A Tale of Two Ships

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During a recent vacation, I was unexpectedly presented with a unique opportunity to observe first hand how a company benefits from a solid hiring/recruiting strategy that’s reinforced by a thorough training program and tied together with strong leadership.  I have not been paid to write this article for or to endorse Viking River Cruises.  This is the second river cruise my wife and I have taken with Viking and have enjoyed them immensely and wanted to give the fantastic crews of the Bragi and the Skadi a shout out!   You are all amazing!

The chance came up quickly but not unexpected as we were warned well before the trip that due to the lack of rain during the summer the river water levels in a few spots were low and may not allow for safe passage so there existed a possibility of exchanging ships.  Exchanging ships!?  Really?  Sure enough, halfway through we couldn’t continue but Viking had their plan in place and ready to go.  The day we left Budapest up the Danube on Ship A, Ship B was leaving Amsterdam and traveling Southeast.  The ships were exactly the same so at the designated point we packed and left Room 233 on Ship A, took a three an a half hour bus ride got on board Ship B to Room 233.  Meanwhile like an alternate universe, the folks on Ship B were doing the exact same thing.  It was seamless as we gained a new captain, new waiters, new bartenders, new housekeepers, and new crew with only one exception and the one constant in our experiment, we kept the same social director.  All said and done I spent one week with Ship A’s team and one week with Ship B’s team and two weeks with Joey.

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My first thought was this was going to be more difficult for the service crew on both ships to adjust and handle as they had already established relationships with the various passengers and cliques which had formed over the first 3 nights during a speed dating like process aboard ship, which is considered a sacred ritual on all cruise ships. It’s interesting to watch the groups slowly develop like cultures in a Petrie dish as the open auditions have now ended and the “who they want to spend the rest of the cruise hanging with” is decided and the crew now quickly re-learns all the new preferences and idiosyncrasies.  The selection of folks to choose from on this cruise was tantalizing as just about every state was represented including California, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Alaska, Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Florida as well as a few Canadians and Australians tossed in for good measure. 

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Now, before we continue, let’s get this out of the way right now.  The rooms were not “identical” as we were lead to believe.  We noticed almost immediately one glaring difference between Ship A room #233 (on the right) and Ship B room #233 (on the left). The paintings were not the same!  So now we know the truth, the rooms are just very similar.

When you look at the overall operation of both ships, which was equal, you see the benefits of the recruiting and screening process of applicants, (finding the talent) and a great training program (sharpening skills) to ensure consistent uniform perfection in service, actually, it’s more what you don’t see as they all work seamlessly.  The level of thoughtfulness, professionalism, attention to detail and passenger safety provided by both ships crews was second to none as every wish one could have, was immediately handled with grace and flair, all accomplished by a diverse workforce of Hungarians, Slovakians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Filipinos, Serbs, Germans, Dutch, Italians, French all working together as one team. No issues of borders or politics, just one focus, one goal in mind, service extraordinaire. 

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As uniform, as the two ships were in performance, there were also lovely expressions of individuality by the staff in their flair and presentation. The way they greeted you, the way they poured, the way they took orders, the way they joked and the way they smiled and the longer you spend time with them they open up more as who they are.  However, there were some glaring differences in individual performances.  The breakfast omelet maker on one ship was the best of them all.  His technique was absolutely entertaining and fun to watch.  As he listened to your request he placed butter in the pan and as it melted he then placed the ingredients you ordered in as well.  He knew exactly when to flip and fold it which he did with one quick jerk of the pan and it came out perfect every time.  You can tell he really enjoyed what he was doing as he was always upbeat and had an infectious smile which was awesome to begin the day.  On the other ship, the breakfast omelet maker was nowhere near as good.  He always looked like he was having a bad day and unceremoniously tossed the ingredients into the pan, letting it get too hot and always over browning the bottom of the omelet and he had absolutely no zip in his flip.  The experience was such a put off I had cereal.

While in the lounge/bar area on one ship, we never had anyone in our group or overheard anyone complain about their drinks but on the other ship, we not only heard someone at the bar complain about how their old fashion tasted but later one in our group was having the same issue with their old fashion.  By all accounts, it seems someone was leaving out an ingredient.  I’m sure in both instances through the feedback received from guests, steps were taken in the manner of a refresher training for those individuals.  I did mention that the operation and service of both ships were equal but in my opinion, the food overall, especially the dinners were much better on one ship than the other.  It was more flavorful, seasoned well and better prepared.

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There was some outstanding service as well.  A server on one of the ships was very bright and caught on right away that I always had coffee after dinner, every night without skipping a beat.  As soon as the dessert orders began rolling out he was ready with coffee in hand and a smile on his face.  Then there is the “my phone” story that is a great tale of Going That Extra Mile.  I had left my phone on one of the tour buses.  In my defense, I was dazed and confused having just woken up after nodding out during the bus ride from a tour of the town.  When we arrived back at the ship I totally ditzed and forgot to check the seat pocket.  As soon as I stepped back on to the ship I realized I didn’t have it!  What must have looked like a crazy man on the lam I ran off the boat but the tour bus had just left.  I went to the concierge desk and Joey was there so I explained what had happened.  Joey told me he understood and would reach out to the bus company but the ship had to leave on schedule and couldn’t wait for the bus to return.  I told him I understood and thanked him on whatever they could do and went back to my room.  Having given up on ever seeing my phone again and enjoyed an extra drink to help ease the pain. After the evening presentation for the next day’s tours, we were walking from the bar area to the dining room when the concierge called to me.  As I turned around he stopped, smiled and handed me my phone.  I wanted to kiss the entire bus company and everybody on board.

But the glue that bound it all together, the training, screening, and service was Joey.  He was our social director who had established a rapport with everyone even before we boarded the ship as he introduced himself as we checked in.  He was the voice we would come to trust through his nightly presentations that were not to be missed as they were always delivered stand-up comedic style, upbeat and full of energy with a dry sense of humor.  After we had a cocktail or two he’d make his entrance into the lounge and quickly review and critique that days highlights followed by the weather report for tomorrow and then the introduction of the chef who’d give us the menu rundown followed up with Joey covering the next day’s cities and tours and other planned activities.  Joey became the voice of the ship, he was the voice of Viking as he was the one who had to deliver the bad news that we had to switch ships but did it so it sounded more positive than negative.  He was always around making sure everything went like clockwork.  He was there as the tour groups formed and boarded buses, boarded bicycles or walked to town.  He checked in and up on the guides, always interested in feedback.  In addition to our entertainment, he was just as responsible for the safety of all the guests on their land tours as the captain is aboard ship.  What I admired most was no matter how many fires he was putting out, finding passengers lost in the local town, listening to unhappy guests, answering questions about local stores, reuniting lost belongings including phones to guests you never saw it in his face, you never heard it in his voice, there was always a smile and he always had time to listen.  The last day aboard ship as we were waiting for our transportation, I got to watch Joey in action as he was in constant motion, saying goodbye to his leaving flock while simultaneously welcoming new busloads of guests to their journey.  Still full of positive energy.  

My high school football coach used to tell us to give 110 percent or you weren’t committed.  I used to think that was a ridiculous statement since you can’t really give more than 100% but if anyone could give 110% that would be Viking river cruises.  What I have learned from this experience is more a confirmation of what I have always believed that when talent gets the proper consistent training and nurturing leadership you can accomplish any goal. 

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