hand, "there's a little bit more class and sophistication, and the quality of everything across the board -- it shows. You pay more, but you get more." He also noted differences in the ships: "It's a lot of neon over there, you know, bright lights and all...it's the flashy disco things. This is a little bit more subdued." He gave me the sort of look indicating that I fully understood how a ship like the Grandeur was so much different from what he had just described.
We then discussed RCI's extensive entertainment program (for details, see my article in the August issue of The SeaLetter), particularly their in-house productions and their celebrity entertainer program, and he compared that to Carnival's entertainment efforts. Jeff noted: "There are no celebrities, and I know they contract a lot of outside production people. And they utilize a lot of their cruise staff as entertainment. That's what I was doing there -- I was selling bingo cards and doing five shows a week."
We then discussed RCI's emphasis on consistency of product, and I asked Jeff how much discretion the cruise director has in programming activities aboard their ship. He noted that while the cruise line strives to maintain a high quality of programming, and many of the activities are the same from cruise to cruise, every cruise director "brings their own personality to the game, and their experience." He explained that he meets with the department managers regularly, but he is responsible for determining which activities or entertainment options should be included in the cruise.
One feature on board the Grandeur that apparently is unique among the RCI fleet is the "Grandeur Today" show. This is a half-hour "talk show" in which Jeff interviews key people on the ship, who describe their activity or program. The shows are videotaped and aired for 24 hours on the closed circuit room televisions four times during the week-long cruise. The interview format suits Jeff's style and personality, and it is considered highly successful (but not yet copied on other RCI ships).
He also pointed out how certain cruise directors favor different games, contests, or activities. I observed, for example, that on some RCI cruises a passenger could participate in karaoke almost every night, while on the Grandeur this activity was somewhat under-emphasized, to say the least. On the other hand, I also observed that the closing night package on RCI cruises always includes the cruise staff performance of the slapstick number, "If I Were Not Upon The Seas," but that the cruise director does not always participate, not to mention wear a tutu and appear as a ballerina. "Any ship I'm on, I do it," Jeff stated. "If it's not in the show, the repeat passengers are so upset. 'Why didn't you do this?' they'll complain. 'Are you going to dress up as the ballerina?' they always ask you, so I do that. My daughter thinks I'm a ballerina. I'll be out there in full regalia on Friday evening."
I asked Jeff what he enjoyed most about the job of cruise director. "It's meeting the people -- and it's just the total experience." He noted that on a land vacation, people don't have the same experience, they tend to be on their own, there's no sense of community. From his standpoint as an employee in a travel and service industry, observing the level of pleasure that customers derive from having the same waiter, the same steward, being able to establish a personal connection with these folks, sharing some of the silly activities as well as the truly exquisite moments -- "being out there and having fun and joking," as Jeff put it, is what he finds special about the job. Sometimes it's the little things, too. He recalled the particular edition of the "Not So Newlywed" game the previous night: "I thought I was going to fall off the stage laughing . . . I was dying." For Jeff the ultimate satisfaction he derives from his job as cruise director is "just watching people come together."
We discussed the pending addition to RCI's fleet of the new Eagle class cruise ships -- 130,000 ton behemoths so large they can't fit in the Panama Canal and with a passenger capacity of nearly 3500 -- and their potential impact on the cruise industry. Jeff's eyes lit up when I mentioned the scheduled launch of the first Eagle class ship, Voyager of the Seas, in November 1999. "It's going to revolutionize the cruise industry. The good thing about it," he said, "is that it's not just another big ship. I mean, all those other cruise lines are putting out big ships. This is going to be a big ship with a new twist."
He proceeded to list some of the unique features of this ship, including an ice skating rink with its own Zamboni, a multilevel arena with video walls, a television studio, business-size convention facilities, a wedding chapel high atop the ship. He noted, especially, the mall-like shopping promenade "with all those cabins looking in." He added: "You can make the ship as big as you want, put the same rooms in, and you can still call the Bingo; or you can get elaborate and do it differently."
I asked Jeff if the size and capacity of the new ships will render it impossible for RCI to maintain its consistency of product. He noted that RCI has so many veteran managers -- he cited hotel manager Robert Taggard's 10 years with the company as an example -- that he anticipated no drop-off in quality of the cruise experience. In fact, he sees the new ships as an opportunity to enhance the cruise experience:
"You know where you came from, and if you keep that in sight, you know where you have to go with that. You can throw in new things, and all of that, but it's the consistency, it's the quality, it's the food, it's the service, it's the entertainment, it's everything. And you know if you go on another Royal Caribbean ship you'll see that same quality and it won't vary and hopefully it will be improved."
As to his future in the cruise industry, Jeff stated flatly that he would love to be assigned as cruise director on an Eagle class ship. "Just having a hand in that and taking them out," he stated, would be an ideal next assignment. He looked further ahead, maybe 10 or 12 years, and thought out loud that a shoreside appointment in some management area involving entertainment might be a possibility. Truly, however, Jeff was loathe to even talk about that.
"Right now," he said, "this is more than enough. I couldn't imagine doing anything else. My wife says 'if you do anything else, you're crazy.'" He turned away from me and looked out the picture window of his office to the ocean beyond. "I walk to work in the morning," he said, "and this is the view I get from the office window." The point was clear enough: no skyscrapers, no car horns, no traffic -- what else could one ask for?
True to his word, on closing night Jeff donned the tutu and made his appearance as a ballerina in the cruise staff number. The audience, which usually is somewhat subdued on this night, knowing that in just a few short hours their cruise vacation would be over, came to life and reacted to Jeff's appearance with glee. From this observer's point of view, having seen cruise directors that spend most of their week interacting with the passengers only when they were "on," the sense of joy the audience felt watching Jeff prance around the stage in full ballerina regalia -- enhanced pronouncedly with a pair of balloons, by the way -- is directly related to a true personal connection that so many of the passengers had with this cruise director. Jeff Martin made that connection possible because he fully understands the role of the cruise director, and because he derives so much personal satisfaction in doing his job well.
"It's the business of having fun," he said; "that's what I manage."
David Herschler, who is a historian with the U.S. Department of State, is a past contributor to The SeaLetter. David has a special interest in entertainment, and currently is president of The Musical Theater Center, an organization that provides training in the musical theater disciplines in the Washington, D.C. area, and which sponsors two highly talented performing ensembles, including a teen troupe, Young Americans of Washington, which performed on the main stage of RCI's Sovereign of the Seas a year ago.
David and The SeaLetter express their thanks to Jeff Martin for his gracious contribution of time and insights provided without which this article could not have been written.
David can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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