Call it Norwegian boot camp

Alarmed by passenger complaints on its Hawaiian cruises last year, Norwegian Cruise Line has turned on the training.

Published June 19, 2005

PINEY POINT, Md. - As cruise ship debuts went, it became a no-lives-lost version of the Titanic.

First the gossipy Internet chat rooms, then the trade press and finally newspapers reported last summer's torrent of passenger complaints about Norwegian Cruise Line's ballyhooed sailings around Hawaii.

Even worse for NCL, the gripes focused on what was supposed to be one of the highlights of the Pride of Aloha: its all-American crew. Simply put, too many of the new staffers found the workload far more than they wanted, so they walked away, by the hundreds, during port calls.

Their departures left ever-heavier burdens for the remaining crew. That resulted in unacceptable service for the passengers.

Never again, vowed NCL president and chief executive Colin Veitch. Now, about 1,300 recruits have passed a 21-day training program conducted since September at the Seafarers International Union's School of Seamanship campus in this southern Maryland river town. The new crew members have been sent to the Pride of Aloha and the Pride of America, which reached New York on its inaugural voyage on Wednesday.

"No one goes to the Pride of America without going through here," says Ed Jenks, CEO of the Jenks Group, a California company overseeing the training program, thought to be unique among cruise companies. "We tell them, "This is probably the only place you will fail because of your own attitude.' "

The training is divided into three one-week segments. First, a staff of eight behaviorists hones the recruits' interpersonal skills. Then the trainees practice their on-ship chores. Finally, they have to pass physically demanding training in firefighting, swimming and lifeboat drills.

That means your cabin steward who fashions towel animals has singlehandedly righted an overturned, 70-pound life raft. And the waiter balancing the tray of umbrella drinks has successfully handled a 21/2-inch hose to put out a roaring fire in a special building here.

And every one of the 1,000-plus crew members also has watched enough training videos to memorize the customer service acronym LAST: "listen, apologize, solve and thank."

The customer is always right

"We want to get our people involved in relationships - to interact - with the passengers," says Bill Hamlin, NCL executive vice president for fleet operations.

The big lesson learned from the first few months of the fiasco in Hawaii - Veitch told reporters a few days ago that customer satisfaction reports are now above 90 percent - is that the customer is always right, even when he isn't.

"If you have enough money and access to a shipyard, you can put steel in the water," Hamlin explained here during a tour last month. "But the path to success is a commitment to excellence.

"I know that sounds hokey. But after a day or two at sea, the "wow' factor for the guests wanes and it becomes a matter of satisfying them through a great product and attention to the guest."

Thus, Jenks' company was given the mandate to turn out a crew unfazed by 60-hour workweeks, four-to-a-cabin living conditions and unexpected passenger demands.

To handle those situations, the crew members must learn about themselves, Jenks says. One of the first assignments is to take a 24-question test that he says returns a self-profile that is 98 percent accurate. "It does not tell us to hire or not, but it shows the trainees how they are perceived by others."

The newcomers begin with 61/2-hour teaching days, and that time is gradually increased. There are no days off during the three-week period, Jenks says.

Though he appreciates the campus facilities, such as a 490-room hotel, firefighting school and teaching kitchens, he emphasizes, "It is truly secluded out here. We have to train hundreds of people how to get along with each other on just three decks, four to a cabin, for their (five-month employment) contracts."

His instructors use videos, lectures and team-building activities to teach interpersonal skills, discipline and customer service. "If you win the argument, you'll probably lose the customer," a video tells trainees. They learn to read body language, observe emotions and listen to passengers. Otherwise, an actor in one of the videos warns, "The longer I'm with my guest, the more I am likely to take them for granted. . . . There is almost always someplace else to go" - in this case, another cruise line to book, next time.

Getting down to business

Trainees, such as waiter Aubree Bedell, 24, of Tampa, were told at "job fairs" around the country what positions they were being hired to fill. In Piney Point, they practice these duties the second week.

For cabin stewards, this includes learning how to clean their 15 guest cabins, at no more than 15 minutes each, twice a day. (To learn their cleaning routine, see the box on Page XXT.)

Potential bartenders and the waiters headed for lounge duty, meanwhile, are trained in the taste of various wines, how to open and serve wine, the history of various kinds of spirits and, if they have time, how to flip bottles behind the bar, a la Cocktail, to amuse customers.

There is a full bar in the main classroom and dining room building, but the trainees here are allowed to have only wine or beer. Onboard policy states that no crew member can have a blood-alcohol level above 0.04, half the level at which Florida law presumes a motorist is impaired. In practical terms, that means a trainee could have about one beer an hour.

Veterans of the Pride of Aloha are being brought to Piney Point for a week of the interpersonal training, which they had not received before joining that crew. At least once each week, these groups of veterans are made available to the newcomers for questioning about shipboard life. One of the topics discussed is how the ship's officers conduct crew cabin inspections for any forbidden items, including drugs or alcoholic beverages.

Other rules for crew members include no visible piercings (other than women's earrings), and for men, no facial hair and "normal length" haircuts.

About that fire hose . . .

Know themselves? Check.

Know their job duties? Check.

Know how to handle five kinds of fire extinguishers? They'll have to earn a check for that, too. This is required to pass Coast Guard certification at the basic level of merchant mariner.

Among the safety demands is that the NCL crew members each demonstrate their competence in handling fire extinguishers. But the adrenaline-pumper is the test using a basic tool of landside firefighters, the 21/2-inch hose.

Decked in complete firefighting gear, including oxygen tanks, the trainees first practice outdoors at extinguishing propane flames on ship machinery. They must shut off the fuel source, though it is actually controlled by a certified trainer who watches them.

Then the trainees go inside a building, where flames engulf another piece of equipment. In this enclosed space, they must learn how to operate as a team, bringing in more hose, playing the water stream and backing from the fire without tripping over the hose behind them.

Basic training also requires each crew member to swim a number of laps in an indoor pool with and without a life jacket, learn to swim wearing a bulky insulated costume aptly nicknamed the Gumby suit, and also learn how to right an enclosed 15-person raft placed in the pool upside down.

After the third week, there is a brief "graduation ceremony," Jenks said, "when the outgoing class watches a video of themselves made during their training. There are usually some tears. . . . At 6 a.m. the next morning, they are on a bus headed to the airport and then the ship."

Jenks said that only a couple of the hundreds of trainees have been sent away for failing to achieve at all levels.

Ready to go

Aboard the Pride of America, as finishing touches were made in a Bermerhaven, Germany, shipyard this month, NCL vice president Hamlin said: "We have made a concerted effort to have the right people, using a screening process (and) putting a lot into the "soft training' - how to deal with guests, how to deal with other crew members, how to deal with yourself."

A few decks below, where Hamlin addressed a news conference, waiter Bedell perhaps voiced the confidence that training is designed to instill:

"I love to travel, and I wanted something different," she said as she readied a tray of drinks to pass among visiting travel agents. "I don't think I'll be too incredibly challenged."

- Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at 727 893-8496 or jenkins@sptimes.com Quick cleaning

How do they clean all those cabins so quickly?

In four cabins that replicate some of those onboard Norwegian Cruise Line ships, steward trainees are taught this routine:

Knock three times on the door, call out their name as the cabin steward.

Enter only if the cabin is empty; put down a doorstop.

Take out dirty towels.

Carry in the "chemical caddy" and spray cleanser on the bathroom surfaces, allowing it to work.

Make the beds. Straighten items on the desktops.

Empty the garbage cans.

Go back into the bathroom and clean the surfaces already sprayed; clean the toilet.

Replace any towels removed.

Vacuum the cabin.

This should take less than 15 minutes.