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A Day With Richard Joseph, Cruise Director

by Linda Coffman

Always smiling, meet
Richard Joseph

Over thirty years at sea

When I first met Richard Joseph in 1999, as a newly embarked passenger on a Renaissance Cruises' R-Class ship, invariably the first thing I noticed was his smile and the sparkle in his eyes. The second thing his guests notice is how comfortable they immediately feel with him... how at home. That's because Rich invites them into his home. He wears the mantle of Cruise Director as easily as his tuxedo. It's where he belongs, on an elegant ship at sea.

When Renaissance Cruises ceased operations on September 25, 2001, Rich naturally made the transition to Princess Cruises where he's been at home and welcoming passengers ever since.

But I'm mistaken about that quarter of a century at sea, right? Everyone does a double take at that figure. More than thirty years? You do the math. That's right... Rich began his career afloat at the tender age of 15. 

Grab your favorite umbrella drink, pull up a chair, and let's find out how Rich became the youngest-ever Cruise Director in the industry...

Linda:  Growing up with a travel journalist father, your travel experiences were rich and varied.  What attracted you to cruise ships?  And how did you get your first job as a blackjack dealer at the tender age of fifteen?  That intrigues everyone!

Rich:  I believe my love of ships is in my blood! Early in my father's writing career he was the Ocean Liner specialist for the New York City paper he was writing for at the time. He covered all the big news of the liners dating back to the Normandy fiasco, QE1, Queen Mary, America, and United States delivery and subsequent winning of the Blue Ribband. His work would  later evolve into being Travel Editor of Esquire Magazine, and having a weekly newspaper syndicated article in over 130 newspapers in the U.S. He also authored many travel books.

Whenever his writing assignments included reviewing a new or existing ship, I would travel with him on the assignment, as my Mom has never been a huge fan of ocean travel; so this became a great father and son bonding experience for us. My first cruise was age 7 aboard P & O's Arcadia, age 8 aboard P & O's Canberra, age 9 aboard P & O's Oriana. Needless  to say I was hooked. Also being a New Yorker, as a kid I would tag along with my Dad to the West Side of NYC when he would visit the great liners.

When I was 15, my dad was contacted by Carnival Cruise Lines P.R. man (Max Wolkoff, who met my dad and me on a previous assignment and knew of my love for ships), who was looking for some press. He suggested that I take a summer position aboard Carnival's one and only ship, the TSS Mardi Gras. The summer before another Travel Writer's son, Roger  Blum (Ethel Blum's son) also had a similar job. (Roger became a senior executive with Carnival.) Anyway, at the tender age of 15 off I went to work first as a bar waiter then a blackjack dealer on the Mardi Gras and loved it. What a summer! At age 16 I joined Holland America as a kid's counselor aboard the SS Rotterdam. Continued with Holland-America until I was 19  aboard the Statendam, Veendam & Volendam. Joined Home Lines at 19 as Asst. Cruise Director and Disc Jockey aboard the Oceanic, Doric and Atlantic.

Linda: Your first Cruise Director position was on the Chandris Fantasy Cruises' Amerikanis when you were only twenty-one. How has the role of Cruise Director evolved during the course of your career?

Rich:  I was one of the first Cruise Directors that Chandris hired. Previously the position had been called Entertainment Officer. Originally the job entailed little more than emceeing the shows, hosting activities, and socializing with the guests. The position has evolved into the Cruise Director being in charge of the creation and execution of the on board entertainment product and full management of the department. Today's Cruise Director must have many skills. You have to be a talented  emcee, and strong communication and public speaking skills are a must to present informative port of call briefings for the guests. You have to be an excellent manager and motivator to handle some very strong personalities of entertainers within your department. You have to socialize and make sure that the guests aboard are having a great cruise experience. A good  Cruise Director and Entertainment Team set the overall mood of the ship. In addition to all this, the CD must liaise with both the onboard (Captain, Hotel Manager and all department heads) and shore side (Director of Entertainment, Hotel Operations, etc.) management teams. The best Cruise Directors must be multi talented. (Public Relations Specialists, Mediators, Managers, Entertainers, Problem Solvers, Guidance Counselors and more) all within an 18 hour work day!

Linda:  Along those lines, how has extensive computerization made the day-to-day duties of Cruise Director more efficient?  (I'm assuming that it has!)

Rich: Like any office, the computer has streamlined the day to day operation of the department. But it's not just the computer that has made a big difference. It's the computer along with incorporated satellite communications that has made a huge difference. Daily Programs are now created by the cruise staff in a fraction of the time as pre-computer days. Aboard Renaissance Cruises, the entertainment team even handled the physical printing of the program as well. The communication between the office and the ship has been greatly improved via satellite email. If I need immediate clarification on an issue I simply pick up the phone on my desk dial a four digit code and within seconds I am connected to the office. A simple phone call five years ago could take an hour to get through. The Renaissance ships were mostly "paperless" thanks to computers.  So in answer to the question, most definitely the computer has made our lives much easier aboard.

Linda: Your responsibilities include keeping a diverse mix of guests entertained and happy. How much of a hand do you as Cruise Director have in selecting the entertainers and types of shows presented on board the ships you've worked on?

Rich: For the most part the entertainment is hired by the shore based Entertainment Director. Once aboard the Cruise Director evaluates the act and helps the Entertainment Director evaluate whether the individual fits the product needs of the ship, something that varies dramatically from Cruise Line to Cruise Line.

Linda: As Cruise Director, you've entertained passengers yourself with a comedy and magic act co-starring your golden retriever Liberty.  That had to have been a hit, but what about outside entertainers?  What criteria is used in their selection? If an act bombs, how do you handle it when a guest entertainer just doesn't "go over" with your passengers?

Rich: If a guest entertainer "bombs," it does not necessarily mean that he or she is not a good entertainer. It only means that they are not right for your particular product. I have worked with acts that I have seen get standing ovations on one cruise line and get tepid responses or worse on others. This is where a good Entertainment Director is vital. He or she must understand the product and audition the acts to make sure they fit the bill. Even from ship to ship, itinerary to itinerary within the same fleet, the product may differ as does the clientele, which makes it all trickier as not only do you have to understand the specific product needs but the particular vessel needs as well. On the rare occasions that an entertainer does "slip through the cracks" and is just not suitable in any way shape or form for the ship, the contracts are written so changes can be made.

Linda:  Can you give us a peek at shipboard life off-stage? When you have some time off, how do you and your cruise staff members spend your leisure hours?

Rich: All ships have special crew lounges and dining rooms, designed so when you have a moment to yourself you can go into "the other world" aboard and relax for a few moments. The crewmembers are very happy for the most part, so the atmosphere in these lounges and mess rooms is great. There is usually much laughter and light hearted moments. When in port a walk around the city or trip to the beach is wonderful for unwinding and relaxing. Yes, sometimes you do have to just get away for a quick attitude readjustment. A meal off the ship in port is also very popular. The crew of the ship becomes your family, and I have made some of my best friends at sea. It is not unusual when signing off the ship at the end of a contract to travel for a few days with the members of your team to relax and ease back into land life. The crew member goes through an unusual phenomena I have named "shipboard decompression" when ending the contact. You sign off the ship and suddenly it's all too quiet. No constant hum of the engines and a/c systems, you don't have to be anywhere within minutes as you always do aboard, so you go through this "shipboard decompression" which is usually manifested with not being able to sit still and relax. The longer the contract, the longer the period of "decompression". My worst one lasted three weeks!  This is why a short trip immediately upon sign-off is needed.

Linda:  Many cyber-cruisers surf the 'net looking for cruise ship employment information. Could you give them some advice about how to prepare for and then obtain a job at sea?

Rich: First, be certain that the shipboard life is for you. Long hours and little privacy are the norm. This is just the reality of being part of a shipboard crew. EVERYONE knows your business. But the rewards are great. The travel is awesome. The camaraderie you will build with fellow crew members and friends that you will make is incredible. Being someone that can make the difference in a guests' vacation is incredibly satisfying. If you are American, the opportunities are somewhat limited as the majority of the services staff are not from the U.S. Positions available to Americans include: Social Staff, Stage Manager, Broadcast Manager, Youth Counselor, Receptionist, Port Lecturer, Disc Jockey, Sports Director, Medical Staff, Shore Excursion Staff, Computer System Specialists and a few others.  Day cruises are one of the best ways to "get your foot in the door," as most cruise lines want experienced shipboard personnel. Be persistent and also be ready to go on a minute's notice. Sometimes emergencies pop up and the jobs go to whoever is available soonest. If you really want to work on a ship, set your mind on it, and make it happen! There are also a number of outside crewing agencies that can assist you. You may also want to take a day cruise as a passenger to see who does what aboard, so you know exactly which job to apply for and better understand the day to day operations of a ship.  Also check out the cruise line's web site as many now have shipboard employment information right on their site, and you can even apply online.

One of the highlights of sailing with Rich is his lecture and slide show, Ships - Where are they now? His love of classic ocean liners and cruise ships is matched only by his enthusiasm over sharing them with his audience. This is a don't miss event and one that draws raves from old salts and landlubbers alike. 

In addition to his shipboard duties, Rich finds the time to maintain a personal website, including his extensive photo album and lots of "insider" information for cruise line job applicants. Rich is also the founder of Ship Services International, a south Florida-based firm specializing in Cruise Staff placement.

Thank you, Rich... I'll put this round of Bon Voyage drinks on my on board account!

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